Let’s get real about financial literacy



  • 11% of 18- to 25-year-olds have more than 10 checking account overdrafts per year.
  • 40% of Americans spend more than they earn.
  • Nearly 20% of African-American and Latino households are “unbanked” — meaning they’re not part of the formal financial system in this country.


Are you surprised by these stats (from The Unbanking of America)? Or not really?

We’ve been talking about the crisis in financial literacy since before the Great Recession, but we don’t seem to be making any progress. Most studies have found that even when teens take classes in personal finance, it doesn’t translate into real-world adult skills. (See this Fox Business article.)

A few weeks ago, I met several young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds and heard a bit of their stories. They are high school graduates, but they do not have bank accounts or savings. They live in a cash-only world. It’s not just that they don’t understand mortgages or the power of compound interest — they don’t interact with our financial system in any meaningful way.

How is this possible in our country?

Maybe it’s because when we do teach personal finance in high school, we treat it like an academic subject, and it just doesn’t fit. Take a look at many of the financial education resources out there, and you’ll find three commonalities:

1 – The curriculum is one-size-fits-all. Every student is supposed to learn about budgeting, saving, buying insurance, buying a car, planning for retirement. The focus is on vocabulary words and calculations, just like many math classes. There are even multiple-choice tests.

This approach ignores the fact that some of our students have zero financial literacy, and our lectures seem as relevant as trigonometry. I’m not disrespecting trigonometry, but personal finance needs to be grounded in students’ experiences.

If your parents don’t use a bank, own a car, or hope to retire, where do you fit in these lessons?

2 – The lessons are written from a voice of authority. You should have a bank account. You shouldn’t use a payday lender. You should never rely on a credit card for major expenses.

Worse than authority, they border on condescension.

Do you know what it’s like for someone at the poverty line to try to get a bank account? Have you checked recently on minimum balances (and the fees for dipping below), wait times to cash checks, and overdraft fees? What makes perfect sense for middle-class income earners isn’t necessarily good advice for all. (Seriously, read The Unbanking of America)

3 – The lessons lack heart. There’s more to managing money than vocabulary and formulas. People don’t make money “mistakes” because they forgot the compound interest formula.

They overdraw their checking accounts because they need to pay a medical bill — or sometimes, just because they want new shoes.

They don’t fail to open savings accounts because they don’t know what they are. They don’t open savings accounts because they don’t have enough money for the minimum balance, or because the interest rate is 0.01%, or because they’re living on $7.25/hour and don’t have any extra.

No subject needs high student engagement more than financial literacy. We cannot afford not to teach our young adults these skills. They cannot afford not to learn them.

But we need to develop meaningful lessons that demystify the financial system without preaching about it. We need to address students’ questions and needs, not talk at them about upper-middle class savings strategies.

We can help young adults learn important skills like saving, but we need to be smarter about it.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush


For students, doing beats listening

people-woman-coffee-meeting.jpgA few weeks ago, I wrote about launching my experiment with “no lecture” AP Macroeconomics this spring.

I should note — I didn’t start this experiment because my students were performing poorly. 61 of my 65 students passed the AP test last year, and nearly all of them were freshmen.

It was a pretty successful class just the way it was.

But it’s also always been an uphill battle, because students seemed to forget what they’d learned from one day to the next, they rarely did any homework, and we spent as much time re-teaching and reviewing every day as we did on new material.

Also, a rather large percentage of students were retaking every unit test, and that was frustrating.

I’d read enough about flipped classrooms, whiteboarding and inquiry learning to think that a new approach was worth trying. And so far, results are very positive.

Here are a few things I’ve noticed in the first four weeks:


  • More students are reading the textbook than ever before. In the past, my students took it for granted that I would tell them everything they needed to know. Now they know that’s not the case, and they actually read.
  • Formative quiz scores are through the roof. Last year, students averaged 60-70% on daily quizzes; this year it’s more like 85-90%. They actually remember what we did the previous day, now that they’re solving problems rather than passively listening.
  • Twelve students earned 92% or above on the first test, compared to five last year.
  • The lowest score on the first test was 54%; last year four students scored lower than that.


