Teaching financial literacy requires more than adding financial literacy to kids' school curriculum. It also means offering teachers professional development to ensure they're equipped.
As Canadians await their first federal budget since the pandemic, people across the country may be paying more attention than usual to their personal finances. Some, especially young people and precarious workers, are struggling with ongoing unemployment, lost income and rising debt. But those fortunate enough to have uninterrupted sources of income and jobs have likely seen their savings increase.
How quickly people recover financially from the crisis — or lose the gains they made — may depend on their level of financial literacy.
Financial literacy includes awareness and understanding of concepts related to personal finances, such as compound interest, and the skill and confidence to apply them in making personal financial decisions. Saving for both long-term goals and unforeseen emergencies is part of being financially literate.
We surveyed 157 Ontario elementary school teachers on their perceptions, attitudes and practices with respect to financial literacy education in the 2017-18 school year. We found they overwhelmingly favour teaching financial literacy in elementary school. Teachers who responded to the survey identified several benefits of financial literacy education, including learning to budget and plan for the future. But they also identified barriers to teaching financial literacy.
Since we completed our research in June 2020, Ontario announced a new math curriculum that includes grades 1 to 8 mandatory financial learning. The province now mandates financial literacy education and provides resources to support teaching this.
But based on our findings, we believe that teachers need professional development to support their efforts to teach financial literacy, whether in Ontario or elsewhere.
Financial literacy across Canada
Five years ago, the federal government launched the National Strategy for Financial Literacy, which is currently under review. The strategy’s goals are to empower Canadians to manage money and debt wisely and plan and save for the future.
One way to promote financial literacy is to teach it in school. A benefit of this approach is that it provides everyone the opportunity to develop financial literacy, regardless of their families’ current income or wealth.
Experts agree that to change spending and saving habits, financial literacy education must start early — preferably in elementary school.
Prior to introducing the new math curriculum, Ontario elementary teachers were expected to make connections to financial literacy in all subjects starting in Grade 4, but how to do so was mostly left up to the teacher.
Sponsored financial literacy materials
In our study of financial literacy resources aimed at elementary students and teachers, we found that the content of financial literacy teaching materials does not vary significantly based on who made or paid for them.
But materials made or paid for by financial institutions are more likely to focus on individual responsibility over social circumstances, like a pandemic. Focusing on individual responsibility without discussing social factors is likely to undermine the value of these lessons for students whose circumstances make it harder for their family to save money and avoid debt.
Ontario’s financial literacy curriculum mentions the importance of acknowledging social factors that can affect personal finances, and the province provides resources for teachers in this area.
But how teachers implement curriculum expectations and the resources used are ultimately up to the classroom teacher. Often teachers adapt resources they find to their classroom context.
Give teachers professional development
For this reason, we believe government investment in teachers’ professional development in financial literacy may be necessary to improve their comfort and capacities with financial literacy education.
Our research found that teachers expressed a strong desire for professional development related to teaching financial literacy. Our concern is that without more detailed guidance and professional development, teachers may continue to rely on the materials they can access freely online whether or not they’re recommended by the Ministry of Education, possibly to the detriment of financially vulnerable students.
Teaching financial literacy in elementary school can help all students, regardless of their current circumstances, to develop the knowledge, skills and confidence to manage their money as adults.
But achieving this goal requires more than adding financial literacy to the mandatory school curriculum. It also requires providing teachers with the right supports. These include access to professional development to make teachers comfortable teaching financial concepts. This will help ensure all students have the level of financial literacy necessary to manage, as best they can, the next crisis.