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The term “economic naturalist” comes from an analogy Frank makes with someone who has taken an introductory course in biology: what types of questions would they be able to answer afterwards?“If you know a little evolutionary theory, you can see things you didn’t notice before.
I adopted this assignment as part of a new 2 year elective I introduced at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, in 2010: “Economics of Everyday Life”.
The aims of the assignment were shamelessly borrowed from Frank and encouraged students to: “Economics of Everyday Life” was aimed at different streams of students: those undertaking a degree or considering a major in Economics, as well as non-specialists from different Faculties opting for an elective.
Most Economics programs are designed with graduates and Ph D students in mind, even though they make up a miniscule number of students studying Economics: according to Frank, only 2% of American students who take an introductory economics subject major in economics (Frank, 2007).
The comparable figure in the UK is 10–15% for students taking an economics module in a non-economics program.
Getting Economists to agree on a list of threshold concepts which should be mandatory in an introductory course creates a new dilemma (Frank, 2007).
The most important thing, according to Frank, is that lecturers begin with a well articulated short list of principles, and then illustrate and apply each principle in the context of simple examples drawn from familiar settings (Frank, 2006).These principles will be revisited in different contexts later in the course.Students should then practice the principle by using it to solve simple problems taken from their own observations, and ultimately, to pose original questions which are then answered by the same basic principles (Frank, 2006).His writing assignment, therefore, is a practical application of this approach.Students who come up with an interesting question are more likely to have fun and devote energy to the task, and talk to others about it, which reinforces the practical aspects of what they learned.The learning is now internalised and great stories are usually remembered forever (Frank, 2007).The economic naturalist writing assignment can be seen as a means of reorientating introductory classes: giving students more opportunities to practice Economics (Hansen, Salemi & Siegfried 2002).Frank adopts the “narrative theory of learning”, which claims that the human brain absorbs information in narrative (story telling) form easier than in abstract form (equations, graphs and theory).This can be traced to the evolution of our species as storytellers and the importance of narrative in a child’s learning experience (Carter, 1993, Carter and Doyle, 1996, Doyle, 1997).I will conclude with a series of questions (and answers) posed by students when I piloted this writing assignment in my own teaching in 2010.Introductory economics classes have limited impact on economic understanding (Walstad and Rebeck, 2002, 2008).