The Research Files Episode 79: Improving students’ financial education

Hello, and thanks for listening to this episode of the Research Files, I’m Rebecca Vukovic.

Deakin University’s Economics + Maths = Financial Capability project set out to research what can be done differently to support secondary school teachers to prepare financially capable young people. In today’s episode, I’m joined by Dr Carly Sawatzki, a teacher educator and educational researcher in Deakin University’s School of Education, and a lead researcher on this project. She shares insights into what the key aims of the project are, some of the key findings to be published in their research report (which was released late last year), and discusses the state of financial education in schools across Australia. Perhaps most importantly for teachers and school leaders though, Carly also shares how opportunities for teaching and learning about finance are framed within the current and new versions of the Australian Curriculum, and provides examples of other educators teaching financial education exceptionally well. Let’s jump in.

Rebecca Vukovic: Dr Carly Sawatzki, thanks for joining Teacher magazine.

Carly Sawatzki: Thanks for having me on the program, Rebecca.

RV: We’re here today to talk about some of the findings from the Economics + Maths = Financial Capability Research Report, which was published late last year. To begin though, could you explain to listeners what the Economics + Maths = Financial Capability project is and what your key aims are?

CS: Sure, so despite significant investments by the Australian Government and the finance industry since the 2008 global financial crisis, 15-year-olds who complete the OECD PISA financial literacy assessment still report that their access to financial education at school varies. This project aimed to find out why, but also what can be done differently to ensure Australian students receive the financial education that they deserve.

So, we did a number of things. First, we examined educational research undertaken in Australia and overseas, looking for insights that might guide innovative new directions. We collected data via surveys and interviews with secondary school teachers and other education professionals working to make financial education better via roles within government agencies, universities, not-for-profit organisations, and professional teacher associations. We also hosted a virtual student summit, where we interacted with more than 100 15-16 year olds to find out about their financial world and what they want and need from their financial education at school.

Based on what we learned, we designed and tested a course to boost teachers’ knowledge and confidence for teaching students about finance in years 7-10. Modern financial contexts were central to the course design. From pocket money apps to Xbox and PlayStation gaming, we climbed a really steep learning curve ourselves, so that we could introduce teachers to the new ways young people are experiencing finance and give them strategies for planning programs and lessons around these modern examples.

RV: Fantastic. Let’s chat about the state of financial education in schools across Australia. What does the research say about students’ access to financial education, and their preparedness for the increasingly complex and digitised financial world?

CS: Well, we know that many young people are developing financial knowledge outside their school, mostly from their parents or other adult family members, and the internet. And when I talk about the internet, I’m referring to media but also social media ‘finfluencers’.

Our virtual student summit helped us gain a clear picture of the sorts of financial activities young people are involved in, and these insights can help inform school leaders and teachers in designing programs and lessons. So, for example, half of the young people we interacted with were earning money via a casual or part-time job, or side hustle. Some were working in family businesses, others were young entrepreneurs operating websites. Three in 5 were using a banking or pocket money app to keep track of their spending and had a budget or a plan to save money.

Unfortunately, one in 5 reported that they had lost money to a scam or been ripped off before. Nine in 10 told us they have a family member or friend they trust to ask for advice about money. Most students indicated receiving advice that emphasised what we might refer to as ‘responsible money management’. The vast majority were being encouraged to plan their financial behaviour and delay gratification.

However, one in 5 did not have access to conversations about money matters at home at all. Even so, most students believed that their parents or caregivers would want them to learn about money matters at school. Interestingly, when we asked students to rank 10 practical financial skills in order of importance, researching and understanding ‘fintech’ did not rate highly. So, this shows young people don’t know what they don’t know. So school leaders and teachers have to design programs and lessons that anticipate students’ learning needs. Now, because the financial landscape is dynamically changing, this is actually hard to do.

RV: Yeah, and I’d like to talk now a little bit now about how the world has changed so much in recent times, because the report outlines some of those key events that have taken place in the last 5 years alone – The Financial Services Royal Commission revealing widespread misconduct, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the economic and financial crisis that we’re currently experiencing. At the same time, students are being exposed to apps for things like sports betting, cryptocurrency and ‘by now pay later’ platforms. Of course, all of these examples expose students to new forms of financial risk and deception. In the report you say, ‘In this financial landscape, marginalised communities are particularly vulnerable and need sensitive and respectfully tailored financial education’. What do you mean by that?