An added bonus: I feel less stressed. The planning part is stressful — mostly because I have to go through every lesson and rethink how to construct it. Yuck. That means 1-2 hours of work per hour of class, for a class I had pretty well planned out before.

But during class time, there’s a lot less stress. The students know what they need to do — and they are doing, rather than listening — so there’s a lot less off-task behavior. Fewer phones out, fewer side conversations, and a lot more outward signs of student engagement.

Also, more time for me to help struggling students one-on-one, while they’re in class.

When I do stop and interject a 5-10 minute mini-lecture — for example, explaining Okun’s Law and the connection between potential GDP and the Natural Rate of Unemployment this week — the students actually pay attention. They’re not burned out on listening to me — so I’m no longer Charlie Brown’s teacher.

I won’t prematurely call this a success. We’ve still got three more units and an AP test to get through. But right now, it’s looking like a change for the better.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush

What can I even say?

pexels-photo.jpgIt feels ridiculous to write about anything but the Parkland shooting this week. It’s on all of our minds in every single high school in this country, even as we try to keep things normal yet again for our too-vulnerable students.

How could we not think about it when we locked our doors yesterday for a practice lockdown drill? Or when 250 of our students walked out at 10 a.m. yesterday to protest America’s gun laws?

How can we not think about it when we scan our students’ faces today, looking for who is paying attention and who looks disengaged or sad or possibly angry?

And how can we not be proud (especially as social studies teachers), seeing teenagers step up to civic action in the days since this tragedy?

Unfortunately, although this is weighing on all of our minds, I don’t think I have much new or insightful to contribute to this dialog.

I side with those who want more gun control. I don’t believe semi-automatic or automatic weapons should be available for non-military/non-law enforcement purchase. I grew up in a staunchly Republican, pro-Reagan, anti-gun family, and I don’t understand why those views are so incompatible today.

I’m idealistic enough that I still long for the pre-Columbine days, when students were free to walk outside in our courtyard between classes. I won’t arm myself; I’d sooner resign.

I hope we will finally see a turning point with Parkland. I’m afraid we won’t.

That’s really all I can say today.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush

Teamwork: Annoying AND essential


Should high school students work in teams — or solo?

When I was a student, we did about 90 percent of our work alone. With the exception of lab work in science and the occasional English group project, we were expected to learn independently, so we would be prepared for individual success later.

Back then, working together — even asking a classmate for help — always carried the taint of cheating.

After all, you don’t get into college or get a job as a team. The important thing was individual achievement.

But something changed on the way to the 21st Century. Even by the time I entered the workforce in 1989, management everywhere was talking about teams, teams, teams.

Suddenly, employees had to not only have the requisite content knowledge for their job — but also know how to communicate, collaborate, argue effectively, involve everyone, incorporate diverse perspectives and deal with slackers. It wasn’t easy to adjust.

Most adults (including me) have spent a lot of time since high school complaining about teamwork. It seems no one ever carries their share of the load; no one recognizes our expertise; and we’re all tired of hearing the know-it-all’s nit-picky perspective on every single issue.

But here’s the thing. Experts (like the leaders at Google) have researched this issue to death, and they have found that effective teams are far more productive than individual stars. And the best teams often don’t contain any stars.

Being valedictorian doesn’t really count for much in most workplaces today.

So what does that mean for us? Does this whole “team” thing really translate to school? And if so, how?

For years, I’ve heard so much frustration from parents and students about group work — you know, the kind that really becomes solo work with a bunch of free riders.

Is it really fair for a group to drag a bright student down? Won’t it be different in the workplace, when everyone is at least competent?

Last week, at the Minnesota Council on Economic Education’s trade show for young entrepreneurs, several 20something entrepreneurs tackled this question. Surprisingly, to many students in the audience, these individual stars championed group work.

