finacial literacy, making cents of it all, by Michael Benedict

Roger Welham, OCT, walked somewhat apprehensively into his Grade 11 Canadian Law classroom. He was about to deliver a lesson on citizen rights and freedoms with real-life content, introducing his dozen students to some basic financial literacy concepts — part of a new Ontario Ministry of Education initiative for all students in all subjects between Grades 4 and 12.

“I had no idea how the kids would react,” Welham said afterwards. “I didn’t know how much they knew or how interested they were. Turns out they knew quite a bit — and were curious to learn more.”

Ontario is not the only jurisdiction to recognize the growing importance of financial literacy — the knowledge and skills required to make informed financial decisions. In other words, students are expected to learn the basics about how our financial system works, the consequences of individual spending and the importance of saving and planning for one’s financial future.

A few years ago, all members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, including Canada, agreed to promote financial literacy for their entire populations. The subsequent worldwide economic recession and its aftermath have made the subject even more important, particularly for the young.

For its part, Ontario’s Ministry of Education established a private-public task force on the matter. In 2010, the group’s A Sound Investment report recommended that financial literacy be a compulsory part of the Ontario curriculum. In response, the Ministry instead adopted “an integrated approach based on the current curriculum,” and for the past 18 months has been developing resources to help teachers bring financial literacy meaningfully into the classroom.

Welham, who teaches at Toronto’s Georges Vanier SS, is among a growing number of educators who realize that it is just as important that students understand how to navigate our financial system, as it is that they appreciate, say, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The trick is how best to incorporate financial literacy into classroom subjects where, at first blush, the material might appear to be a stretch.

For his Canadian Law class, Welham shows how Ontario’s Consumer Protection Act, like the Charter, establishes a series of citizen rights. “Students need to know about their rights as consumers, along with the pitfalls, when purchasing merchandise and signing contracts, like for cellphones or a gym,” he says.

Backed by short videos downloaded from the Ministry of Consumer Services website, Welham runs through highlights of the Act. When he asks for real-life examples to demonstrate a consumer’s legal right to a safe product, there is a flurry of knowledgeable replies from the class. “Maple Leaf Foods,” says one student. “Toyota brakes,” adds another. “They really surprised me,” Welham says after class. “They also knew a lot about credit ratings and debt. It was great.”

But in terms of making wise financial decisions, Welham notes that students reacted with surprise when he told them that he always bought a used car instead of one just off the assembly line. They questioned why he did not buy a new vehicle, if he could afford one. “It shows they don’t understand depreciation and how to assess the true value of things,” he says.

“Education is the great equalizer,” says Omarali. “But students struggle to understand how much postsecondary education actually costs — and how to obtain the funds. We have to create a culture of financial awareness with all our students, in all grades — not just upon graduation.”

Welham also used the lesson to raise a related financial literacy issue, one that directly impacts his students’ futures — how to finance postsecondary education. “I wanted to discuss the importance of saving, especially through RESPs,” he says. When asked if they had heard about RESPs, only about one-quarter of the students raised their hands, and several of those blurted out, “But I don’t know anything about it.”

It’s precisely that lack of financial knowledge that poses a significant hurdle to pursuing postsecondary education, particularly among students from lower-income families. Indeed, recent research and analysis by the internationally recognized Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) shows that poor financial literacy is actually a barrier to these students attending university or college.

Among HEQCO’s other findings: While postsecondary enrolment is increasing across Ontario, the number of students from low-income families pursuing higher education has remained static over the past two decades, despite more generous financial assistance. It also noted that low-income students tend to vastly overestimate the cost of postsecondary education, while both low- and high-income youth underestimate the economic benefits of higher education. And half of low-income students who are enrolled in postsecondary institutions do not apply for government grants and loans for which they are eligible.

For Welham, telling his students about postsecondary financial assistance programs is doubly important because many come from families that are newcomers to Canada. “These kids are information hubs for their parents,” he says.

Georges Vanier SS guidance counsellor and curriculum leader for school-wide initiatives, Zenobia Omarali, OCT, is also concerned about the socio-economic impact of financial illiteracy. “Education is the great equalizer,” says Omarali, one of the province’s leading advocates for more financial literacy components in the curriculum. “But students in general struggle to understand how much postsecondary education actually costs — and how to obtain the necessary funds. We have to create a culture of financial awareness with all our students, in all grades — not just upon graduation.”

