"Would you go to school if you didn't have to?" Deanna Brajcich, a teacher at Wishart Elementary School in Victoria, recently asked her Grade 5 class.
The answers were not what Ms. Brajcich, the president of the British Columbia Association of Mathematics Teachers, expected. Most said yes – for reasons like the ability to eventually get a good job, support their future families, buy a home and have a better life.
Coming from 10-year-olds, that kind of mature, long-term thinking makes lemonade-stand lessons in counting correct change or early-entrepreneurial training through paper routes seem quaintly obsolete.
Children preparing for their financial future portends well for B.C.'s ambitious new curriculum, which includes mandatory financial literacy instruction within math courses at every grade level. Financial literacy teaching is being implemented from kindergarten to Grade 9 now, with the new Grade 10 curriculum set for use in the 2018-2019 school year, and the Grades 11-12 curriculum currently in draft form and expected to be implemented in the 2019-20 school year.
Some financial education has long been included in B.C. schools, within subjects such as health, career, social studies, math and Planning 10, a life-skills course that has included mandatory financial literacy education since 2004. Rather than being spread out across a number of curricular areas, financial literacy was highlighted in the new math curriculum, says the B.C. Ministry of Education, to help students "become financially literate and able to make sound financial decisions."
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B.C. will collect ongoing feedback from teachers and monitor performance provincially, nationally and internationally. Financial literacy is already measured by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test for 15-year-olds. In 2015, B.C. students had the best results of any province, with 90 per cent showing financial literacy at the minimum level required for modern life, versus 87 per cent in the rest of Canada, and an average of 78 per cent in other countries.
Ms. Brajcich says teachers have always used money to teach concepts like decimal places, but financial literacy today "isn't just about coins and money … the focus now is the beliefs and behaviours around money." That's essential in a world where money is increasingly an abstract concept, with many household purchases made online or with debit and credit cards. "That's an important change and probably part of the reasons [financial literacy] has been put in curriculum in B.C. and around the world," Ms. Brajcich says, citing Australia, Singapore and Britain as countries leading financial literacy in schools.
As B.C. teachers implement the new curriculum, some are finding it integrates well with subjects beyond math. Isabel Alberto, a Grade 1 teacher at Coldstream Elementary School in Vernon, B.C., uses social studies to introduce the idea of needs and wants, and the influence of marketing. In math, she uses activities like a pirate-themed lesson to get kids thinking about how the value of treasure-chest items differs, and why. "Then you can introduce the idea of money and coins," she says. "The beautiful part of financial literacy is that the kids are super interested; they want to be involved."
By tackling not just money but our underlying financial attitudes and beliefs, B.C. isn't just creating smart consumers. Canadian household debt levels are at an all-time high, with Statscan reporting that Canadians have $1.68 in credit-market debt for every dollar of disposable income. According to the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada, "Financial literacy is a vital skill for individuals' financial well-being and can also have broader economic implications: poor financial knowledge and decision making can affect both the individual's future and the national economy."
Scott Hannah, president and CEO of the New Westminster, B.C.-based national Credit Counselling Society, sees the repercussions of poor financial literacy every day, in the form of calls to its help lines from Canadians whose debts have become unmanageable. "We see young people, especially millennials, struggling." Ballooning credit card and student debt "has a big impact on starting [adult] life."
As long-time advocates for consistent, early financial literacy teaching that builds from grade to grade, his organization ran two successful pilot projects in elementary schools. In Surrey, 8- and 9-year-olds used a class holiday party as a "teachable moment" in financial planning, coming up with innovative strategies like selling popcorn for profit to increase the party's modest budget, and giving part of the proceeds to charity.
Yet Mr. Hannah and others point to the need for such lessons to be modelled and reinforced by parents at home.
Math teacher Ms. Brajcich says, "Whenever something's added to the curriculum, I worry that things that traditionally happened at home land on the back of teachers." She points out that resources and funding haven't necessarily been put in place to support teachers through the change in curriculum.
