You can’t spread your wings on a multiple choice test

One of the best parts of teaching is watching your students surpass what you’ve taught them. It’s like running next to your 4-year-old holding onto the bike, then finally letting go and watching them ride off, confidently, alone.

We usually don’t experience this in a traditional classroom, when students are just listening, reading and repeating back what we’ve taught them. They can’t spread their wings on multiple choice tests, so we often don’t see what they’re capable of until they’re gone.

That’s one of many reasons I involve students in competitions. Yesterday was a perfect example.

This year, our state Council for Economic Education decided to shake up the state Personal Finance Decathlon and make it a case-study competition, rather than a series of multiple choice tests and quiz bowls.

I loved the idea — give the students the story of a fictional family and ask them to act as financial advisers — but I wasn’t sure how to prepare them for it. I brought in a friend, former colleague Mike Kauls, who is now a financial advisor, to help the students understand things like how a Roth IRA works and how much to keep in emergency savings.

But neither of us could do a lot beyond teaching some basic principles: Pay down debt, build up savings, plan for retirement. The scenario could have been a retiree, a single parent, a college student, a divorcing middle-aged couple. It could have been anything, and the challenge was for the students to figure it out themselves — in 90 minutes.

It turned out the scenario was a young couple, Tyler and Lydia, who were planning to get married, have two children, buy a house, buy a car and send Tyler to law school, all in short order.

Watching my students (and other teams) present their advice to this young couple was awesome. There they were, talking like pros about the flexibility of saving in the Roth IRA for retirement, education or a house. There they were, recommending selling an old car (and citing the Kelley Blue Book value), paying off the credit card debt, and planning an outdoor wedding to keep costs down. They filled in a budget spreadsheet, analyzed fixed and variable expenses, set up an emergency fund. It was perfect — and it went way beyond anything we had taught them.

Why did it matter that this was a competition? Clearly, we can use more assignments like this in class. But one key is that the students knew there would be professional judges, not me, so they couldn’t prepare based on what they thought I wanted to hear.

Second, the natural thrill of competition pumps students up to do their best — much more than any classroom speech or test would. Why else would students from as far as Roseau and Cloquet get up at 6 a.m. to drive to Minneapolis and talk about IRAs?

Participating in as many competitions as I do is tough to manage. Preparing the students takes time, and going to competitions means missing school and preparing sub plans. Some teachers (luckily, not me) get little or no support for doing so.

We could do so much more if all schools and teachers would recognize the value of meaningful academic competitions and encourage more of them. Our students are capable of much more than we know, but we won’t see it if we don’t give them the chance.