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Steve Levitt on teaching, learning and having fun

So, there aren’t really any incentives to teach well [as an economics professor]. No one really cares how you teach.

But what I quickly learned is that it’s a lot more fun to teach a good course than to teach a bad course. And part of what makes a class good is if you actually have fun. And so I put a real premium on trying to integrate learning with fun, and storytelling, and doing things that would be enjoyable for the kids.

And so, the [field trip for economics students to a] gun range, I think, was a great example because almost nobody who was in the class would have ever shot a gun. They thought guns were the worst things ever. They thought anyone who liked guns must be a complete lunatic. And so, it was not only fun – it gave a chance for us all to have dinner together and… sit in some greasy spoon restaurant in Gary [Indiana]  – but I’ve heard a number of students say that how is one of the most transformative things they did in Chicago. Because it made them see someone else’s perspective. It made them see why people like guns and feel the power of guns.

And so when I would bring a callgirl friend of mine into class and she would lecture people tell me it was the best lecture they’d seen in their four years at the UofC… I wouldn’t say I tried that hard you know, but around the edges I just tried to be the tiniest bit creative and to give students experiences and not just lecture to them.

I think we do a horrendous job in higher education especially at research institutes of giving students a chance kind of experiences that will transform them into being big thinkers or good citizens, whatever we want them to be.

In my own little way, I tried to create something that would be memorable because what I found is that when I’d been there at UofC for five years and the first class I’d taught came back for the five-year reunion, I talked with a bunch of students, they couldn’t remember anything from my course. They could remember nothing. I remember one student came up to me and said when I asked what they remembered they couldn’t remember how to do Lagrangian [optimisation], they couldn’t remember anything, “But I do remember one time you forgot to pick up your daughter from daycare and your wife was so mad at you.”

That was what they remembered about my class, and when I heard that I realized well, I’m teaching the wrong kind of class – I got to teach a class that has more stories and less Lagrangian if I want to have impact on people’s lives.

Steve Levitt on The Capitalism and Freedom in the 21st Century Podcast, ep. 28, with Jon Hartley

Recommended – especially this and the first section about how Levitt stumbled into economics.

1 thought on “Steve Levitt on teaching, learning and having fun”

  1. Stu,

    I went to graduate school at the U of C, I never heard a lecture by a call girl, and I can’t do Lagrangians anymore. Not that I ever could. My memory tells me it has something to do with constrained optimization functions. I’d prefer the call girl.


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