We Figured Out How to Teach Personal Finance in School

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“Layering ____________ throughout the curriculum” doesn’t work.

Whenever you hear a bureaucrat from the world of education say that a school system is layering something throughout the curriculum, that’s usually code for: “We didn’t think that this was actually important enough to demand its own course, so what we’ll say is that all teachers are supposed to teach it everywhere or at least somewhere.”  It’s usually accompanied by buzzwords such as lifelong learning, problem solving, critical thinking, etc.

The truth is that while it’s very fashionable to say that your department or provincial government supports youth financial literacy, and every public poll that I’ve seen shows that there is very strong public support for financial literacy education, there hasn’t been much of an actual push to get real personal finance concepts into classrooms.  There are many reasons for this weird imbalance (which you can listen to me describe in detail on Preet Banerjee’s Podcast and on the Because Money Podcast) but the primary factor is that there simply aren’t enough teachers and/or faculty of education staff who have even a baseline knowledge of financial literacy.  This severe deficit of subject area knowledge results in personal finance concepts not being taught properly, not being given appropriate priority, and the logical conclusions that most teachers having no idea just how much they don’t know about the topic.

While I’ve been ranting about this problem for many years now – and have repeatedly seen my beliefs re-confirmed – it is only the last couple of years that the solution has emerged.  The really cool part about this solution is that it didn’t involve committees about “stakeholders”.  It didn’t include paying educational consultants a ton of money to generate countless buzzwords, random graphic organizers, or rhyming educational slogans designed to get purchased by school boards who are always looking for the next “silver bullet” to fix everything that is wrong in public education.

This solution simply required motivated teachers getting together, A LOT of hard work, and financial support from both the public and private sectors.

A Made In Saskatchewan Solution

MHSCCSeven years ago a small group of teachers got together in a small prairie town and held the first ever Saskatchewan Business Teachers Association (SBTA) Case Competition.  To the best of my knowledge they were the first group to organize such an event – although similar events have recently popped up in a couple of other provinces.  If you happen to have a business-focused post-secondary background you might be quite familiar with the concept of a case competition.  Most teachers (including myself as recently as four years ago) have no idea what a case competition is.

There are many different versions of how to run a specific case competition, but the basic idea is that students gather in small teams and are presented with a case study.  The students get three hours to read through this case study, identify what problems the company or individual is facing, come up with several possible solutions, and then finally to create a comprehensive implementation plan for the solution that best fits the situation, before presenting to a panel of judges.  The two categories in which to compete in at the SBTA Case Competition are Entrepreneurship and Personal Finance.  At the post-secondary level there are many more categories in areas such as accounting, human relations, marketing, etc.

Four years ago I was lucky enough to be invited to this unique high school event, and after seeing the students in action I couldn’t wait to try this stuff with my students.  I witnessed students learning from each other, challenging one another, and growing in ways that they couldn’t possibly quantify yet.  I saw teachers sharing with one another, taking notes on how other schools were rolling out financial literacy programs, and coming with new ideas for entrepreneurship initiatives.  There were people there from major universities, local businesses, and even a mediocre internet blogger/co-author of a book with a beer on the cover – and they all wanted to work with the teachers and the students to create a grassroots movement around personal finance and business education.  I have yet to witness a more organic, authentic, or effective manner of professional development for all who are involved.

Four years later my students (see the 2016 personal finance finalists here) can’t wait to attend the SBTA Case Competition every spring.  And this year, they were able to compete in their home province, as the first ever Manitoba High School Case Competition (MHSCC) was hosted at Brandon University and Assiniboine Community College in Brandon, Manitoba.

The Manitoba High School Case Competition

You may have noticed that my writing has taken a bit of a backseat recently.  This is primarily due to my founding role in the first ever MHSCC.  The first time around is always a bit of an adventure for any event that is trying to get off the ground, and this one sort of took over my life for a little while.  Now that I have re-introduced myself to my wife, (“Oh, hello you strikingly beautiful person, don’t I know you from somewhere?”) I think I will get back to being slightly more active with this whole written word thing.

