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4 Ways Schools Can Teach Kids About the Economy

Young people starting out in life encounter many situations that require a basic grasp of economics and finance, from taking out college loans to getting a first credit card to opening up a Roth IRA. But a recent report from the National Center for Education Statistics suggests that more than half of today’s students leave high school without a solid understanding of how the money and the economy work.

At AIER, we’re determined to change that. Here are just a few of our initiatives aimed at helping young people strengthen their financial and economic literacy:

  • Career days that invite high school students to visit our campus and talk to our researchers about what economists actually do, how their work helps the economy function better, and how to think critically and scientifically about real-world issues like the minimum wage debate.
  • Participating in pre-school programs that help prepare young children to make smart financial decisions in their futures. (One accessible, age-appropriate ways to talk to four-year-olds about money?  The Berenstain Bears’ Dollars and Sense, which Research Fellow Natalia Smirnova read to a pre-school class just last month.)
  • Partnering with Jump$tart, a national coalition of organizations that teaches pre-school through college-age students about financial literacy.
  • Visiting high school economics classes to talk to students about the best ways to obtain economic data and research—and how to apply that information.
  • And starting this fall, we’re launching a year-long internship program for students from local high schools and community colleges. With once-a-week visits to the Institute to meet with our economists and plenty of hands-on research experience, the internships will supplement students’ academic understanding of economics with observations of the everyday functions of the economic think tank.

Clearly, talking to young people about money is one of our passions. With that in mind, I asked a few of AIER’s researchers: How can schools improve economic education?

1. Make Economics Engaging

Zinnia Mukherjee, Research Fellow

Freshmen in college often say economics courses are dry and boring—all about graphs and equations. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Often, it’s the teaching methods that make the subject matter seem dull to a young student. If high school students can have fun learning basic economics, they are more likely to continue pursuing economic knowledge after they leave school and become more aware about economic affairs around them.

One way to make economics more accessible for young students is to use lots of examples that high school students can relate to. If I start the class with a discussion of economic facts of the recent European crisis or the recent policy of the Federal Reserve Bank, many students will not be able to connect with it. Even those who study hard and get good grades may soon forget the information, since they never really enjoyed the learning process and the subject matter.

However, if I start a class with a couple of stories that connect with them, and then relate the stories to broader economic concepts and issues, they are more likely to remember the subject matter. At some point in their lives, they might even start to use that basic knowledge to learn more about the economy around them and make good choices for themselves and those who depend on them.

Similarly, teachers can design games to simulate a market. Students can actively take on the roles of consumers and producers, make choices as they would in a real market, and then learn about the effects of different choices.

2. Required Reading

Julie Ni Zhu, Research Analyst

One thing schools should do is require students to read The Merchant of Venice, Freakonomics, and local newspapers. The Merchant of Venice helps people understand how borrowing and lending worked in the past, Freakonomics helps them grasp economic reasoning, and local newspapers help them apply economic knowledge to real-world events.

3.Offer internships and summer classes.

Jia Liu, Research Fellow

There is no doubt that we should expose high school students to economics more before they graduate. One idea could be to create more summer internship programs like AIER’s, or to offer summer classes in economics that would count toward school credit. Students write some reports about current economic events and give their opinions on them. That’s the beauty of economics: Everyone gets their own opinions on the economy, no matter what their background is.

The most important thing, in my opinion, is to inspire high school students with economic material. If they find themselves interested, they can always learn more in college.

4. Merge theory and practice.

Anca Cojoc, Research Fellow

I think an elective high school course that combines the history of economic thought with daily economics (i.e. Freakonomics type of stuff) would be a great idea. That way, students could get to enjoy economics and look forward to being exposed to more of it in college.

As schools implement economics curriculums, they also need to think about how to assess their effectiveness. For example, do people who are exposed to economics in high school make better decisions about their lives going forward?

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