Teaching Economics with the Essential Question: “What Is It Worth?”

The discipline of economics is often bewildering to students and non-specialists, full of complex theories and challenging charts. Teaching everyday words like market, scarcity, depression, opportunity, and choice becomes much more complicated in the context of economics classes. In addition, the impact of economic theories and policies is not always clear cut; what may benefit some can be harmful to others. Economic policies fall on an ideological spectrum, making classroom discussions of current economic events especially challenging.

In my struggle to make economics approachable and applicable to my students’ lives, I’ve developed an essential question—“What is it worth?”—that we analyze through the spectrum of economic ideology throughout the course of our class.

Essential questions (also known as compelling questions) transform a “one darn thing after another” approach into a thought-provoking, inquiry-based classroom. A good essential question requires students to use higher-order thinking skills. Even more important, essential questions encourage students to make connections between classroom topics and issues in their own lives.



Teaching the economic spectrum

To set the stage, explain the concept of a spectrum: a broad range of related ideas with the more extreme ideas at either end. I make comparisons to a number line or a timeline and provide a few examples of ideas commonly represented on a spectrum such as Democrat and Republican or liberal and conservative. I also stress that ideological spectra don’t represent simple “right” or “wrong” choices, but the complexity of a range of choices.

The opposing sides in economics are described many different ways: free market versus planned, communist versus capitalist, classical versus neoclassical, Adam Smith versus mercantilism, Monetarist versus Keynesian. These ideological differences appear daily in media reports about economic issues but are often disguised in confusing or misleading language.

Because the curriculum in my course is focused on the government’s role in the economy, the spectrum I introduce has free-market economics (no government regulation of the economy) on one side and planned economy (complete government regulation) on the other.

“What is it worth?”

Over the following lessons, I introduce and ask the essential question “What is it worth?” and compare and contrast how the policies of government at the free-market end of the spectrum differ from government policies at the planned-economy end. We also examine the pros and cons of various views and policies somewhere in the middle, the zone representing the majority of people and governments today. This simple schema is relevant to all the usual topics in a typical economics class—monetary and fiscal policy, regulation, taxation, legal frameworks, and government’s role in providing public services.

This economic spectrum and the essential question are especially useful for exploring current issues in a balanced manner. Students are encouraged to scrutinize a problem or issue from both sides and from the middle. For example, what if government did not fund or regulate public schools in the United States? Ask students to brainstorm the results. A lot of free-roaming, uneducated children come to mind first, but the results would be far-reaching for individuals, employers, and the overall health of the economy. Would the savings in tax dollars be worth it? In other words, what is free public K–12 education worth?


The essential question in application

Another hotly debated economic issue is the role of government in healthcare. Is universal healthcare worth higher taxes? Ask students to consider the question from both ends of the spectrum. For example, what if the government provided free healthcare for all citizens? Who would benefit? Who would not? What groups might see both benefits and drawbacks? What might the short-term and long-term results be? Conversely, what if the healthcare market was free of all government regulation and all individuals were solely responsible for paying for their own healthcare?

Exploring “What is it worth?” in these contexts provides opportunities to introduce and practice key economic concepts such as cost-benefit analysis and opportunity cost. Furthermore, students will recognize that economic decisions made by individuals, businesses, groups, or governments are not simple but involve trade-offs and compromises. “What is it worth?” is also the perfect essential question for lessons in financial literacy.

Asking “What is it worth?” requires students to push beyond superficial rhetoric in the media and explain where a particular view falls on a free-market versus planned-economy spectrum. As they analyze the claims of others, students begin to define and articulate their individual economic viewpoints with factual evidence and examples.

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Cynthia W. Resor is a social studies education professor and former middle and high school social studies teacher. Her dream job – time-travel tour guide. But until she discovers the secret of time travel, she writes about the past in her blog, Primary Source Bazaar. Her three books on teaching social history themes feature essential questions and primary sources: Discovering Quacks, Utopias, and Cemeteries: Modern Lessons from Historical Themes,  Investigating Family, Food, and Housing Themes in Social Studies and Exploring Vacation and Etiquette Themes in Social Studies.

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