Monday, October 03, 2005

Learning by writing 

Should students learn through writing? I've always thought so, and so does Robert Frank. He is co-author with Ben Bernanke of an economics textbook that uses writing assignments called "economic naturalist" assignments.

The specific assignment is "to use a principle, or principles, discussed in the course to pose and answer an interesting question about some pattern of events or behavior that you personally have observed."

"Your space limit is 500 words," the assignment continues. "Many excellent papers are significantly shorter than that. Please do not lard your essay with complex terminology. Imagine yourself talking to a relative who has never had a course in economics. The best papers are ones that would be clearly intelligible to such a person, and typically these papers do not use any algebra or graphs."

He reports great results. Over at Liberal Order, a commenter notes that maybe Frank's idea doesn't work for everyone.
Peter Drucker, in a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review, suggested that some people are writers, others talkers, and to have a successful career a person needs to figure out which they are, hopefully while they are still somewhat young. Some people learn by writing, others learn by talking.

But as Frank explains,
Learning economics is like learning a language. Real progress in both cases comes only from speaking. The economic-naturalist papers induce students to search out interesting economic stories in the world around them. When they find one, their first impulse is to tell others about it. They are also quick to recount interesting economic stories they hear from classmates. And with each retelling, they become more fluent in the underlying ideas.

So it is more like speaking. It would be fine to say these things, but in speaking you do not get the editing that is needed. Learning economics involves a lot of erasing, a great deal of hacking out chunks of stuff you do not need with Occam's razor. I watched a fellow parishioner yesterday give a sermon while our pastor was out running the Twin Cities Marathon. Her message was fine, but it was overlong because she had not used the razor, and this even after she had written out her notes. In talking many of us add things as we respond to an audience's body language or questions. If what you want is to teach students to use the razor, to learn how to apply ceteris paribus, I think writing is far superior to talking.