Erik Brust, founder of JonnyPops, and Meghan Sharkus, founder of ExpressionMed, agreed that working on group projects in high school is really frustrating. But guess what? So is working with teams in the real world. You never escape the free rider problem, and your team members will always let you down.

And yet, teamwork works. It’s necessary. So students, you might as well learn how now.

For teachers, though, this is not as easy as just putting kids in groups. Not any old team works. Teachers need to figure out how to build effective student teams, in ways that reduce that tension between group effort and individual understanding.

I think the answer lies in carefully creating our student teams, teaching them about effective communication and collaboration, and monitoring their performance.

When I assigned my AP Macro students to teams this year — teams we use every single day for discussing and working on problems — I started with a teamwork survey to better understand each student’s individual work habits and expectations.

I wasn’t so concerned about their academic skills; I’ve read studies that promote heterogeneous grouping and ones that promote homogeneous grouping. Instead, I wanted to know things like: Are you a leader or a slacker? Do you do your part? Do you try to take over? And how often do you get distracted?

So far, the resulting groups have been functioning pretty well. I’ve only noticed one group with bad dynamics (one student expecting the others to do the work), and I think I persuaded that student to get with the program. (We’ll see.)

Next week, we’ll also see how the no lecture + teamwork strategy has prepared them for the first test. 

If you’re interested in seeing the teamwork survey, email me at Martha.Rush@NeverBore.org.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. Listen to Martha’s interview with Vicki Davis on the CoolCatTeacher podcast. @MarthaSRush


First, don’t embarrass anyone

pexels-photo-459971.jpegOne of my former students, now a sophomore, visited the other day and reminisced about last year’s econ class. It was a hard class for him, but he pulled through with a B-.

Out of the blue, he said: “I wasn’t afraid of you.” 

I was a little taken aback. “What do you mean?” I asked him. “Are other students afraid of me?”

“No, no,” he said. “But I am afraid to ask teachers questions in other classes. I wasn’t afraid to ask you because you didn’t make me feel stupid.”

Well, good. I do remember him asking lots of questions, even repeating back to me things I had just said, like, “So when interest rates rise, investment falls? Do I have that right?”

But now my curiosity was piqued.

I didn’t want to know who, exactly, is making students feel stupid for asking questions. I don’t encourage students to complain about other teachers. But I wanted to know how teachers are making kids feel stupid. What is it they say or do?

Because I can’t imagine any of my colleagues doing so intentionally.

The student explained that sometimes teachers get visibly impatient with student questions. The classic case is when a student asks a question that the teacher just answered, so the teacher naturally responds, “I just said that! Were you even listening?”

I get that. I told him: You know, I’ve been in those shoes many times, and I’m sure I’ve said those exact words to a few exasperating students. Especially when I’ve just given specific instructions, and someone pipes up, “What do you want us to do?”

Then he added that sometimes, teachers also laugh at questions. Students might even laugh along, realizing how absurd the question was.

But deep down they’re not laughing, he said. They’re shutting down. Once any student has been embarrassed in front of the class, most kids won’t risk it happening to them.

By this time, I was feeling pretty bad. I know I’ve done that too. Some questions are just so absurd, and so are some answers.

I remember the kid years ago who raised his hand when I asked: What gives our money value? He answered: “God! It says in God we trust!”

I admit it. I started laughing. I wonder how he felt?

My former student’s observations were a good reminder, as we start a new semester, that our students are constantly observing us, gauging whether it is safe to ask us questions, whether it’s safe to answer our questions, whether they’re going to lose face by participating in our class.

As annoying as it can be, we have to be as patient as we possibly can, because snapping at them or laughing at them or ignoring them are all bad options — they send a loud signal to all of the students that we can’t be trusted.

Perhaps the best thing to do, if you really can’t stand one more dumb question, is to talk privately with the offending student and explain that it’s frustrating for you to constantly repeat yourself. Listening is important, too. Respecting your teacher’s time is important, too.

But not embarrassing or intimidating students? That has to be #1.

Follow me on Twitter @MarthaSRush

Beat Boredom now available.

