Economics & Humanities Podcasts to Propel Student Learning

From Edudemic by Leah Levy

Several weeks ago, we took a look at a number of excellent podcasts just begging to be used in History and STEM classrooms. This week, we’re detailing a few more excellent podcasts to add to the classroom library, along with further ideas for how you can integrate each type. Our goal: to spread a love and joy for podcasts the worldwide, and to promote a lot of learning along the way!

Economics and Statistics


Freakonomics Image

If science is all around us, you better believe Economics is too. Still, too often the subject is taught in a dry manner, and it is only those who are naturally drawn to the subject that linger behind after the bell has rung, begging the teacher to, “Please, tell me more about Public Choice Theory!”

Freakonomics seeks to fix this by explaining the everyday phenomenon of often irrational human behavior through an economic lense. Hosted by Steven J. Dubner, who co-wrote the bookFreakonomics with the influential University of Chicago economist, Stephen Levitt, this podcast is behavioral economics at its finest. Here, students can expect to learn about such subjects as: how so may Norwegians can afford to buy Teslas; what the best type of exercise might be; why parking in popular cities is so difficult; and so much more.

This unique approach will get students looking at the world in a different way – one that is more observational and curious, two traits that are must-haves for making inquisitive and creative students. Framed in this way, students will be naturally interested in this subject of economics, which in turn can help bridge learning into necessary subjects that may be a little denser.

2. Planet Money

In terms of subject area, Planet Money can seem similar to Freakonomics on the surface, but these two podcasts are different in terms of approach and feel. While Freakonomics seeks to explain human behavior through the lens of economics, the hosts and reporters on Planet Money are a little more focused on translating the often obtuse workings of a complex economy into terms that non-economists can understand. Past episodes have included multiple explanations of short selling, a breakdown of the housing crisis, an explanation of the gold standard, and a look at just why lettuce is so expensive in Brooklyn. The show hosts also created and documented the production of a t-shirt from beginning of the end – a fascinating, multi-episode arc that resulted in an actual t-shirt for the audience members to buy (which I have and love – thanks, guys!).

The Planet Money approach again helps spark student curiosity, and is a great model for the types of questions students should ask both as a form of academic inquiry and as they navigate everyday life.

3. FiveThirtyEight’s the Hot Takedown

You probably know Nate Silver as that wizard that correctly predicts the outcome of elections. Indeed, the FiveThirtyEight blog along with Silver’s journalism in general has done much to turn statistics into a cool subject. Well, FiveThirtyEight has won yet another battle with the launch of Hot Takedown, which brings statistics and reasoning to sports journalism. “Hot takes,” as the producers explain (and as defined here) is a breaking scandal in the sports world, often poorly researched and distributed widely.

The Hot Takedown seeks to inject data into the conversation. Imagine taking, for instance Pete Carroll’s famous call in the Superbowl, which is widely considered one of the worst calls in the history of football, and measuring that against the data he was actually drawing from in making that decision. The results are always surprising, and necessarily relevant, so the episodes can’t help but interest the audience.

Classroom Adaptations

Freakonomics is all about understanding these subtler but impactful nuances of human behavior. As such, one great assignment would be to have students make a week- or month-long journal in which they note down strange or perplexing observations of human economic behavior, which can then be analyzed by the class. Why, for instance, do mom and dad insist on buying that name brand hair conditioner when the generic uses the same ingredients and costs half the amount? Why do pizza delivery times slow on a certain day of the week that wouldn’t otherwise seem popular? Is it that there is a major local industry whose workers get paid on that day? Is it that this is a seasonal phenomenon which coincides with the airing of a certain event? Start with observations, brainstorm as a class, and then start investigating!

Much like the above suggestions, one can imagine using similar exercises with Planet Money, but instead having students turn their attention directly to aspects of the economy that puzzle them (as opposed to focusing on human behavior). Why, for instance, does the price of college tuition keep going up? Why do cars lose so much value the moment they’re driven off the lot? You could even turn these questions into an “Ask an Economist” in-class segment, for which you could recruit a real economist to talk over Google Hangouts.

The Hot Takedown would work great as a lens through which to teach any number of statistical principles, while keeping subjects relevant to today’s breaking sports news. More formally, you could have students who are avid sports fans pick their own topics to break down with data – and for students who aren’t into sports, you could have them apply a takedown mentality to a big topic in a subject area of their own choosing.

Storytelling and Design

4. The Moth

The Moth Image

On The Moth, regular people take the stage to tell stories without the use of notes. There are Moth events throughout the country, including workshops in prisons, disadvantaged communities, and schools, so the series does an excellent job of representing the broad swath of American humanity. This results in fare that remains varied and interesting, but, perhaps more importantly, it brings listeners into experiences and perspectives that may otherwise be alien to them – an experience that can only serve to foster empathy, and to show historically underrepresented students that their stories are worth telling. While many stories are told at the live events, they are specifically narrowed and curated for the show, so they are always of a high quality.

5. This American Life

There are many wonderful shows these days that feature compelling stories about everyday people, but This American Life really made the genre. Many episodes will fit neatly into discussions about current affairs, and even into some historical episode. Each podcast episode features a theme, and all stories must fit within that. For example, the March 2015 episode entitled “Need to Know Basis” details: the story of a man who was raised to tell the truth at all times and in every situation; the story of a young man doing fantastically at community college, except for the fact that he’s not being so honest about how he’s doing; and the story of a woman who was the family favorite growing up, but as an adult uncovered some uncomfortable truths about why that was.

