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Ioana Negru, Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu

Lia Alexandra Baltador, Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu

 

The Collins and Thesaurus Dictionary (1987: 1088) defines uncertainty as ‘ambiguity’, ‘confusion’, ‘dilemma’, ‘doubt’, ‘hesitancy’, ‘lack of confidence’, ‘perplexity’, ‘puzzlement’, ‘scepticism’, ‘state of suspense’, ‘unpredictability’, ‘vagueness’.  In economics, the term ‘uncertainty’ is defined in the context of decision theory and it is often conflated with risk. The Austrian economists believe that the future is impossible to predict and believe in (radical) uncertainty; Keynes, Shackle, Lachmann and Hayek are important heterodox economists who have all showcased the role of knowledge and uncertainty to be crucial within economic analysis. But students in general find it difficult to grasp the concept of uncertainty and the question becomes how can we teach uncertainty to students? How can we prepare our students to cope in a world that involves crises, change, transformation and ultimately, uncertainty?

Professor Hofstede’s research consists of a model that addresses comparisons between cultures based on six dimensions: power distance, individualism versus collectivism, feminity versus masculinity, uncertainty avoidance, long term orientation versus shirt term normative orientation and indulgence versus restraint (see https://hi.hofstede-insights.com/national-culture). As mentioned in the first part of our blog on Teaching in the Time of COVID-19, given Romania’s profile, and according to Hofstede, the uncertainty avoidance index is very high (90 out of 100 max). According to the same website cited above: “The Uncertainty Avoidance dimension expresses the degree to which the members of a society feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. The fundamental issue here is how a society deals with the fact that the future can never be known: should we try to control the future or just let it happen?”

In other words, there is a search for certainty and a certain rigidity in the attitudes and principles of individuals populating those societies that have a high uncertainty avoidance index and an opposite attitude of relaxation within societies with a weak uncertainty avoidance index. This makes us question the quest for certainty that we notice within the economics profession that is heavily preoccupied with making predictions, despite the actual health and economic crisis showcasing the presence of uncertainty and the short application span of various economic measures. This highlights a lack of epistemic humility within the economics profession that is indeed worrying.

Based on Roth (2016: pg 10) and Hofstede (see above), there are certain differences between societies with strong and weak uncertainty avoidance regarding the relationship and expectations student/teacher.

 

Source: Marija Roth, 2016: pg 10

In other words, in societies with strong uncertainty avoidance the teacher represents an authority of knowledge and very often teaching takes place ex cathedra, whilst epistemic humility and modesty is allowed/respected in cultures with weak uncertainty avoidance.

Uncertainty can also be related to processes of change, both at the level of the individual and the level of society, involving high degrees of stress. In terms of the educational environment in Romania, the characteristics of a high-avoidance uncertainty index can be found in the pressure on teachers to be ‘fountains of information’, but this information is not necessarily transformed into teaching practices that result in students questioning the information and overcoming the ‘duality’ level of black and white answers or dual thinking. What is rewarded is theoretical knowledge and fixed answers. Very often students prefer very conservative types of written exams based on theoretical questions or multiple-choice questions and feel very uncomfortable with essay-based exams or case-studies analysis based exams.

There is an impressive discussion in educational studies about the skills we should convey to students in the 21st century, in a continuously changing environment. How can we teach our students to cope with continuous change in the labour market, to learn to deal with uncertainty and adapt to new situations? These are difficult questions and they involve multiple answers. Marija Roth (ibid.)  talks about teaching student intercultural competences, which will, of course, empower students at the end of their studies and prepare them for the life within a multicultural society. She also discusses the role of creativity. For us, it is very important to reward innovation in students, and to enable an open/pluralist/critical-thinking mind that will sustain students to cope with the new challenges they will face once they complete their studies. In truth, we do not know what the world will look like next year, let alone in 10-20 years, what the job market will be like and what challenges our students will face. But the capacity to adapt to unknown situations and outcomes will definitely work miracles!

References:

Roth, M. (2016), “The Skills needed to cope with changes”, 9th NEPC SUMMERS SCHOOL 2016: Managing Change and Uncertainty: Education for the Future Shkembi Kavajes I Durres 3rd – 9th July 2016;

Mcleod, T.W. (1987), The Collins and Thesaurus Dictionary, London and Glasgow: Collins.

Website: https://hi.hofstede-insights.com/national-culture, accessed 4th of May 2020.

 

Lia Alexandra Baltador, Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu

Ioana Negru, Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu

 

In the Romanian education system, the online teaching tools have been mostly used… with caution. There are some objective and subjective (hard and soft) reasons behind this situation. Let’s start with some facts. Romania has a low education spending, 2.8% of the GDP (compared with 4.6% EU average) and the lowest share in the EU, with only 10.1% of the adult population having above basic digital skills.[i]

There are structural socio-economic problems, such as high income disparities, poverty and social exclusion. According to the latest working papers on the Country Report Romania 2020 for the European Semester[ii] “Social transfers have a limited impact on poverty reduction. Inequalities persist, in particular for people in rural and disadvantaged areas early school leaving are also very high.” Last year, for instance, the early school leaving rate was 16.4%[iii]. Also, the document assessed limited progress in improving the quality and inclusiveness of education. So, even before COVID 19, “one in three Romanians is at risk of poverty or social exclusion, with vulnerable groups, including the Roma, being the most exposed.” Other findings of this paper indicates that the number of highly digitally equipped and connected schools in Romania is significantly below the EU average.