Letting go of lecture

people-woman-coffee-meeting.jpgAP Macroeconomics is the most traditional class I teach. Still too teacher-directed, still too organized around lecture-practice-homework.

I know better — yes, I’ve written an entire book on active learning strategies — but it’s been hard to let go. Macro is a difficult subject, and it’s a lot of content for high school kids to process in just 12 weeks. So I’ve kept giving them lecture notes day after day for years — even though I know it’s a cop-out.

That’s changing this semester.

My other classes (AP Psych and AP Micro right now; Journalism, Government, regular Econ and Civil Liberties in past years) already involve a lot more discussion, simulations, and inquiry-based activities.

So starting this week, no more lecturing in AP Macro. No more! (Or at least no more than 5-10 minutes a day)

Instead, my students will be learning through a blend of whiteboarding and flipped instruction. Each day, after some sort of activity — like creating squares and triangles to generate production possibilities data, buying snacks in a demand auction or buying and selling in the cocoa market — students will be working together to solve problems and present their findings to the class.

It won’t be entirely inquiry-based. They’ll have access to videos (and a textbook) the night before. But if they don’t watch or read, they will have to rely on their own reasoning and discussion with classmates to learn.

For example, after our “demand auction” next week, I’ll expect them to work in pairs to draw demand curves and analyze the impact of a variety of events on demand for Juicy Lucys (cheese-filled burgers, a Twin Cities specialty).

I’m not going to lecture them on demand shifters; they’re going to have to think through each scenario and develop their own reasoning.

What will happen if Juicy Lucys are linked to salmonella? What will happen if ketchup becomes cheaper? What will happen if the price for Juicy Lucys falls?

I don’t think this is too hard for them, but I do think it will be a big change. Our students are very used to being told what they need to know, and they will want me to give them the answers.

They’re also very used to memorizing rather than thinking, and that’s not going to work anymore (if it ever did).

This semester will be an interesting experiment. It’s a lot of work up front, redesigning the practice problems I’ve used in the past to be more reasoning-based, rather than regurgitation-based. It’s also a lot of work to find or create the appropriate videos for each lesson.

If it’s successful — and I know it may take a few semesters and some finessing before it really works — I expect I’ll see higher test scores, fewer distractions, a lot less re-reteaching, and a lot less frustration with the material.

Our students don’t know it, but they do want the chance to figure things out for themselves. It’s a whole lot more engaging than passively receiving our knowledge.

Follow me on Twitter @MarthaSRush

Beat Boredom available on Amazon.


Not giving up on homework yet


When I first started teaching in 1994, assigning homework was a no-brainer. It was part of the Madeline Hunter model — “independent practice” — and part of preparing high school students for independent learning in college.

It’s also how I was taught. In high school in the ’80s, I spent hours each night doing math problems, reading literature, writing up lab reports and doing whatever else my teachers had cooked up.

I always had homework, and I can’t say I liked it — but I didn’t really question it.

Fast-forward to 2018, and homework is no longer as popular or universally accepted. In fact, it’s under assault from many directions as “pointless,” “anxiety-provoking,” “inequitable” and “an infringement on family time.”

Some school districts are even banning homework (although most of the extreme efforts are focused on elementary classrooms).

Yet, the most comprehensive study (from 2006) found a positive correlation between homework and student achievement. And my anecdotal classroom observations suggest that high school students do, in fact, learn from the effort they put in at home.

How else to explain that my “Hybrid” AP Microeconomics students can succeed on the AP test (and intermediate college classes), when 80% of their learning is literally homework?

I can’t really wrap my head around the idea that homework isn’t beneficial, but I’m trying to keep an open mind.

The three major critiques I’ve heard about homework during this school year are:

1 – Homework is contributing to a growing epidemic of stress, anxiety and depression among high school students.

2 – Homework worsens the achievement gap, since disadvantaged students are more often unable to complete homework, thus falling further behind.

3 – Homework is not effective practice, because the gap between learning the material and doing homework is too long. (See last week’s post on forgetting.)