The BCAMT offers grants to teacher groups developing resources, and the B.C. Teachers' Federation matches local or district funds. Textbook companies are playing catch-up, and many school districts don't have the funds for new books or the technology to access online programs.
Some financial industry groups are helping fill the gap. A decade ago, the B.C. Securities Commission (BCSC) created a financial literacy program for teens called The City, now bilingual and run online by the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada. Pamela McDonald, director of communications and education for the BCSC, says, "As a securities regulator, part of our mandate is investor protection and education. We wanted to support the government in delivering Planning 10, so what we did is build that for the government."
Today, teachers can access free programs like Our Business World, a Junior Achievement (JA) program for Grades 5 and 6 that teaches how a company operates and gets students to consider starting a business.
"We have programs that focus a little more on entrepreneurship or running businesses, but all of them have some financial literacy in them," says JA British Columbia President Sheila Biggers. "The idea of how to balance a chequebook speaks to a company's balance sheet. When to borrow, when not to borrow, how to make spending decisions – it all goes from what we teach to run a business."
There's clearly a need: Junior Achievement (JA) – which has a robust presence in B.C., its first Canadian outpost – delivered 1,500 programs to 40,000 students last year. Those can be teacher led in classrooms, extra-curricular or delivered by JA volunteers who are working business professionals.
Previously an associate dean at the Sauder School of Business at UBC, she says: "Teachers are brilliant at what they do: they teach. But they can bring some experts in from industry, to bring the more practical aspects of what needs to be taught. We're just enhancing what the teachers can bring."
To a future generation of employees and entrepreneurs, Ms. Biggers says that no matter how great your idea or dream, "If you don't have financial literacy, it's not going anywhere."
Financial literacy curriculum
These are the financial literacy concepts now mandatory for children to learn in math class in B.C.'s new curriculum.
– Names and identification of Canadian coins.
– Role-playing financial transactions (such as a bakery, restaurant or store), using whole numbers to combine purchases and integrating the concept of wants and needs.
– Token value (trading).
– Identifying values of coins.
– Counting multiples of the same coin denomination.
– Money as a medium of exchange.
– Role-playing financial transactions (using coins and whole numbers), integrating the concept of wants and needs.
– Trade games, with understanding that objects have variable value.
– Counting simple mixed coin combinations to 100 cents.
– Spending and saving, integrating the concept of wants and needs.
– Role-playing financial transactions (using bills and coins).
– Counting coins and bills to $100.
– Understanding payments (cash, cheques, credit, electronic transactions, goods and services).
– Earning money to reach a financial goal.
– First Peoples trade, sample items and values.
– Real-life and problem-based monetary calculations, including making change with amounts to $100.
– Strategies like counting up, counting back and decomposing to calculate totals and make change.
– Making simple financial decisions (earning, spending, saving and giving).
– Equitable trade rules.
– Real-life and problem-based monetary calculations, including making change with amounts to $1,000.
– Strategies like counting up, counting back and decomposing to calculate totals and make change.
– Developing simple financial plans to meet a financial goal.
– Developing a budget that accounts for income and expenses.
– Simple budgeting and consumer math (e.g. How many weeks of allowance will it take to buy a bicycle?).
– Financial percentage calculations (sales tax, tips, discounts, sale prices).
– Best buys (coupons, proportions, unit price, products and services).
– Proportional reasoning strategies (unit rate, equivalent fractions based on price and quantity).
– Simple budgets and transactions (banking, interest, savings, planned purchases).
– Creating a budget/plan to host a First Peoples event.
– Income and savings using compound interest.
– Taxes and deductions.
– Investments and loans.
– Personal budgeting, investing, borrowing.
"The forthcoming Grade 10-12 curriculum will ensure that regardless of the pathway chosen by a student, there will be a common experience in mathematics which includes financial literacy," says the B.C. Ministry of Education.
*curriculum currently in draft form
Sources: B.C. Ministry of Education, https://curriculum.gov.bc.ca