This American Life would be best use to broaden student perspectives and to grapple with moral and social issues; for similar reasons, the show would also make an excellent basis for debating a trending social issue. It would also be great to use as a means for teaching the craft of narrative nonfiction writing, as in an English class.

6. 99% Invisible

Everyday, we move fluidly – or not fluidly at all – through our built environment. Whether that movement is seamless or choppy, we rarely stop to think about the design of that environment, which is most likely responsible for those differences in flow. When we encounter a traffic jam, for example, we are more likely to focus our rage on our fellow drivers than we are on the narrowness or lack of streets. When students take exams in a windowless room, they are more likely to focus on their stress and anxiety than to think about how the lack of light is influencing their mood, self-perception, and ability to perform.

As the title implies, Roman Mars, the host of 99% Invisible, seeks to make visible these aspects of our impactful built environment that so often pass by unnoticed. Episodes have included: a show on the Winchester House, a mansion that was massive even by mansion standards, and that was built in an intentionally confusing manner to confuse ghosts; a collaboration between Che Guevera and Fidel Castro to design an art school; and the surprisingly intriguing story of the rise and fall of billiard halls.

Classroom Adaptations

Teaching storytelling to students of all ages can be incredibly empowering and confidence boosting, especially for shy students who may realize an important new set of skills and abilities as they go. It is also great at teaching public speaking skills, which will prove crucial as student move up through academia and into the working world. The Moth has collaborated on workshops and tutorials with schools in the past, and therefore it might be worth your while to reach out to the organization to see if they might come to yours, or at least to recommend tools for teaching the art of storytelling. Scholastic provides a good guide to teaching storytelling, as doesTeachThought.

In addition to a dedicated storytelling unit, This American Life makes a great basis for teaching narrative nonfiction writing. You might, for example, have students listen to an episode at home, and then discuss at school the craft of the narrative approach. What, for instance, was this story’s hook? How did the producers build tension? What was the narrative structure and conflict, and when did the action peak? From here, you could launch students into a narrative nonfiction podcast project, for which they would choose their own theme and both seek out and construct stories that fit within that theme.

If it’s 99% Invisible that intrigues you, have students listen to an episode, and then take a field trip to an interesting architectural space to observe both the design itself, and how people move through it. Do passerby interact much, or do they avoid eye contact completely? How does that space reflect the purpose and mentality of the organizations within that building? You could also stay right in school for this one, and have students ask the same questions of different spaces, like the cafeteria, the courtyard, the school entrance, and so forth. In this version, students could also brainstorm and create suggestions to make that space more welcoming and usable to the population.

Internet and Entrepreneurial Culture

6. Reply All and Startup

Reply All Image

Reply All and Startup are the first two podcasts from the newly formed Gimlet Media (so isMystery Show, which I wanted desperately to include in this list somewhere – perhaps to suggest an Encyclopedia Brown-esque writing exercise). Reply All, which is hosted by PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman, is a fascinating look at our ever evolving internet and social media culture. There is, really, nothing quite like it out there, and it does the great service of taking even the most mundane aspects of this culture seriously, while still having fun. Episodes have included: a feature on what it’s like to be legally banned from using the internet; an in-depth look at Marnie the dog and how she managed to become the most popular canine on Instagram; and an app that sends strangers to tell other people the things you don’t want to. There is also a highly enjoyable segment called Yes, Yes, No, in which a particularly obtuse and perplexing aspect of internet and social media culture is explained. Teens and tweens will appreciate this, especially if teachers use episodes as a springboard for serious discussions about the everyday realities of student lives – though do take the explicitly language warnings seriously.

Startup is similar to Reply All, in that it is very much of the here and now, and is therefore likely to capture student attention. The first season of this program follows the launch of Gimlet Media (the parent company for these shows), from awkward pitch meetings to the running of a successful – if stressful – company. In the second season, we follow the founders of the dating app, Dating Ring. As the founders are female and a relative minority in the startup field, this add an extra layer of interesting issues to the show, as the women must navigate around sexist barriers.

Classroom Adaptations

Reply All could easily be used as is without much adaptation as a way to help students process and contextualize their digital existences; simply have students listen to an episode for homework, and then come to school ready to discuss the issues at hand. What was their take? Did they feel the hosts got it right? What’s their theory about the reasons behind the existence of that most peculiar internet phenomenon? Students could also search for their own internet and social media mysteries to solve in the form of a written report or a podcast done much in the vein of the show itself.

Startup is also great even just at the level of exposure, as it will demonstrate directly to students what taking an entrepreneurial path looks like – something about which many students may be curious, but with which they may not have first-hand experience. This again would make for excellent class discussions, and hey, if you’re feeling ambitious, why not have students create startups of their own, either individually, in groups, or in a class? Even if they fail (most startups do), that in itself is a useful lesson, and at least trying to launch something big will empower students to start fixing problems that bother them as they arise in the marketplace. Of course, this kind of project will also help teach financial literacy and responsibility.

Can you tell yet that we love podcasts? We really do! But as podcast lovers, we know this only represents a tiny percentage of available shows, and of the countless activities that can be created around them or into which they can be incorporated. As such, we want to know: what are your favorite podcasts, and what are the most creative ways you’ve made use of them in the classroom? Let us know in the blog comments!

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