CTL Blog

B is for Big Ideas—Teach Them First

February 22, 2011 | 2 Minute Read

In many fields there are a lot of concepts with a lot of nuances.  Economics is no exception.  The basics of economics are fairly intuitive.  People generally respond to incentives.  When prices go down, people consumer more of something.  When prices go up, people consumer less of something.  When it comes to businesses, when the price of an input goes up, less is used.  And to get businesses to produce more of something the price must be higher.  We can talk about generalities and how the incentives are very straightforward and extend it to equilibrium and risk without too much effort. 

Then comes graphing and equations.  Those tend to trip people up a bit more.  People also tend to get tripped up by the need to consider more than one incentive at a time, although as long as we keep the conversation in terms of directions of change things work pretty well. 

So, how does this relate to the concept of big ideas.  The big idea is that incentives are important.  In a public health context, there may be plenty of things that public health professionals think that people should do.  The first through may be that simply making something more available will mean that people will use it.  What is forgotten in some cases is that people tend to do things when they make economic sense.  Or, when the incentives point in the right direction.  When we plan for how much of a service to make available, we should not base our planning on how much we think will e used because people should use something, but on how much we predict will be used because people respond to incentives that they have been given.  In a first health economics class (particularly when I have only eight weeks to teach students) if a student comes away with the idea that incentives matter when making decisions about medical care and public health and leaves behind the idea that people will just do something because it is recommended or right that is a  major accomplishment.

Once a student has learned that, they can then learn equations and graphing and nuances.  Learning these can take an entire career—or at least an entire course of PhD level graduate study.

The key for me is to structure learning opportunities—including lectures, readings, practice assignments with constructive feedback, and graded assignments to provide the opportunity to learn the big ideas first and then to learn the finer points.  This should permeate the planning process, the expectations that are set, the way that feedback is given, and the eventual assessment of the students.