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JONATHAN GRUBER: I think the main thing an economics
course can do in this day and age
is get people to be a little more flexible, a little more
thoughtful about decisions they make,
and seeing both sides of the problem.
SARAH HANSEN: Today in the podcast:
seeing economics in a whole new light.
JONATHAN GRUBER: I've had application,
a course about demand and supply,
about Kim Kardashian tweeting herself
out a picture of an exercise corset,
and that increased demand for exercise corsets.
And so thinking about how something, where students
can see it and say, "Wow, I hadn't
realized that economics help me think about that problem."
SARAH HANSEN: Welcome to Chalk Radio,
a podcast about inspired teaching at MIT.
I'm your host, Sarah Hansen, from MIT OpenCourseWare.
In this episode, we'll be talking about the course 14.01
Introductory Microeconomics.
This course is filled with unique and creative
applications for microeconomics in our everyday lives.
I'll be chatting today with the creator of this course,
Professor Jon Gruber.
One of the things I was most excited to find out
was the way people perceive economics.
So I asked Professor Gruber what misconceptions students
tend to bring to this class.
JONATHAN GRUBER: That's a good question.
I think they tend to perceive it as maybe softer than it is,
maybe not perceive that you're going
to derive fairly sharp tools that
are going to help you explain a lot of the world fairly easily.
Then, on the other hand, they often
come with expectations that we'll explain more of the world
than we can.
SARAH HANSEN: So how do you help them
address these misconceptions?
JONATHAN GRUBER: I think by just being honest
about the limitations and benefits of our models,
by explaining the power that our models can
deliver in fairly simple terms in explaining
a lot of the world.
But at the same time, representing
the things the models can't easily explain
and being honest about that and trying
to get students interested in studying more economics
that can explain those things as well.
I don't expect most viewers of my videos
to go on to get a PhD in economics, unfortunately.
I expect they're going to go out and have other jobs,
do other things, and I want them to be more educated consumers
of news and to understand what's going on in the world in terms
of economic policy.
SARAH HANSEN: Could we talk a minute about the real world
SARAH HANSEN: It's a really interesting part of the course.
You have LeBron James's college decision, the Uber surge
Tell us about your decision to really anchor
the course with these real world applications.
JONATHAN GRUBER: It's what makes economics fun.
Once again, I'm not training people
to be economics PhDs here.
I'm training people to think like an economist,
and thinking like an economist, if you've
got a very facile mind and you look
at the basic theory videos I teach you,
you can understand it.
But you only really understand something
when you go in the real world and apply it.
And so it's a chance for people to see the ways that economics
rules the world but to also sort of apply
what they've learned to make sure they understand it.
SARAH HANSEN: What tips for educators
do you have about selecting really good applications?
JONATHAN GRUBER: I think it's just
a matter of trying to find examples in the real world that
are relatable.
Companies they've heard of and issues they think about
and that-- in a not necessarily obvious way--
teach you about the lessons you want to learn.
I've had application, the course about demand and supply,
about Kim Kardashian tweeting herself
out a picture of an exercise corset,
and that increased demand for exercise corsets.
And so thinking about how something where students
can see it and say, wow, I hadn't
realized economics helped me think about that problem.
SARAH HANSEN: Professor Gruber's passion for economics is clear,
and I wanted to get to the bottom of it.
Why does he care so much about helping others
find their passion for economics,
and how did his own curiosity begin?
JONATHAN GRUBER: I came to MIT knowing
that I was good at math, but I didn't really like it.
What I liked was real world social policy types of issues,
and I took 14.01 and said, oh my god,
I can use math to apply to the real world.
Isn't this cool?
And I've been hooked ever since.
Many of your listeners will not realize
that there was a time when we used
to talk to people next to us on a plane,
before we had smartphones.
And every time I fly in a plane and tell the person next to me
I was an economics professor, they'd say, oh,
that was the worst course I ever took, and I thought,
that can't be true.
It might not be the best, but there's
no way it could be the worst course someone ever took.
I realized it just was generally badly taught in our school
systems, and so I was always interested
in trying to address that.
But I think really, where I really
want to go is figure out a way to write better problems.
It's easy to write a problem with a mathematical solution:
"The firm has the following production functions.
Solve for their profit maximization."
It's harder to write problems that
involve math but also derive intuition,
and that's really where I want to go
is, help students bridge that link between solving
equations and understanding why they're doing it
and what they're learning from it.
SARAH HANSEN: I just want to talk about that a little bit
more, because you're not the first MIT faculty
member to really want to hone in on intuition.
And I'm just wondering, like how do
we develop students' intuition, because I'm
sure educators out there in all sorts of fields
are wanting to do this too.
