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Financial literacy is no myth. It is a social obligation.

Barry McKenna, writing in the Globe and Mail, came out quite critical of efforts to take steps to improve financial literacy – calling them a “smokescreen” to cover over others steps he feels should be taken.

Certainly one can be supportive of some of what Mr. McKenna is advocating – more clarity in disclosure, better pension planning, etc. But to advocate for such at the same time as he puts down efforts to provide a financial education for our children seems misguided. Do we really want to argue that sustained financial ignorance is a good thing?

Unquestionably, the Task Force on Financial Literacy brought this important topic to the forefront. Without it, Mr. McKenna’s article and this one would not be engaging in healthy debate. As for financial institutions, their efforts are largely implemented via NGO partners – like CFEE. So criticize us if things don’t work – but also give some credit when they do – such as getting over 250,000 copies of our Money and Youth book into use in schools.

Mr. McKenna says past efforts to teach financial literacy have not been successful. Might it be that many past efforts weren’t doing it right? Chances of that are very high.

He also argues that it is equivalent to trying to teach someone to be their own brain surgeon. Well, students may not become brain surgeons, but they can be taught in school to look after their health and physical fitness. Similarly, we aren’t trying to turn them into accountants or financial advisers, but we can teach them the basics, build their self-confidence to ask questions, to be better able to manage their financial affairs, and to be less vulnerable to those who want to try and take advantage of them.

Although other actions may be needed, surely to goodness leaving our children financially ignorant is not one of them. Much has been learned from past efforts – and we now need to do what we can to get it right.

Step one – determine what is important to teach – the right knowledge, skills, and behaviours to integrate.

Step two – identify where financial education best fits into the existing curriculum. Some argue for a stand-alone high school course in financial education. Research has shown that, on their own, such courses are treated like many others by students with information going into one ear and out the other. Effective learning needs to be progressive, developmental, and integrated effectively over the school years – from elementary to high school.

Step three – teachers need to be trained and supported – with resources, professional development, and on-going assistance. Effective teachers are the most important element for success in the schools.

It will be vitally important to take the time to integrate financial education effectively. We cannot scramble to throw it into place. That will not work. And it risks creating the view – such as Mr. McKenna’s – that it can’t be done.

I believe if we undertake a coordinated, sustained effort we can achieve similar results as for environmental education. We can make a difference and have an impact. This process may take a little longer but it is the right way to do it. Yes, other things need to be done too. But accepting financial ignorance as a viable option for our children is not a sound position. We need to help them build successful futures – and providing them with a basic financial education is surely one of our social obligations.

By Gary Rabbior
Canadian Foundation for Economic Education (CFEE)

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