Also, an OECD study indicates that in Romania teachers reported high development needs in Information and Communications Technology (ICT) teaching skills (21.2%), while 49.8 % of Principals reporting shortage or inadequacy of digital technology for instruction [iv].

On a softer note, the Romanian culture stands out, in Hofstede’s Model, on two dimensions. It ranks one of the highest on the Uncertainty Avoidance Index and the highest on the Power Distance Index, both having a value of 90 (out of 100 max).  Would these cultural characteristics play a role in education? We think they do, and in our experience they have been confirmed as doing so. Romanians are uncomfortable about uncertainty. We need to know, even if the situation is critical. The new situation was without precedent and the government appeared (and probably was) very confused and vague in its instructions and subsequently updates. This become obvious in the high volume of fines that law enforcement officers applied to confused and disobedient citizens. A high Power Distance Index indicates cultures in which people accept uneven distribution of power between members of societies, but expect solutions from its leaders, without much individual civil engagement. The lack of clear rules resulted in much speculation, mostly among the least educated, who are also more inclined to be manipulated.

Our faculty encouraged their staff to make use of digital learning tools, so that many colleagues would use online platforms, such as Google classroom. However, in many cases we wouldn’t rely on it much for teaching, per se. The suspension of face to face classes put professors in front of a screen, where non-verbal feedback was not possible, while verbal feedback involved long pauses and, as Murphy would predict, crowned at some points with technical difficulties. … These experiences raised some questions: What was the biggest challenge for us and for our students for the foreseeable future? Why were there so many communication difficulties? What should be changed in our teaching practices?

In our attempt to find out how our students are coping, we raised this question via menti (an app which ensures anonymity for respondents). Some of the answers indicate several stress factors, including the inability to meet one’s family and friends, isolation and loneliness,  the need of parents to go to work in a risky environment, being bored and without motivation or being constantly indoors. Most of this challenges we could feel on our own, so mutual understanding and empathy was easily created. Even some of the more introvert students seem to be more approachable and shared their experience, so, to some extent, the social distancing brought us closer.

While communication relies on sending messages and receiving feedback, the latter is much more difficult to obtain online. In our experience, not getting the immediate verbal and non-verbal response resulted in a feeling much like that of a tv anchor presenting the news. And it is frustrating to some point not to be able to know if the message got through, more so in a climate of confusion, uncertainty and fear. Furthermore, Romanians, as with many Latin cultures, tend to speak not only with the mouth. The inability to make use of and exchange kinesics, facial expressions, eye contact and proxemics hindered effective teaching.

In future, classes should aim to develop critical thinking, team-work and compassion and care for others. If there is (at least) one lesson to be learned from this pandemic it’s: We are all in it together!

 

[i] European Commission (2019), Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) 2019- Country report Romania, available at: https://ec.europa.eu/digital-single-market/en/scoreboard/romania

[ii] COMMUNICATION FROM THE COMMISSION TO THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT, THE EUROPEAN COUNCIL, THE COUNCIL, THE EUROPEAN CENTRAL BANK AND THE EUROGROUP https://ec.europa.eu/info/publications/2020-european-semester-country-reports_en

[iii] European Commission (2019) Education and Training Monitor 2019 Romania https://ec.europa.eu/education/sites/education/files/document-library-docs/et-monitor-report-2019-romania_en.pdf

[iv] OECD (2019, Romania: Teachers and teaching conditions (TALIS 2018), available at: https://gpseducation.oecd.org/CountryProfile?plotter=h5&primaryCountry=ROU&treshold=5&topic=TA

 

 

 

 

 

 

Core (the acronym for Curriculum Open Access Resources in Economics) is a project led by professor Wendy Carlin from UCL, UK, that aims to improve the content and delivery of the economics curriculum around the world. Other remarkable economists have been and are part of this project such as Diane Coyle and Samuel Bowles.

According to the website of the project, www.core-econ.org CORE is:

“a) a global community of learners, teachers and researchers;

  1. b) a problem- motivated and interactive way to learn economics;
  2. c) bringing recent developments into the classroom;
  3. d) giving everyone the tools to understand the economics of the world around   them”.

As Mearman et al (2016: 5) explain: “CORE is a large undergraduate year one course called ‘The Economy’, which itself comprises nineteen modules on a range of topics. CORE is neither a Massive Online Course (MOOC) nor a course in the traditional sense, but an online resource, a frame to be elaborated”. According to the same authors, CORE represents both an ‘improvement’ and a ‘missed opportunity’. On the one hand, CORE employs historical and experimental data and draws on the history of economics or new branches of economics such as theory of games, covering thus a variety of topics. On the other hand, the course is rife with concepts and elements unsupported by evidence, such as utility maximization that constitute fundamental components of CORE (Mearman et al 2016).

The reactions to CORE, both from the media and the academic world, have been mixed. Whilst Birdi (2014) claims that CORE represents a transformation of economics, others consider the shift brought by CORE as insufficient and inadequate (e.g. Post Crash Economics Society (PCES) 2014; Morgan 2014; Mearman et al 2016). The extensive use of data to explain economic phenomena is recognized by Giugliano in Financial Times (2015) (https://www.ft.com/content/fc2eb464-d93d-11e4-b907-00144feab7de), who also acknowledges voices that echo the lack of radicalism in the CORE project (e.g. Rethinking Economics). John Cassidy (2017) in the New Yorker states: “The CORE approach isn’t particularly radical (students looking for expositions of Marxian economics or Modern Monetary Theory will have to look elsewhere)”.

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