Is it something that's developed over time in a field and just
with experience, or is it something
we can cultivate as teachers?
JONATHAN GRUBER: I think that it is something we can cultivate.
I think that it comes from not assuming people know things
they don't know.
It comes from teaching in layers.
So that if there's a set of things
I teach that I'd be really disappointed
if not everyone came out with intuition from my class,
there's other more subtle concepts
that if not everyone remembers them, understands them,
then that's not the end of the world.
But I'd like students who want to go on to be like, oh, that's
I want to go down that path.
So I think it's really about getting the things that you
really want people to know, hammering them,
but the other thing I like that I do in my class is really
always have a constant roadmap.
I always tell the students, OK, here's where we came from.
Here's where we're going.
Here's where it fits in.
So they can have a holistic sense
of how it all fits together.
SARAH HANSEN: In our conversation,
I asked Professor Gruber what he believes
educators can do practically to transfer problems
from the classroom into the real world, and his answer touched
on a point that is coming into play
all over our modern world--
the complexity and truth about, well, truth.
JONATHAN GRUBER: I think the main number one thing is just
to teach a healthy respect for the scientific method,
to teach students that there are objective truths
and that there is this long standing scientific method
for how we get at them.
The other thing, however, is to recognize
that there are two sides of almost every issue.
And that this is something that a lot of students at MIT
sometimes have problems with my class
which is it's not just an equation with one right answer.
There's pros and cons to a lot of these things.
So I think it's teaching a search for the objective truth
that can help you come to the conclusion that works for you.
That there's not necessarily one right answer.
You and I might disagree about a topic,
but we should agree on an objective set of facts
and have a scientific method for getting to our conclusion.
I think that's the key-- in today's world especially--
that's the key is just getting people
to have a healthy disagreement rather
than an unhealthy disagreement.
SARAH HANSEN: One of the most compelling parts of this course
is how it emphasizes ways to carry its concepts forward
into the real world.
Students are given specific pathways
they might follow in their career or lives
outside of school, where they can use these concepts.
This was something really important to Professor Gruber,
and I wanted to know why.
JONATHAN GRUBER: I feel that economics
is enormously powerful.
I'm what you might call an imperialistic economist.
I feel like economics can explain
lots of things in the world, and there's very few situations
where a good economic framework can't help you at least go
forward in thinking about it.
And I don't want students to just take the AP test
and forget about it, quite frankly.
I want this to be something they bring with them
and actually keep with them.
There's a famous old Saturday Night Live
skit about what you remember five years after college,
and it's five minutes, and three and a half minutes of it
is spring break.
I want them to try to have a basic set of intuitions
that they can understand can apply to decisions they're
going to make about how much to save in their 401(k)
to how hard to work, to what car to choose,
to how to buy a house, et cetera.
And quite frankly, to me personally,
how to vote and think about public policy, a set of tools
that they can bring to bear on thinking
about these important problems in America today.
One slight difficulty we have is a lot of students
come in much too determined and set in their ways
in what they're going to do.
I'm going to be an engineer.
I'm going to be a computer scientist,
and they're often not flexible enough.
So part of I view my job, and a lot of times
when they're taking economics, they're just
taking it because they have to.
And my job is to get them to say, hey, I actually like this,
and I love nothing more when I get an email from a student
saying, wow, I wasn't even going to study economics.
But I like your course, and want to major in economics.
That was wonderful, but I also want the student
that is not going to major in economics
to several years later saying, hey, yeah,
that's something I can relate what I learned
in economics to how I think about that problem,
and that could help me in my life.
Microeconomics is basic economics.
Macroeconomics is essentially applied micro.
It's basically about every decision
we make, every decision firms make,
can all be informed by economic framework,
and that can be informed in a particularly healthy way today.
Because the economic framework really
is about trade-offs and about thinking
the fact that nothing's easy, everything
involves pros and cons and trade-offs,
and there's shades of gray to every decision we make.
And I think the main thing an economics course can
do in this day and age is get people to be a little more
flexible, a little more thoughtful
about decisions they make and seeing
both sides of the problem.
SARAH HANSEN: If you're interested in learning more
about microeconomics or viewing his real world application
videos, you can visit Professor Gruber's interactive online MIT
course on edX.
To access his full lecture videos
from his on-campus teaching, head over
to his scholar course on our site at
You'll also find 20 plus additional courses just
on microeconomics on OCW.
If you're an instructor, head on over to the OCW Educator Portal
at to find resources just for you.
Thanks for listening.
Until next time, I'm Sarah Hansen from MIT OpenCourseWare.