CS: It’s a great question. So, young people are growing up in very different financial times to their teachers. Teachers and young people transact differently. So, teachers may be unfamiliar with the sorts of modern examples that might be meaningfully explored in the classroom. Also, Australian school students come from diverse backgrounds, and that means they have diverse money stories. So, a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to financial education tends to be disconnected from the everyday financial realities of marginalised communities – and that includes First Nations communities, culturally and linguistically diverse communities, high-poverty schools, and people with disabilities.

Now, the professional educators we spoke with understood the need to learn about young people’s financial worlds, as a first step towards being prepared to teach them more effectively. They wanted to build students’ awareness and scepticism. Through this project, we explored ways to do this. It might help if I talk about an example…

So, teachers told us that students want to ‘get rich quick’ and are interested in cryptocurrency. Cryptocurrency became a topic of conversation at the virtual student summit. We wanted to teach students how to read and interpret financial market graphs. Now, these feature on the finance report on the evening news, so there’s an aspect of media literacy that we were developing here. These sorts of graphs depict exchange rate calculations.

So, exploring Bitcoin pricing over time opened up conversations about things like volatility and profit and loss. But, it also opened up important conversations about regulation and risk. Trade of cryptocurrency is a largely unregulated process, and this leaves space for risky dealings. We know that crypto-crime is on the rise, with scammers creating fake cryptocurrency trading platforms or fake versions of official crypto wallets to exploit victims. Students were shocked to learn that Australians lost $99 million to crypto-asset scams in 2021.

Lessons like this are what we call ‘protective’, in that they give students a heads up about emerging financial risks that they might look out for.

RV: Okay, so this is what a more holistic and modern financial education would look like?

CS: Yes! So, the professional educators we spoke with expressed concern that the current approach to financial education at school is leaving too many young people inadequately prepared and vulnerable.

And students agreed. They believed that learning about the economy, and learning mathematics, can help them to make more informed financial decisions but they couldn’t see clear connections in their learning across these disciplines. Now, this is an all-too-common tale about connections between family, community and school life, and cross-curricular connections not being optimised.

Teachers were drawn to our course because they wanted fresh ideas and teaching strategies. And our course helped them make connections between curriculum, content and contexts across disciplines and in the real-world, just like the example we’ve just spoken about.

RV: Carly, throughout this project, you and your colleagues examined how opportunities for teaching and learning about finance are framed within the current and new versions of the Australian Curriculum. What did you find? And what can teachers do to better harness these opportunities?

CS: Okay so the Australian Curriculum definitely includes finance-related content. Let’s talk about the current version first. The most explicit framing is in The Humanities, where Economics & Business includes a focus on consumer finance, but also in Mathematics, where Number and Algebra includes a focus on money and financial mathematics.

However, financial education is typically viewed and enacted as a niche curriculum. So, this means that the curriculum is not being brought to life in ways that realise its full potential. It seems that the problem is not so much the written curriculum, but the enacted curriculum.

There are a couple of reasons why curriculum enactment is an issue. The first reason is that the current version of the Australian Curriculum is kind of reductive. In Mathematics, there’s one content description per year level. Another reason is that teachers with qualifications in Economics & Business tend to be assigned to teach year 11-12 exclusively, so their expertise is actually not available to year 7-10 students.

In Australia and overseas, staffing difficulties like this are necessitating out-of-field teaching assignments. So, you have out-of-field teachers doing their best to make sense of an area of the curriculum they lack knowledge and confidence in. As one participant told us, ‘If you’re not trained adequately, it’s just a blind spot… particularly in the Humanities, unless you’re trained to pick it up, you’re not going to see that it’s something that you should be thinking about.’

RV: That’s so interesting. OK, what about the revised Australian Curriculum?

CS: Okay, so Economics & Business is still core learning from year 5-8 and retains a focus on consumer finance. From year 9, schools can offer this as elective learning. Now, this is an issue – economics has a bit of an image problem, so many students don’t choose it. They simply don’t realise how important it is.

In Mathematics, the money and financial mathematics sub-strand has been removed. Now, some school leaders and teachers might interpret this to mean that financial education has been de-emphasised. The truth is, the discipline of Mathematics, and Mathematics teachers and teaching, really matter. Studies show a strong correlation between mathematical and financial literacies. Because Mathematics is core learning, Mathematics teachers can reach and teach more students.

