Money Matters

Teacher training and technology can be essential to improved financial literacy for students. 

GUEST COLUMN | by Odysseas Papadimitriou

CREDIT WalletHubFinancial illiteracy is not an issue that can be addressed in a single month. Just consider the way we spent ourselves into a Great Recession, how we’ve racked up more than $118 billion in new credit card debt since the recession’s official end, and the fact that we owe more than $1 trillion to student lenders. We’ve got some serious issues. Our prospects for the future don’t provide a great deal of reassurance either, as 70% of American parents say their children do not know the basics of money management.

So, even though National Financial Literacy Month has given way to May, we must not lose sight of our financial future. The question is how to reverse course.

It makes sense that we familiarize young people with the tools of the contemporary personal finance trade.

There’s certainly no shortage of suggestions these days, as financial literacy has turned into something of a hot-button issue in the wake of the Great Recession. The overarching sentiment, however, seems to be that teachers and technology are both essential to breeding future generations of financially responsible Americans. And that, of course, means improved teacher training is more necessary than ever.

The Case for Improved Teacher Training

“Financial concepts should be taught from kindergarten to 12th grade,” says Anand Reddy Marri, a financial literacy expert and professor at the Teachers College, Columbia University. “We need to focus a lot more on getting teachers to understand economic literacy because it’s exponential. One teacher in New York City has 150 high school kids a day.”

The problem, according to Marri and other experts, is that many teachers do not feel comfortable teaching financial topics. “Most teachers are afraid of economic topics, period,” Marri says. “Less than 20% of teachers have taken more than one economics course in their undergraduate days.”

The same relationship appears to exist between teachers and technology as well. Classrooms are becoming increasingly high-tech, yet many teachers aren’t using the new gadgets to maximum capability.

“Smart boards are very popular in schools now, and often teachers use them as display boards,” says Babette Moeller, senior research scientist with the Center for Children & Technology. “They don’t really make use of the interactive nature of the medium, or, let students interact with the smart board. It’s all very teacher-driven, while the technology makes it possible to make learning a lot more interactive and have students more actively involved.”

That’s why Steven J. McGriff, professor in residence at Foothill College’s Krause Center for Innovation, believes that we need to “train teachers and parents along with students on digital literacy – the ability to use digital tools with critical thinking and analytic skills.”

Critical thinking – rather than the memorization of facts – is critical to learning any subject, and technology is integral to the contemporary personal finance landscape. School systems that want to improve their financial literacy curricula would therefore be well-served to double down on teacher training first.

The Technology-Financial Literacy Connection

From banking apps and automated transactions to high-frequency stock trading, emerging technologies are fundamental to the way we do business these days. It therefore makes sense that we familiarize young people with the tools of the contemporary personal finance trade. This can actually start far earlier than you might think too.

Most experts believe that personal finance should be incorporated into the curricula as early as kindergarten, but none of them think the subject matter should be complex at that point. Rather than trying to educate six-year-olds about using a credit card or taking out a mortgage – skills they won’t need for years – we need to introduce core concepts like the value of a dollar and the importance of saving in a fun and engaging manner.

How? Well, a number of highly-acclaimed financial literacy games have emerged in the wake of the Great Recession for the express purpose of giving teachers and parents a means to provide young people with a strong money management foundation on which to build. Using any of the following such games/smart-phone apps is therefore a great Trojan-horse approach to setting the financial literacy table at an early age.

  • Financial Football: A joint venture from Visa and the National Football League, Financial Football requires students to correctly answer personal finance questions in order to advance down the field and score touchdowns.
  • Savings Spree: Winner of the Parents’ Choice Gold Award, Savings Spree enables students to track budgeting and savings goals in order to learn how day-to-day decisions have far-reaching repercussions.
  • Unleash the Loot!: Requires students to save money in order to rescue animals and build an environmentally-friendly tree house.
  • P2K Money: Enables students to track their allowances and save up to purchase items off their wish list.

More advanced apps and games – such as Mindblown Life and various investment simulators – have their place in the financial education of older students as well, but practicality also becomes increasingly important as kids age.

On the home front, that means giving your kids experience using a prepaid card, a checking account and a credit card while the stakes are still low. At school, teachers need to weave personal finance and economics into their curricula – whether they are teaching math, history, English or music. Every subject has its fair share of financial undertones, and covering them will not only provide students with a more thorough education, but it will also give teachers a more engaged audience while enabling them to effectively kill two birds with one stone.

“Kids are interested in money, and we should use their interest to teach them something about earning, saving, spending, setting goals and so forth,” says Mary Suiter, assistant vice president and economic education officer at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. “We would never wait until their senior year of high school to teach students everything they should know about mathematics, science, or any other discipline.”

Such integrative education is especially important in the 33 states that do not have a personal finance requirement of some sort already built into their public school curricula.

Odysseas Papadimitriou is CEO of the personal finance social network WalletHub & the credit card comparison website CardHub. He previously worked as a senior director at Capital One.

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