I had a conversation with Madeleine Cox a little while ago that kept wiggling around the back of my brain. At least I’m pretty sure I did. If she wasn’t there at the time, somehow she managed to squeeze wigglingly in there with it.

The conversation was about the idea of a place for economic literacy in high school curriculum. I believe (again, this could just be the wiggling), that she was asking me whether I thought there was one.

Rock365 : 22 02 2010 : Boulby Potash

Oh potash, I never even knew what you looked like until now... Image by Ian Geoffrey Stimpson from Flickr

At the time, my answer was a direct and unjustified yes. Why not? It’s certainly something that we all have to interact with in our lives. Something with significant bearing on the parameters of our lives. I spent time learning that potash was a major export of Saskatchewan in high school… Maybe learning a little about the complex and sordid life of my money is at least as valid and relevant as that, isn’t it?

Anyways, the wiggling notion was given a boost today when I listened to a Freakonomics podcast entitled:

What Do Hand-Washing and Financial Illiteracy Have in Common?

By structuring a debate about causes and solutions for American financial illiteracy it kind of refreshed my internal dialogue around this discussion. The main combatants and their weapons of debate were (extracted from Freakonomics.com):

Annamaria Lusardi, an economist at George Washington University, who has spent the past 10 years studying the topic, and believes that education is the way out:

 LUSARDI: In the same way we start people, you know, in school just reading and writing, you know, from the very beginning. We don’t teach literature so that people go on and write “War and Peace,” but we teach it so that people can appreciate a good book.

Next is Lauren Willis, a legal scholar who previously worked at the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission. She has argued against widespread financial education, recommending instead a new cadre of financial advisers and greater transparency and regulation in the financial industry:

WILLIS: It’s sort of like saying, well we should start teaching everybody to be their own doctor, teaching everyone to be their own mechanic, you know, something like that, terribly inefficient to do that. Not only is it inefficient, but it has this sort of culture of blaming the consumer. You know, you’re the one who didn’t figure this all out.

After listening to both of them though, I’m stuck wondering why we don’t do both. I’m not sure why making an effort to embed some financial literacy in high school would negate the need for better financial advisers and greater transparency and regulation of the financial industry. It might even give people a more educated means of demanding just that. Certainly, the likely correct assumption that it wouldn’t be done particularly well at first seems like an awfully defeatist reason not to get the ball rolling.

Formula 2 Traffic

I hope they've all had driving lessons. Photo by Smudge 9000 from Flickr.

Willis suggests that the level of expertise required to successfully navigate the modern financial world is equivalent to the expertise of a Formula 1 driver, and rightfully perhaps points out how unfair this expectation is. But if we’re all inevitably going to be put in that speeding car anyways, we may as well take a driving lesson when we turn sixteen.

At the very least, could someone stop making all Canadian teenagers memorize facts about the mineral wealth of Saskatchewan?


8 Responses to Economic Literacy vs. Saskatchewan Exports

  1. I’m glad my question led to this, as you’ve shared not only your thoughts but also useful sources, questions and ideas. When I spoke to you I’d been thinking of Genevieve Tran’s talk about Financial Literacy at TedxTokyoTeachers. It’s now been uploaded to the YouTube playlist(apologies for the mile-long URL):


    She offers some striking reasons for including financial literacy in education, and offers a case study of her project with a class of eight year old students. I remember the talk so vividly because I was in the audience at the event and kept thinking, ‘I wonder if we’d do this at YIS?’

  2. Jamie Raskin says:

    Thanks Madeleine. I watched the talk and had an odd flashback experience to my fifth grade teacher who, in between fits of yelling and throwing chalk, would reward us with his own monopoly-esque currency… I’d never quite considered it in the light of financial curriculum.
    I’m also quite glad that you happened on this post so quickly. I realized I probably should have dropped you a note to mention that I was writing a post that you may or may not have inspired. I’m glad you did. It helps me trust my at times squirrely memory.
    thanks for the share!

  3. Garry Baker says:

    Thank you for bringing up financial literacy. I would not have guessed that anyone could argue against teaching at least some financial literacy in schools. It sounds as if the question is what to teach to students and what to leave to experts. I think an understanding of how credit cards, stocks and bonds, and Ponzi schemes work could be included. Should students understand hedge funds? Should students understand how McDonald’s is structured so that they can follow Steven Levitt’s explanation of how drug dealing works (http://www.ted.com/talks/steven_levitt_analyzes_crack_economics.html)? How could you also make this course more memorable than the charting of slope and y-intercept that we did in high school economics.

  4. Hi! It’s so good of you Jamie to bring Financial Literacy up! More of us need to bang a pan about it: it’s really the type of awakening akin to Global Warming. Really, ANY experience that kids (or we) have with it in game form helps immunize against bad-decision making when our livelihoods / families’ well-being are on the line later in life. Yet, it’s in well into compromised adulthood that most of us get our first shock-and-awe of dealing with giant loans, starting a business, investing etc.

    I can’t believe Willis would advocate only leaving the understanding of money to an elite class (isn’t that what’s already happening now?) We all use money, each of us micro-actors affect the economy around us. Ignorant moves are not cool. I am totally serious about furthering any dialogue on this. At the end of May, I auditioned for TED 2013 on this topic, in Tokyo (I spoke about how money requires a psychological and philosophical preparation through education–not just a savvy business acumen or a head for numbers)–I think they’ll put it up at the end of June. It would be great to know of what teachers around the world are doing–even simple stuff (it’s a learning curve for teachers too) and I’d be happy to share what I’ve seen.

    • Jamie Raskin says:

      Hey Genevieve,
      Thanks for the comment! I think this is a really interesting line of thought. I guess I’m interested in the discussion of financial literacy as one of no doubt many strands of re-prioritization of content for curriculum. I do think it’s crucial, for reasons including those you’ve mentioned. As a PYP curriculum school, mine creates an opening for it in the elementary through our “How we organize ourselves” transdisciplinary theme. I know we have one grade level who particularly focus on money for that unit of inquiry, but I think there should be other ways to get it in deeper and wider. I’d be really curious to hear what other sort of examples you’ve come across, and what approaches you’ve seen. Particularly for little people, as that’s where I spend most of my days! Are you updating your blog with those sorts of ideas? How do you imagine that might tie into your TED talk pitch?

  5. So how are we going to do this at YIS, because I’m totally on board. We do it at the higher levels, but I would love to see how it could be done with you in a transdisciplinary theme and how we could integrate it into our MYP curriculum. As someone who has taught the major exports of Bulgaria (b/c it was on an exam), this sounds much more important and vital to our student learning.

    • Jamie Raskin says:

      Yeah… I’ve been thinking about that too. I guess the “how we organize ourselves” theme caters well to economics, among other forms of social organization. In a way, I think the PYP structure caters fairly well to re-essentializing content and skills. I bet spending some time looking at a whole bunch of Scope and Sequence docs from other schools would suddenly give you insight into gaps in your own program of Inquiry.

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