Omarali also spearheads several initiatives, including Twitter and Facebook accounts focusing on scholarships and contests, aimed at disseminating essential financial assistance information throughout the school.

Meanwhile, the Ministry is stepping up its efforts to help teachers introduce financial literacy into the curriculum, especially in high schools. While teachers are responsible for planning day-to-day classroom learning, the Ministry has published separate Financial Literacy Scope and Sequence of Expectations resource guides for both the elementary and secondary curriculums (available at and with suggested strategies and resources. As well, the Ministry website has created a financial literacy portal (see Financial literacy resources) with an ever-expanding menu of helpful links and resources, including explanatory video clips, for a wide range of subjects.

“So you want to be a painter,” Gee says to his students. “How many works of art do you have to sell every month to pay for rent and groceries? There’s more to being an artist than drawing and design.”

Take Grade 11 music. The high school Scope and Sequence guide suggests a teacher ask students about music careers and what skills and knowledge they need to pursue that career, and then about the financial implications of obtaining those requirements.

Or Grade 9 geography — there’s a video for teachers that, among other topics, links the power of the consumer with protecting the environment.

cartoon image of teacher at a blackboard with the blackboard being the student brain

With financial support from the Ministry, teachers’ groups such as the Ontario History and Social Sciences Teachers’ Association are also developing financial literacy lesson plans to accompany various courses. For Introduction to Anthropology, Psychology & Sociology, for example, the association has devised a Changes in the World of Work financial literacy lesson plan as part of a unit on social structures and institutions.

At the elementary school level, the Grades 4–8 guide says financial literacy is most directly connected to the mathematics curriculum and media literacy. But it adds that skills such as problem-solving and critical analysis taught in other subject areas are transferable to financial literacy.

Specifically, the elementary guide suggests, for example, that a Grade 4 history unit could compare current economic structures with those in medieval times. In Grade 7, students could analyze the cost and benefits of different energy-saving technologies and equipment. Meanwhile, the Ministry’s financial literacy portal has lesson plans for units ranging from French as a Second Language to visual arts.

Indeed, teachers will find assistance in bringing financial literacy into the classroom for almost all subjects from Grades 4–12. As the high school guide notes: “Some disciplines, by virtue of their content, are more closely linked to the development of skills and knowledge related to financial literacy than others, but all disciplines provide opportunities to make connections to financial literacy to some extent.”

Georges Vanier SS art teacher Rick Gee, OCT, provides a striking example of how easy it is to draw such connections. For 30 years as a teacher, Gee has made financial literacy an integral part of his lessons. “I cover the business aspects of life all the time,” he says. “And the kids get it.”

“So you want to be a painter,” Gee says to his students. “How many works of art do you have to sell every month to pay for rent and groceries? How much do you have to charge for your work? Is that a realistic price?” He adds later, “There’s more to being an artist than drawing and design.”

Teachers like Welham and Gee don’t have to be persuaded about financial literacy’s importance. And they use meaningful ways to seamlessly integrate the subject into the curriculum. Asked about the challenge of keeping up with the Ministry’s financial literacy expectations and guidelines, Gee shoots back: “I do that, and more. I just hope the Ministry can keep up with me.”

Financial Literacy Resources
carton image of student at computer with a backwards baseball caps that is a loonie.

Here are a number of sites designed to help elementary and secondary teachers integrate financial literacy into the curriculum:

Ministry of Education financial literacy portal with the most up-to-date resources, including suggested lesson plans and videos. Be sure to check out the page’s Resources link for more videos geared to both elementary and secondary teachers.

Additional resources developed by academic subject and division associations, ranging from the Arts Education Consultants of Ontario to the Ontario Physical and Health Educators’ Association.

Financial literacy programs developed by the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada. The federal agency is primarily a regulatory body, but is also responsible for informing consumers about their rights and responsibilities in regard to financial products and services. Its educational programs portal includes a number of free materials including an 11-module program that teaches young people financial skills that they can carry with them throughout their lives.

This is an Ontario Ministry of Consumer Services portal outlining consumer rights, linked to brief videos. The ministry is dedicated to informing the public about legislation that protects its rights in the marketplace. While it has no school lesson plans or learning modules, its plain-speaking videos and brochures are easily adapted for classroom use.

The report of the Working Group on Financial Literacy, this is the 2010 Ontario study conducted by educators and financial services executives that recommended financial literacy become compulsory in the provincial curriculum.