These are all potential concerns, enough to make me rethink homework. So let’s look a little more closely at each one.

#1 (stress) may be true, but I have not seen enough evidence that homework is a major factor causing higher stress levels. (See my previous post on mental health.) Brookings Institute research shows that high school students today aren’t doing any more homework than earlier generations did — and the average amount is just one hour per night. A massive survey of college freshmen found they spent more time socializing, playing sports and working during high school than doing homework. And let’s not even talk about the time they spend on phones and social media.

#2 (equity) is almost certainly true, but it’s evidence for both sides. The reason homework worsens the achievement gap is because it helps the kids who do it learn more. This is a thorny issue. We need to provide equitable opportunities to students, but if our efforts cause all students to learn less, that doesn’t seem right. It also doesn’t seem like a good idea, when we face global competition. We need a more nuanced solution than just “no homework.”

#3 (forgetting) is certainly true for some students, especially those who do not take notes. If I introduce a concept like “supply shifters” in class and assign practice problems, but some students have already forgotten the shifters eight hours later, then it’s not really effective practice. Still, research on learning shows that the more times you retrieve new information, the stronger connections your brain builds (see Make it Stick). So we really should be giving our students multiple opportunities to review and apply new material in a day.

So what should we do? What kind of guidance is there? 

I don’t think the answer is to ban homework, or even to place arbitrary time limits on it in high school. (If students procrastinate, which most do, some nights it is going to pile up.)

I think the answer is to think deeply about what we are asking students to do outside of class and be careful that we’re not piling on busy work, just to make ourselves feel “rigorous.” We need homework assignments (like lessons) that are thoughtful, engaging and manageable — and that actually help students meet our goals for them.

A few challenging (but not impossible) problems, a written reflection on the day’s learning/activities, a video introducing a new topic, a step in the process of a larger project, a review of new vocabulary words — these all seem like worthwhile uses of students’ time at home.

So I’m going to go into the new semester next week continuing to assign homework — but being more mindful of not overwhelming my students or wasting their time. I suspect the benefits will continue to outweigh the costs.

Follow me on Twitter @MarthaSRush

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Forgetting is part of our nature

By Educ320 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47273417

You didn’t tell us to read that chapter.

I didn’t know there was a test today!

I was supposed to take out the garbage?

How often do we share an important piece of information with our students — or children or colleagues or friends, for that matter — and find the next day, they’ve completely forgotten?

It’s so infuriating. How many times have I said: I just told you that yesterday!

I remember the telling so clearly — where I stood, how I said it, how I specifically made eye contact for emphasis. But to the listener(s), it’s a vague, hazy event at best, nothing that really stood out in the flood of daily sound bytes.

It’s easy, as a teacher (or parent), to leap to the conclusion that our teenagers are intentionally forgetting, or worse yet, not listening to us in the first place. We become angry and frustrated, and the situation can quickly deteriorate.

But would we feel differently if we recognized that forgetting is simply part of how our brains work?

Over 100 years ago, Hermann Ebbinghaus revealed the “forgetting curve,” and it’s been confirmed repeatedly by psych research. In general, people forget about 70% of what they are told within 24 hours if they don’t intentionally review or use the information.

It’s our brain’s way of paring down unimportant information and keeping us efficient. (Thanks, brain!)

The internet is filled with tricks for overcoming the “forgetting curve” and training yourself to remember better: Take notes longhand. Think about how what you’re hearing applies to your life. Review your notes within a few hours. Explain what you learned to a colleague or friend.

Those are all solid strategies — but they only work for a motivated learner. They only work if you really want to remember. Not necessarily true for all of our students.

So how can we overcome the “forgetting curve” and trick our students into remembering what they’ve learned? And can we get them to build lasting memories — or is June the best we can hope for? (According to this EdWeek article, even students who master material for final exams mostly forget it by September.)

The answer lies in understanding the way memory works — and why some memories hold up over time.

