Does greed advance technology? Will buying American create new jobs? Dan Wise wanted his students to “to see the world through the lens of economics.” In looking for accessible books that could help them understand economic concepts, he realized there weren’t very many. So, with the help of art teacher Jeff Robin, they decided to make their own.
The result was Economics Illustrated, a book in which students explained and illustrated an economic concept of their choosing and wrote an article that applied the concept to an issue they cared about. One student who was into sports, for example, chose the concept of collusion and applied it to salary caps in professional sports. Another student chose supply and demand, and applied the concept in an article about the housing market crash of 2008.
Dan launched the project with a couple of simulations, including the Dictator Game, (where students get ten dollars and have to decide how much to give to another person — most divide it in half, rather than keeping it all for themselves) creating the element of surprise and stimulating conversations about human behavior and money. Early on, he surveyed students to learn what aspect of economics they might be most interested in, and used that information to guide students’ choice of a concept to explore.
Dan had developed a reading list, including Freakonomics; Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science; The Undercover Economist; The Armchair Economist; Hidden Order: The Economics of Everyday Life; Super Freakonomics; More Sex is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics. Though all of these were popular economics books, some were challenging to read for 10th graders. Dan started out by having the whole class read excerpts from some of the books together. Then the class broke into literature circles and each group tackled a different book.
This project was featured in the 2021 book Changing the Subject: Twenty Years of Projects from High Tech High. You can learn more about the book and the projects within by visiting the official website.
Dan chose a series of economic terms or concepts that students could choose to focus on, such as the invisible hand, elasticity, market externalities, free riding, opportunity cost, and public goods. Once they chose their concept, they needed to define it clearly, come up with several real world examples, and choose one issue to apply it to and research its impact.
The book’s illustrations took the form of block prints, which for most students was a new technique, and one that proved accessible to many. “I can’t paint, I’m not artistic,” said one student, “but I was able to create really cool images by carving out blocks.” In art class, students learned the technique with a series of mini-projects, leading up to their final series of prints which illustrated their economic concept. Jeff demonstrated how to use carving tools and block printing techniques, and then let the students find the artist within themselves. The students made prints everyday in art class while creating their articles and explanations of the economics concepts in Humanities class. They bounced between classes proposing ideas and images to explain their economic concepts. The students had to decide what image would help illustrate their meaning the most effectively. As Jeff explained, “Dan was the editor, I was the art director, and the students were the creative force expressing themselves within the parameters of a real-life economics project. The students learned what it was like to be an economist, journalist, and artist.”
While each student went into depth in their own concept and research topic, Dan wanted them to have a breadth of understanding about basic economics as well. “It was important to me that the students’ work be intelligible to their peers, so, as a final component, I asked each student to deliver a lesson on his or her concept, with their book pages serving as a handout. As a last lesson in incentives, each student’s grade was partially determined by how well his or her peers performed when quizzed on the student’s term.”
The early survey helped Dan guide students toward a concept they would be interested in and the book they would read; he also made suggestions so that the groups would be mixed. Some of the students had one-on-one one academic support, both in breaking down the reading, and in writing.
Everyone completed their section of the book, and there were also other creative projects that students could choose from or propose, such as videos, songs, magazines, and simulations.
Books were displayed and sold at the exhibition. Jeff printed large posters of the book spreads and the original block prints were exhibited.
Students performed original songs, raps, and plays about economic concepts, and displayed fictional and journalistic writing. Others reported on experiments and surveys or ran simulations to illustrate particular economic concepts.
After the exhibition, the project continued to be displayed. The posters and artwork were hung at the corporate headquarters of City National Bank, causing a minor scandal, as one student compared banks to loan sharks. The project was featured on the Freakonomics blog from the New York Times, and some of the posters ended up in the halls of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.