Kelsey McNeal—ABC
By Dan Kadlec
May 26, 2015

As part of his middle school history and civics classes, James Kindle incorporates a segment on money. He calls it Shark Tank after the popular TV show, and while the idea is to introduce personal financial concepts and entrepreneurship what Kindle believes he really teaches is how to achieve the American dream.

Just like the competitors in the TV show, Kindle’s students must come up with a business idea, write a proposal, and pitch the concept to teacher “investors.” He’s a pretty good pitchman himself. Bringing financial education alive through his Shark Tank program at Sullivan Community School in Minneapolis, Minn., earned Kindle first place in the PwC Financial Literacy Innovation Challenge and a $50,000 prize for his school.

“I want to give my students a taste of this dream, while teaching persuasive language, entrepreneurship, and financial literacy skills,” Kindle wrote in a request for funding. In an email, he added “while it might be awhile before my students are meeting with investors and venture capitalists to fund their business ideas, it won’t be long until they are presenting at science and history fairs, competing in speech and debate, or meeting with college admissions officers.” So his program teaches presentation skills, too.

As one of the judges in the PwC Charitable Foundation contest, I can say that what resonates in Kindle’s program is the game-based approach to a difficult subject, along with the infusion of popular culture to make the experience relevant. These were common traits of all top finishers. The results suggest to both parents and educators that they would do well to keep the principles of fun, hands-on, and timely instruction in mind when trying to teach young people about money.

Second place went to a history and civics class at Lawrence County High School in Moulton, Ala., where they play Biggest Loser, also modeled after a popular TV show. Students visit “exercise stations” where they choose a loan or credit card or make some other decision to help them lose “weight” (debt). Who knew reality TV could serve a purpose? Other finalist programs were organized around things like how much various careers pay, and everyday saving and spending decisions.

“Mr. Kindle’s Shark Tank lesson bases financial literacy around core values and behaviors versus facts and figures in order to teach skills like persuasion, negotiation and ownership,” says Shannon Schuyler, PwC corporate responsibility leader. “The idea was contagious, authentic and, most importantly, fun.”

Interestingly, this contest’s winners are taking bows even as educators around the country wrestle with the role of play in learning. With today’s focus on formal education, kids are being asked at earlier and earlier ages to put away the blocks and listen to their teachers lecture. Yet some researchers say this “head start” may backfire. Rebecca Marcon, a psychology professor at the University of North Florida, found that pre-school students allowed to learn through play earned significantly higher grades in the third and fourth grade. With financial education, especially, most experts agree that a game-based approach works best.

One study found that when good instruction is paired with high-quality digital games there is a 12% jump in cognitive learning outcomes. The game-oriented H&R Block Budget Challenge has produced evidence that this type of learning significantly improves financial know-how. Says Kindle: “Using games always increases student engagement. An activity that seems mind-numbingly boring, when slightly twisted into a game, suddenly becomes thrilling.”

Relevance and timeliness are also important. Modeling programs after Shark Tank and Biggest Loser gave students an instant touchstone. At home, parents trying to make a financial point might choose an opportune moment—perhaps when their teen is getting an iPhone upgrade, which means more to them than the incremental cost of your adjustable-rate mortgage as bond yields tick higher.

Understanding personal finance isn’t just a way to make ends meet. As the enterprising middle school teacher from Minneapolis might say, it’s how you achieve the American dream.

Read next: Kids and Money: The Search for What Really Works

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