The first MHSCC is a bit of a blur for me personally, but with all of the teachers and students saying that they are eager to return next year, I think it’s safe to say the event was a massive success.  Check out #MHSCC2017 for more details!

I should point out that a glitz & glamour event such as this one would not be possible without the logistical and financial support of our generous sponsors.  So a big thank you to:

Assiniboine Community College and Brandon University

Our Presenting Sponsor:  Sunrise Credit Union

Our local sponsors: BDO BrandonPrairie Coach Bus Lines, and Top Shelf Web Solutions

Our national sponsors: Borrowell and Wealthsimple

The Provincial Government of Manitoba and The City of Brandon

Why Case Competitions?

Having students learn by applying concepts to real-life situations was a game-changer for me in terms of how I approach financial literacy and business education.  It’s all fine and well to memorize the definition of a TFSA and RRSP – but if you don’t have some idea of when it is best to use each of those tools – and why that is – then the information is close to useless.

Math teachers are quick to claim that they have been teaching personal finance all along – but what many math gurus don’t understand is that the formulas for calculating mortgage interest or tax owing are nearly irrelevant (we have online calculators from trusted sources for that).  What students need to understand is how much of their budget housing costs should take up, what closing costs are, and how contributing to an RRSP will affect their taxes owing/tax refund.

Preet Banerjee is fond of saying that, “Personal finance is 90% psychology and 8% math.”  The behavioural and strategic aspects of personal finance are much, much more important than the basic math-dominated tactics involved.  Learning mathematical formulas won’t hurt anyone, but it’s understanding how and why to apply those formulas that is by far the most important and relevant subject matter.

For this reason, much of my students’ grades are determined by mini-case study assignments throughout the year.  Students are not only allowed, but encouraged to look at past assignments, in books, and on the web for information that will help them in their quest to solve “John’s Debt Dilemma” or “Jane’s Insurance Inquiries”.  Memorization is only recommended for a few basic rules – and the rest is up to their problem solving and critical thinking skills.

In addition to this active exploration of personal finance solutions, students quickly develop soft skills such as effective communication through inventive slide deck design (*Hint: Less words!) and public speaking strategies.  By having students collaborate and then present their solutions, they learn from one another and access a wide variety of viewpoints that broaden their thought horizon for the next case.  A proper debriefing by me at the end of each multi-lesson case study ensures that students make the connections that I set out to teach, in addition to the original ideas that they came up with.  Or in education parlance, I am able to ensure, “That all relevant learning outcomes are assessed multiple times throughout the lesson and broader course by using both direct instruction and inquiry-based, flipped classroom techniques.”  

When we first begin case studies in grade 9/10 we tend to do the first few together as a class so that students can get a basic idea of how to breakdown and interact with such a large amount of information.  I am able to guide the learning at first, and make sure that everyone understands the basic steps needed to present a case, and explain just why we do it that way.  It isn’t long before the students want to have the training wheels taken off and to compete with one another to come up with the most imaginative and efficient solutions.

Those Who Can’t Do… Shouldn’t

Hey I get it – if a teacher or friend sent you this article you might be thinking to yourself: Man, this is all a bit much.  I don’t even know where to start.

The best time to plant a tree was fifty years ago – but the next best time is today!

If you’re a teacher or a parent and can find a place to work in some personal finance – quit hesitating and just jump in!

About 95% of what I use in my class can be found on this site – whether it’s our free eBooks, book recommendations, or my student budget template.  If you want to know the curriculum that we use, feel free to download it here (we do freelance a bit from this outline, but it’s a good starting point).  If you have any other resources, or need help overcoming any other obstacle in your journey to teaching personal finance, please go to our Contact Us Page and I promise to respond to your message personally.

It’s easy to talk about a lack of resources, lack of time, lack of support, and/or a lack of professional development opportunities.  It’s harder to look for real solutions and then put the work into making those hypothetical solutions a reality.  I’m doing my best to make sure that there are no more excuses – so that the only thing left for us to do as educators who see a severe knowledge deficit, is to create, and then teach.

