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Students Up Their Game With In-Class Currency

A New Zealand teacher empowers his students with an in-class currency to earn and trade – providing many lessons along the way.

Photo of Meena Kadri
9 15

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I chatted to my friend Matt – a teacher near my home town of Wellington, who's making strides with empowering his students with financial knowledge in exciting ways. Matt teaches students aged between 11 and 13 and for the past 5 years has been developing an in-class currency program which he runs throughout the year. This was sparked by his hunch that by giving students the opportunity to earn and trade, that they would learn many other lessons about maths, entrepreneurship and value.

Matt calls his in-class currency lambda – the 11th letter of the Greek alphabet. Students can earn lambda throughout the year through carrying out jobs that need doing in the class and good behaviour. Basically, if it has value, it can earn lamda currency. Students can also lose currency through non-optimal behaviour.

A student banker is nominated for the term (10 weeks) who keeps a tally of lambda earned by each student. At the end of each week, currency is distributed from this tally – physical notes of various denominations which are laminated. "The tactile nature of having physical money is important so that it elevates the currency to more than just numbers on the board. Students can then attach to it as a means of trading," Matt tells me.

At the end of each term, an auction is held – with Matt supplying a few vouchers for local shops and students also bringing along items like chocolate and cakes to be auctioned. Students can spend or earn currency at the auction. "It's a learning opportunity around trade and also helps limit inflation," says Matt. "Students can also pool their money for the auction – though they quickly learn that large cartels lead to heavy division of profits / auction winnings – so there are constantly lessons forming around negotiation and other financial strategies." The end of year auction is particularly spirited as students have learned a lot about wheeling and dealing by then – not to mention, any lamda left over after the auction needs to be handed in.

Students have also previously been allowed to buy, sell and rent desk space via their lambda currency. "Entrepreneurs got in early though the more ruthless amongst them quickly learnt that relationships are a significant aspect of trade. There's lots of life lessons that crop up along the way," shares Matt.

Matt supplements the excitement of trading in lamda with wider discussions on what students and families need and where money fits into that picture. I was also fascinated that he introduces Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to students this young. I expect it's an easier lesson when they can relate it to the learning-by-doing approach he takes with lamda trading.

How might we engage youth with financial literacy in engaging ways? How might we help folks better understand the relationship between money and value? How might a learning-by-doing approach strengthen financial knowledge and literacy?

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Photo of Patricio Toussaint

Hi Meena:
I really like the lambda idea! it sounds great! I am currently studying at Babson, and in my class of entrepreneurship we had to deal with the $5 dollar challenge. I think you might use this focus in order for them to raise money and get them understand entrepreneurship and the importance of how to raise money. I found the 5 dollar challenge focused to high school students (http://thefivedollarchallenge.com/)

With the money that gets collected you can talk about finances. (The money could get donated and then use lambdas for the next examples) You can teach them by easy ways to save! I in fact made a contribution that could also be used by High School students! (https://openideo.com/challenge/financial-empowerment-challenge/ideas/saastot-the-savings-reminder)

You can mention that the money you save when time goes by it is very important to increase the amount of money that you have, since if you do not do anything it will loose value with time. So if you save on a monthly basis and put it on a savings account you can generate at least a 5% of interest in a year!

I hope it helps my feedback! and I hope you can also get me feedback in my idea! thanks!!

Photo of Chris Becker

Hey Meena, this is really cool! The first thing that came to my mind was a game called StarPower (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/StarPower_%28game%29) that I took part in during LeaderShape, an annual leadership conference for college students.

While this classroom experiment introduces some basic concepts, I wonder how it could be supplemented or developed into a curriculum that follows students (or, better yet, that students develop) through their ordinary trajectory from primary to secondary, etc. By helping them gradually explore more complex concepts in financial literacy, especially those associated with entrepreneurship, social mobility, credit, etc., we may see a profound difference in their post-grad decision making and experiences.

Some food for thought: How could this kind of engagement be paired with an exploration of community values, rule setting, and general empathy-rich concepts? How can we encourage outside community members to get involved, like elders and parents?

Photo of Meena Kadri

Great provocations, Chris. Certainly food for thought for our upcoming Ideas phase. Hope to see you there!

Photo of Maddie Wiener

Hey Chris- I just came across your thoughts about the StarPower game, and think it's awesome! Would you be interested in sharing it during the Ideas phase? I think you could be on to something, and it could lead to great conversation.

Also check out this conversation that Tori posted in the Ideas phase. It's about education for youth and it would be awesome to see your insights - both your ideas seem to overlap!

https://openideo.com/challenge/financial-empowerment-challenge/ideas/head-a-youth-campaign

Photo of Joe Silva

I think it's important to recognize that the spending frenzy at the end of the term provoked the student's financial behavior during the term. I think this probably works best in privileged areas, where spending at retirement is common place. Nonetheless, it's a really good example of how to get people interested in learning about finance... I'm sure you are well aware, but this reminds me of the adult version; local currency. Check out, http://www.ucsmiles.org - they've figured out a simple way to keep real money in the neighborhood.

Photo of Aline Abigail Ayuman

This is something that schools should definitely consider implementing in their curriculum or just in their culture especially to elementary students who are still so open about topics like this. Learning-by-doing is still one of the best ways of teaching instead of just having lessons memorized. I like the way the teacher, Matt, also went about in empowering his students with financial knowledge. It doesn't feel heavy on the students side like a subject would feel, but rather they would get a feel for what takes place when they start working and how it feels like to spend money you earned on your own rather than spending money you asked from your parents. Great teacher!

Photo of Trevor z Hallstein

First, I want to point out that those kids have on great hats! This seems like a great way to teach the role of fiat money.

Photo of Jes Simson

Hey Meena, this is brilliant! I love how many unexpected lessons come out of the process (like negotiation and business relationships). It sure sounds like an engaging way to teach kids about the financial system (and much more fun than simply learning compound interest formulas out of context!).

Photo of Meena Kadri

You got it, Jes! That's the joys of learning-by-doing.