Posts Tagged ‘microeconomics’
Imagine a race where everyone is trying to lose. Races to the bottom are a bit more complex than this scenario but the outcome is the same: instead of competition yielding the best outcomes, competition clamors around second-rate outcomes. Races to the bottom occur when the perception is that sub-par outcomes can yield benefits or when the voices of those who experience costs are left out of decision-making.
Most economics and political science textbooks give examples from competition surrounding international workers rights or environmental laws. When one country eliminates or decreases the penalties for violations of these laws, a competition ensues between countries to do the same, because business flows to countries with less regulations, transaction costs, and taxes. This leads to a situation where countries are vying to have less protections for the environment and their workers – they are racing to the bottom.
There are many school-based examples of races to the bottom I could talk about in this post (No Child Left Behind, Teach for America, etc). I’m going to focus on handraising because I’ve been thinking about it for awhile.
A few days ago, I was sitting in a class about policies and practices of English language learners. We were having a discussion about equitable participation in class. My instructor asked “what is the definition of engagement you use in your classroom?”. One of my colleagues had a brilliant (and slightly terrifying) answer. She said: “Engagement is when students care about the direction and process of their own learning“. I believe her definition because I’m a constructivist: I think that children construct their own knowledge when they encounter experiences that intrigue and challenge them. My colleague’s idea is brilliant and terrifying because of the standards many of us use to measure engagement and learning in our classrooms. We ask questions and look for raised hands. I’ve observed many elementary classrooms over the past few months. Teachers are nervous when no one raises their hand to answer questions and satisfied when students do. I’m not entirely sure how raised hands and spoken answers correlate to learning. Did the student already know the answer? Does it help students to listen to the answers of their peers when the teacher determines truth? It seems like there is a dual race to the bottom happening. Many teachers settle for raised hands at the expense of allowing learning processes to occur that are less teacher-controlled and have less “obvious” evidence of outcomes. Students create norms and power structures of their own. Some try to have the right answer to please the teacher. Many assign “smart” and “dumb” labels based on their peers’ handraising. They see handraising as part of the game of school rather than part of their learning process.
I’m not saying we should eliminate all questioning and handraising from our classrooms. Of course there are provocative questions, student-centered discussion formats, and other tools of our trade that resemble traditional handraising but have different outcomes.
Do you think handraising is a race to the bottom? How do you define engagement in your classroom?
Imagine: My friends and I are at an all-you-can-eat Japanese restaurant celebrating a tournament win. We are stuffed to capacity and cringe at the thought of putting another piece of food in our mouths. An uneaten roll taunts us from the table. The sushi can’t be wrapped up and taken home. We do what the average American would do -the ladies are spared as the big guys at the table eat themselves to near-sickness. Their argument for eating the last roll is that they would not get the full value of their initial payment if they didn’t. To my surprise – they finish the roll on the table and order a few more. Then dessert. Then someone throws up.
This episode occurred before I took my first economics course. An understanding of sunk cost may have helped our over-eaters make better decisions.
Wikipedia entry on sunk cost:
In economics and in business decision-making, sunk costs are costs that have been incurred and which cannot be recovered to any significant degree…Economics proposes that a rational actor does not let sunk costs influence one’s decisions, because doing so would not be assessing a decision exclusively on its own merits….For example, when one pre-orders a non-refundable movie ticket, the price of the ticket becomes a sunk cost. Even if the ticket-buyer decides that he would rather not go to the movie, there is no way to get back the money he originally paid.
When we saw the roll on the dinner table we had two options:
1. Eat the roll – causing discomfort.
2. Let the roll go (and learn not to waste food in the future by ordering smaller portions).
No matter which option is chosen – we have already incurred the cost of the meal. Therefore, the information about the price we have already paid is irrelevant. A rational actor would choose the option that provides the greatest happiness (utility). In our case, leaving the roll on the table with a big tip and going home with a “I just ate sushi” glow on our faces, would have been a much better alternative to leaving an even bigger tip after a watching friend throw up in a restaurant.
I’ve been taught never to waste anything (especially food) – I’ve been known to use questionable bread for French Toast, pick brown pieces of lettuce off out of the bag, and prefer information from a “smell test” to to written expiration dates. My knowledge of sunk costs has helped me realize that I should buy less and order smaller portion sizes to avoid these situations altogether. Sunk costs should be barriers to entry – people should think about costs that cannot be recovered no matter what course of action is taken and factor that into their decision-making. In situations where I have to make the choice to suffer or let it go – I’ve learned to just let it go.
This concept can be applied to other situations:
- Choosing whether or not to go to a lame party after you’ve bought the non-refundable tickets and attire.
- Deciding to downgrade to Windows XP after buying Vista (I offer my sympathy to Windows users who have to make these tough decisions…).
- Exiting the Iraq War