Should we give up on financial literacy? Are you kidding me?

Financial Capability CFEE11.01.19

So here we are the start of another school year. For a brief period each year, the media and others focus on issues pertaining to schooling and what we teach our kids.

Let’s suppose for a moment that it had been decided that, starting this September, all grade 12 students in Ontario should learn how to code – a skill regarded as important in this digital, computer-filled world.

Now, unless your teachers were different than mine, most didn’t have a background in coding. Immediately, though, we would need thousands of teachers teaching kids how to code. Imagine the chaos unleashed as schools scramble to put such a required program in place.

Let’s now jump ahead to the end of the school year. Naturally there would be an interest in the impact of the program – how many students are now able to code, what are their coding abilities, how much are they applying coding in their lives, and so on. With so many students learning from those who have never learned how to code, let alone teach others how to code, what do you think those evaluation results would show? Likely not stellar performance.

Consequently, should we abandon efforts to teach students coding if we believe it is an important skill? I would think not. I would think the focus should be on how to support the professional development of teachers, support them with quality resources and improve, over time, coding skills.

Yet, on August 29th The Globe and Mail ran an article by Preet Banerjee entitled “Should we give up on financial literacy?” Preet, a very knowledgeable financial authority and should-be-if-he-is-not-educator, cited the 2014 research by Fernandez, Lynch, and Netemeyer that has been cited by so many to make a case AGAINST financial education in our schools. They concluded that financial education had virtually no impact and that students retained very little to apply in their lives.

I have long taken issue with the findings of their research and often let the citings go, hoping they would pass quickly and, like their findings, have little impact. But Preet’s article was the proverbial last straw.

Any quality research that is going to generate headlines based upon the output of research should also focus on the inputs. If a student isn’t learning, retaining and applying what is taught, might we not be wise to look at the quality and nature of instruction? Think back to the many courses you took that had virtually no impact on your life – or where the knowledge shared somehow magically passed from one ear through to the exiting passageway of the other.

Now think back to the courses that had impact and, in whatever way, affected your life, your education, and your career choices. What was likely the most consequential factor? If you are like most, it was a teacher – or a number of teachers.

Teachers have the greatest impact on our education, more than any other factor. They capture our attention.  They challenge us. They inspire us. They make us think – and apply our thoughts to real-world challenges and questions.

Without a trained, capable, and motivated teacher, I challenge you to find any subject of instruction that has impact.

Therefore, if I could, I would challenge the researchers to share with me the quality of instruction that students received in their financial education classes. Were the teachers well-trained and well-equipped? Without information on the quality of the input into instruction, I would challenge the validity of any output conclusions.

I agree whole-heartedly with one of the world’s leading financial educators cited by Preet in his article – Anna-Maria Lusardi. I know Anna and respect her work greatly, as do a great many others in the financial education field around the world. She argues that financial education should be compulsory, that it  does work, and can positively impact the lives of students. I fully support her views.

I have been working in the field for more than 35 years and have seen the evolution of financial education from non-existent to a priority for our schools. I applaud the Ontario Ministry of Education for the new Grade 10 Career Studies course that includes a compulsory financial literacy component. It doesn’t cover all the important elements of financial education – a half credit course could never be expected to do that.  But it is a good start.

Similar efforts are underway all across Canada. But all such efforts face one common challenge. The vast majority of teachers have never been trained to teach kids about money, managing their finances, and developing effective financial management skills. Why would they? It has not been in the school curriculum in the past so teachers were not trained to teach it. So it is not their fault. What is needed is help and support for them.

Financial education should be a crucial and compulsory part of our students’ education. Our organization, the Canadian Foundation for Economic Education (CFEE), has recently been working with organizations like CAMH – the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. We have been looking more closely into the link between financial health/well-being and general and mental health/well-bring. And the links are many and significant.

If you are like most people, you know of others who live with persistent financial stress and anxiety – stress that impacts family life, work, personal happiness, social relationships, and so on.  You may even be one of those people. Financial stress, especially if persistent and significant, can manifest itself in mental problems and physical ill-health.

Do you not think it is possible for us to teach our kids how to manage money and finances in life to be able to avoid the stress and anxieties that so many Canadians face today? We can teach our kids how to differentiate needs and wants. We can teach them about the influencers in their lives that will try and make them believe a want is a need and they really have to buy a certain item. We can teach them that every financial decision entails a trade-off – giving up something else today or in the future for what they buy today. They can learn that, through deferred gratification, they can build up savings to acquire things that are really important to them – and that will help them achieve their goals. We can teach them the importance of staying in control of your finances – setting your own limits – and not letting others tell you how much you can borrow or spend, which can push you beyond your comfortable stress limit.

We can teach them the importance of assigning value to non-material things – friendships, relationships and simply feeling happy.  We can teach them about the importance of compassion and why some are better off than others and how, if they wish, to be able to help others in need.

In short, we can teach these outcomes, and others, which, if taught well, can be life-changing.  They can certainly have impact that will be retained when life decisions become more challenging, complex and significant.  We can teach them financial skills and behaviours to accompany knowledge.  And skills and behaviours will be retained much more than knowledge.

In conclusion, we should not give up on financial literacy.  Heck, we have barely started. What we have to do is to do it well – train our teachers, support them, and provide them with quality resources – including life-relevant simulations which are likely to have the greatest impact and retention.

If we combine quality curriculum with quality resources and effective teacher training and professional development, I would argue that financial education would rival any other subject in terms of long-term importance in a young person’s life. I applaud provincial efforts to include more financial education. But new curriculum is just the start.  There is much more work to be done to achieve the successful outcome we aspire to: that today’s youth will build successful, happy financial futures, living within their means, staying in control, and being confident that they can set their goals and achieve them.

By Gary Rabbior
Canadian Foundation for Economic Education

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