In fact, the new Mathematics curriculum is more ambitious. There are more finance-related content descriptions and elaborations. The achievement standards from years 2-10 specify teaching and learning about money and financial contexts. So, there is the expectation that students will learn how to apply Mathematics to real-world problems.

As teachers report against these achievement standards, this shift in framing should lead to more explicit teaching about finance, particularly when teaching students ratio, proportion, rate, and percentage. These mathematical concepts can be applied to a wide range of financial contexts, like interest rates, inflation, wage growth, taxation, loan products, superannuation, and investments.

There are so many things that teachers can plan to do with students: like teach them mental computation strategies for keeping track of cashless transactions; teaching them how to read, interpret, and create comparison tables, spreadsheets, graphs where they see representations of financial information; and teaching them how to undertake statistical investigations to better understand issues like the gender pay and superannuation gap.

So, the revised Australian Curriculum has the potential to mark the start of a new era in financial education if school leaders and teachers get expert guidance and education around curriculum enactment.

RV: There’s so much potential there for teachers and school leaders. Now Carly, I want to talk about the way you interacted with stakeholders across the education community over the course of the project, because I understand you spoke to secondary school teachers and students. I’m wondering, did you uncover any examples of teachers or school communities that were delivering financial education exceptionally well? And if so, could you tell me more about them?

CS: Well, all of the teachers we interacted with over the course of the project tended to be committed financial educators already, but Rebekah and Owen stand out. They were encouraged to enrol in our course by senior leaders within the ACT Education Directorate. Rebekah leads the Humanities program, and Owen is a leading teacher of Mathematics. Their school received financial support for 4 teachers to undertake professional learning and also access time release, so that they could work together to review and revise the year 9 and 10 offerings. They came to the course ambitious to enhance the numeracy learning available to students and looking for research insights and practical lesson ideas.

They are now co-designing lessons where mathematical concepts can be explicitly taught wherever work and financial contexts are being explored within the Humanities. Their goal is to better connect students’ mathematical and real worlds to keep them more meaningfully engaged in learning Mathematics for longer.

Now, Rebekah and Owen identify that the success of this approach will rely on the Mathematics team coaching their Humanities colleagues, so that they feel confident to teach in this way – because it’s kind of out of their comfort zone. They also want to engage the school community in their planning, so that families have opportunities to contribute ideas and learn together with their teenagers.

What’s great about this example is it shows the importance of system and school-level support for teacher professional learning and interdisciplinary collaboration. The ACT Education Directorate has plans to share and celebrate Rebekah and Owen’s work as a leading example from which others can learn.

Of course, collegial practice of this nature relies on the availability of opportunities and time for teachers with complementary knowledge to form relationships and join forces to strengthen existing programs and lessons, and even design new offerings. In fact, many of the teachers we spoke with wanted support to tap into knowledge networks within their schools in exactly this way.

RV: That’s a really fantastic example there. So Carly, one of the key questions that you posed in this report was, ‘what can be done differently to ensure Australian students receive the financial education that they deserve?’ I’m wondering, did you find an answer to that question? And if so, what implications does this have for teachers and school leaders?

CS: With the right support, school leaders and teachers can tailor programs and lessons to local circumstances, learning needs and interests. The question is, what’s the right support? As one of our participants said: ‘We’re only ever going to improve education in Australia if we improve the quality of teaching. And that means teaching teachers. So, it’s about teacher education, teacher professional learning.’

This project showed that investing in teacher knowledge pays dividends. Our course achieved its aim of boosting teachers’ knowledge and confidence to teach about finance. The vast majority of teachers reported that the course strengthened their classroom teaching and prepared them to influence improvements to their school’s programs. These results were achieved in a relatively short period of time – 6 sessions over a 12-week period. So, you see, when teachers have expert mentoring, they can be powerful change-makers.

RV: Fantastic. Well Dr Carly Sawatzki, thank you for sharing your research and your insights with Teacher magazine.

CS: It’s my pleasure.

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Sawatzki, C., Brown, J., Powers., T., Prins, R., & Zmood, S. (2022). Economics + Maths = Financial Capability Research Report.

In this podcast, Carly Sawatski answers the following question: ‘What can be done differently to ensure Australian students receive the financial education that they deserve?’

As an educator, how would you go about answering that question? What support or guidance do you need to improve the way you deliver financial education to your students?