How Can I Get Personal Finance Course or an Event Like This In My Community?

Teachers don’t control the school system.

Nor do principals, superintendents, CEOs, school boards or even the students (this might be news to them).

Parental pressure controls the school system.  Like most government institutions, education trends tends to flow down the path of least resistance.  More often than not, this path follows wherever “the way it has always been done” takes us.  If you would like to see a personal finance course taught in your school or want to point to the SBTA Case Competition or MHSCC as possible capstone events to inspire students in your area, the only way forward that I’m aware of is to connect with likeminded individuals and begin to put pressure on administrators and local politicians – make your goal their path of least resistance!

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that your positive pressure has to include dramatic gestures or be aggressive in nature.  Simple, polite, sustained conversation often yields the best results.  Join your PTA, run for school board, or get signatures on a petition.

Ask questions such as:

  • Even though there is no standard personal finance course available for credit, is there a one-off school initiated credit option that your school or school division could pursue?
  • Could personal finance topics be made a larger part of a course that is already in the works?
  • Is it possible to get some professional development opportunities for teachers in the school division such as having one of Canada’s leading personal finance authors, or a member of the provincial securities commission come in and speak?
  • What is the issue with creating a standardized personal finance course that would be available across your province? (It doesn’t have to be mandatory to begin with… baby steps.)

The more telephone calls, emails, Facebooks posts, Tweets, and in-person messages that school boards, upper administration, and local politicians get, the more they will understand that this is a priority that needs to be addressed head on – not “layered throughout the curriculum” by teachers who have little-to-no background in the subject area.

“I’ve got My Mind On My Money… And My Money On My Mind”

Ultimately at the end of the day, in a perfect world would we create teachers who were all personal finance experts and who could organically layer in personal finance concepts from ages 5-18 – and then be there for just-in-time learning when folks went to buy their first house or open a TFSA?  Sure!

Let me know when that perfect world arrives.

For now, by the far best bet investment is to establish a personal finance beachhead in schools by offering a dedicated personal finance course in grade 11 or 12.  This allows us to focus professional development on a self-selected group of motivated teachers who can then work on gathering data and evolving the approach in whatever way makes the most sense.  I’m under no illusion that my students will retain 100% of the personal finance concepts taught to them in my class, but if they can remember 40-70% of the facts, remember where to access information (and how to evaluate it) should they need it in the future, and be able to apply the critical thinking strategies to their own finances as they evolve – isn’t that a goal worth pursuing?  Why do we believe teaching students subject areas such as citizenship, cell structure, and geometry (all subjects that we will need to revisit throughout our lives, but probably not every day for the majority of us) is a good use of high school curricula, but that personal finance concepts are somehow different?

If you combine my proposed super-focused approach with the case teaching style and an energy-building event like a regional case competition – I can tell you firsthand that the results will blow you away and the learning will build on itself quite quickly.

Students will be enthusiastic about “learning stuff that we’re actually going to use in life.”  Teachers will learn from one another as we embrace an opportunity to build an educational approach from scratch instead of relying on nausea-inducing recycled educational theory preached at us by academics whose ivory towers are so far removed from our everyday classrooms.

There are no more excuses when it comes to the severe lack of financial literacy amongst our youth.  For those of you who believe it is the parents’ role to teach personal finance – great – teach it to your children by all means.  But we have a mountain of data in this country that shows the vast majority of parents are not capable of teaching their children a subject area in which they themselves have a massive deficit.  We don’t ask parents to teach civics, biology, or sentence structure, and we shouldn’t be asking them to teach compound interest.

Let’s quit coming up with excuses and paying lip service to half-measures.  Instead, let’s devote our energy to making a real difference and moving forward together.

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Kyle is a high school humanities teacher by day, and freelance personal finance author by night. He has been published in academic journals, and has also co-authored the book "More Money for Beer and Textbooks". In his free time Kyle likes to limp up and down a basketball court and pretend to be a tough guy in a boxing ring.

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