Take a walk
In the first chapter of Economics for Everyone, Jim Stanford argues that although economics is often presented as fiendishly complex, it should be a more straightforward matter. He argues that it is not something made up of arcane numbers abstracted from the daily lives of people, but that there is a social element that is often overlooked:
It’s not just technical, concrete forces like technology and productivity that matter. It’s also the interactions and relationships between people that make the economy go around (Stanford, 2008, p. 1).
Stanford encourages readers to take a walk through their neighbourhood, in order to observe their surroundings and think about economics in a different way. The purpose of a reader walking around their neighbourhood is to introduce them to economic concepts like work, consumption, finance and inequality, by grounding these concepts in their lived experience. Additionally, the walk situates economic issues in the geography of their neighbourhood—and in the process brings the spatiality of capitalism to the fore. Readers are asked to examine where they live and to ask questions about familiar things. For example, Stanford encourages readers to visit a shopping district and ask themselves:
What kinds of products are displayed in the windows? Were any of them produced within 100 miles of your home? Elsewhere in your country? In another country? Can your neighbours afford most of what is on display? (2008, p. 18).
In asking our students to perform this walk around where they live, we hoped it would bring their individual experience into the centre of the learning process.
Experiential and critical pedagogy
The notion of experiential learning is hardly new. It was (and remains) a staple of the progressive educational movement expounded by philosophers like Rousseau, and later brought into the educational mainstream
by John Dewey—although it has a much longer history than that. For example, Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, argued that ‘the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them’.
More recently, David Kolb used the work of earlier scholars such as Dewey, Lewin and Piaget to develop a model of experiential learning. This model consists of four iterative phases (concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualisation and active experimentation) by which a learner gains new knowledge about a specific concept. This model highlights the primacy of first-hand experience, privileging it more than ‘book knowledge’; that is, according to experiential learners, more effective meaning-making methods are those that take place in the concrete ‘here and now’, rather than those at a remove. For us, we believe Stanford’s ‘take a walk’ activity fits reasonably comfortably within the context of experiential learning, although for us the experiential and scholarly learning are both essential elements.
Critical pedagogy, as derived from Freire’s popular education — and both McLaren and Giroux’s work in North America — acknowledges that teaching is an inherently political act. In utilising Stanford’s walk we also wanted to begin a dialogue with our students about critical (economics) pedagogy. Drawing inspiration from other examples of critical pedagogy (for example, see Morrell and Duncan-Andrade), we wanted to use students’ own experiences as a starting point for their examination of the way capitalism might act as an oppressing force. The ‘take a walk’ activity, therefore, is a tool for students to catalogue their own experiences with capitalism and the economy. The questions that are presented by Stanford directly ask the walker to consider things like inequality, poverty and capitalism’s influence. This encourages the walker to begin to critique capitalism, based on his or her own experiences.
A crucial part of this activity was our extension from Stanford’s original idea; the fact that students would document their findings in Google Maps, and also share their maps with their classmates. By doing this, we were seeking to provide a learning experience that allowed students to critique economic issues in society, and begin to consider how society might be restructured along more equitable lines. This concept — the idea of immanence or what may be, rather than what is (Kincheloe, 2008) — is central to critical pedagogy.
What did students have to do?
The ‘Take a Walk’ activity was set for students in Economy, Society and Globalism, a second year undergraduate subject in the Social and Political Sciences program at UTS. UTS has developed the learning.futures framework, which places an emphasis on flipped learning and the integration of off-campus experiences. It was set as a preparation week activity in Week 1, which is before students begin formal face-to-face classes in the subject. In the past, such weeks have been used to encourage students to read the subject outline, introduce themselves on a discussion board and answer a quiz. We wanted students to participate in a learning activity they might find more engaging, and begin their consideration of how to think about the economy.
Students had to walk around their neighbourhood, think about the questions in the Stanford reading, take photos of five local locations, upload them to a map, and write a short summary of the economic issues they thought were relevant at each site. A key objective of the task is to see the ‘economic’ in the everyday.
To facilitate the task, we created a simple HTML page in the university’s online learning environment, which located in one place all the materials they needed to complete the Activity: the Stanford reading; instruction information on how to create a Google map; and a form to submit their map URL. Students read (via an embedded PDF on the page) the chapter from Stanford. The students then referred to instructions about using Google Maps, and viewed an exemplar map of the Sydney suburb of Penrith to show them what was required. This map identified five different areas of interest around the suburb of Penrith, including a shopping district, public infrastructure and typical housing. Students then completed a similar task on their neighbourhood, walking around and identifying five sites that illustrated a point about the economy. They were required to take photographs (using their camera phone), and when they returned home they created a Google Map. They added the images along with a brief description of how that particular location related to the economy. Students lodged their map site through an online form, which generated a spreadsheet of who had completed the task and links to all the maps.
The final stage of the task happened in the first face-to-face class, when students shared their map in groups of two or three as part of an ice breaker activity. Students showed each other the map as a way of sharing something about themselves, but also to talk about how suburbs across Sydney differ in terms of economic factors.
How did it go?
On the whole, students reported in class and in the subject feedback survey that they enjoyed tackling a different and engaging exercise. Many of the maps were completed to a high standard, and students identified key issues of public investment, inequality and disadvantage in their local area. Tutors noted that the task helped students think about economics in a particular way early on, and focussed them on viewing aspects of the everyday as crucial economic issues. The task also meant students knew who Jim Stanford was when he later came to do a guest lecture (a presentation that was highly regarded by the students!).
There were some challenges, however. A few students didn’t want to do the task and took shortcuts, such as pinching photos from the web so they could complete the activity quickly. Aspects of the technology confused some students, and a few did not see the point of what they were doing. In revising this task for next year, it is hoped an enhanced scaffolding of the task’s relevance will encourage all students to engage with it more fully. We have also begun discussing whether an initial Week 1 mapping task might be used as a ‘dry run’ for a more sophisticated version, to be submitted as the first assessment in the subject.
Feature image credit: Igor Ovsyannykov.