My conversations and interactions this week with a Primerica financial representative and their training group here in the Oklahoma City area have me thinking a lot more about my own personal finances, as well as our need to help students learn concrete, practical lessons about responsible finance decisions while they are still in school. After twittering about these subjects this morning, I was delighted to read Diana Laufenberg’s post “Personal Economics,” in which she describes the approach her middle school teaching team has taken toward addressing these learning needs. Diana wrote:
The credit crisis in America should give rise to a larger conversation about teaching and practicing the skills of personal economics in a much more deliberate and meaningful way for students. The lack of money sense and restraint has contributed to the current national money debacle. There are some very simple but effective ways to bring basic concepts and habits of practice to our young people. This has to be one of the most relevant lessons that can be taught to all students and KNOW that they will need it as the years pass.
Kudos to Diana and her teaching team for taking the time and spending the effort it takes to implement their homegrown financial education program in school. I know I learned a great deal about personal finance growing up and even in college, but still managed to acquire a sizable amount of unsecured debt and make some financial decisions I now regret. We, in the United States, live in an extremely toxic culture when it comes to the goal of encouraging responsible financial decisions. Everywhere you turn, particularly in the advertising world, everyone seems to be trying to help you feel unhappy and unsatisfied, and convinced that purchasing THINGS can somehow fill this void of emptiness. Our culture constantly promotes immediate gratification, self-medication, and the act of shopping as the supreme outlet for entertainment as well as psychological needs. Within this context, it is extremely challenging to help people (young and old) learn to make and practice good financial discipline.
When I heard Rafe Esquith share the closing keynote address at TCEA back in 2006 (“There are no Shortcuts”) I was not only impressed by the musical and theatrical performances of his students, but was also amazed by the way he devised and implemented a classroom system for helping students learn the value of money and responsible money management. Living as many of us do in toxic educational environments with unhealthy emphases on high stakes testing, it can be easy to lose sight of the importance of these kinds of practical life lessons. Yet in addition to the lessons of respect and mutual care for classmates, lessons about money and personal finance have to rank high on a short list of topics most parents would love to see their children learn as a result of their school experiences.
Learning in an abstract sense, when it comes to money and personal finances, is not enough. I’ve read Napoleon Hill’s book “Think and Grow Rich” and most of “Rich Dad Poor Dad” by Robert Kiyosaki and Sharon L. Lechter. That does NOT mean, however, I have cultivated the practical discipline and habits required to responsibly manage my personal finances today and in the future.
Thankfully, none of us are limited to the lessons which our teachers provide us in a classroom context, and the open door of literacy and reading can provide unlimited paths to other learning experiences. The face-to-face experiences we have in the classroom can be transformative, however, and I encourage other teachers who may have contemplated a program focusing on personal finance to review the one Diana and her fellow teachers are implementing. No curricular program is going to provide “the magic key of financial learning” which will work for every student, but it IS important that teachers attempt to find concrete ways to help students learn these lessons themselves at an experiential level.
A brief look at our financial headlines lately drives home the importance of these themes. Michelle Singletary’s weekend financial editorial for the Washington Post, “Debt Addicts Get A Dose of Reality,” includes an eye opening interview with Stuart Vyse, author of ““Going Broke: Why Americans Can’t Hold On To Their Money.” Vyse states:
I think we mostly face greater temptations today. Earlier generations did not have to contend with Internet shopping, credit cards that are widely available, catalogues combined with 800 numbers, and a consumer economy that depends on everybody spending. At the same time, saving has gone out of fashion. The current generation has not acquired the habit.
Habits of mind and habits of action are CRITICAL to develop when we are young. We need more teachers like Diana willing to implement financial education programs during a school day already filled with competing priorities. I hope my own children will be fortunate enough to have teachers who find ways like Diana’s team have to provide students with practical learning experiences with personal finance.
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