First, consider why some things are easy to remember. It’s easy to remember the route you took to school or work, especially if it was different than your usual route. It’s also easy to remember an argument you had with a friend — thinking about reasoning seems to tap into a deeper level of processing, and emotion sears events into memory. It’s also easy to remember a compelling story. It’s been years since I read The Kite Runner, but I still remember the most minute details, like how the kite flyers hands bled from controlling the strings coated in broken glass.

The common denominators? We remember experiences better than words, novelty better than routine, details better than summaries, and things that are deeply meaningful to us we remember best of all. These all happen without extra effort on our part.

We can use all of these observations to build better “remembering” in our students.

If we want students to deeply encode what they are learning, we should let them experience what they’re learning — through simulations and debates, for example — rather than lecturing them.

We should also make learning events emotionally compelling — by using detailed stories or giving students the opportunity to discuss and share their own ideas. 

And we can make learning relevant. One study — I came across it in Make Me! — found teachers only explain relevance to their students about 3% of the time. 

Not only will our students remember better, but we’ll be a lot less frustrated.

Read more about these teaching strategies in Beat Boredom: Engaging Tuned-Out Teenagers (Stenhouse, 2018).

Follow me on Twitter @MarthaSRush

Parenting with a future teen in mind


I became a teacher the same year I became a parent: 1994.

It’s impossible for me to separate the two in my mind. I can’t imagine teaching without the parent perspective, and I can’t imagine parenting without thinking of our children as the teenagers/students they would become.

As our kids grew up, I frequently found myself battling contradictions. As a teacher, I expect kids to learn organizational skills. As a parent, I occasionally drove my kids back to school to pick up missing homework.

As a teacher, I question why we emphasize sports so much over academics. As a parent, I supported one son’s years of participation in “traveling” basketball.

As a teacher, I question whether we should be pushing all kids to go to college. As a parent, I definitely wanted my own kids to go.

Now that our kids are adults and I’ve taught a few thousand students (and resolved most of my contradictions), I have a few thoughts on what it means to parent with a future teenager in mind. I could write an entire blog post (or book, perhaps) about each one, but I’ll keep it short for now. I’d love to hear readers’ thoughts.

#1 Routines If there’s something you want your kids to do or to value as they grow up — like reading or volunteering or gardening or travel — start doing it with them as early as possible. Kids are very much creatures of habit, more than I would have imagined. If you cook pizza for Sunday dinner three weeks in a row, it becomes an expectation. It becomes what we do  and who we are. It’s much harder to suddenly introduce new routines and habits later. If you want your kids to be responsible for their own work or their own money, give them that responsibility in kindergarten. (Even if they don’t always handle it perfectly)

#2 Speaking of Money There are a lot of right ways to help children learn to manage money, but there are also wrong ways. The key is to make sure they learn about making choices with consequences, and that starts as soon as they are old enough to ask for things. If you always make spending decisions for them, or always give them money when they want something, you’re setting them (and yourself) up for frustration later. The wish list doesn’t get cheaper! We always gave our kids a bit of spending money, even when they were little, so they could decide whether to buy candy or save up for a book or toy. When one son got to high school, he suddenly cared about having the right shoes, jeans, sporting apparel, etc. Instead of indulging him or denying him, we gave him a budget — enough that he could afford some but not all of what he wanted. He figured out what was important to him and built good spending habits.

#3 Electronics Not to beat this issue into the ground — I’ve written about it several times before, most recently here — but kids do not need personal electronic gadgets. A family computer (in a shared space, like a family room) and basic phone is sufficient. Our kids grew up without a video game system, cable TV, smart phones or iPads, and they didn’t miss out on much. In fact, one is majoring in computer science. Early exposure to devices builds addiction to the devices, not the ability to function as “digital natives.” (There is no such thing.) And it doesn’t make them happier people. Be willing to say no and stick to it.

#4 Perfectionism When one of my sons started middle school, he asked if we expected him to get straight As. Nope. We told him As and Bs were fine, and if he had Cs, we just wanted to know that he was asking for help and figuring out what he didn’t understand. Too many kids in high school feel pressured to take all AP classes, get perfect grades (like they did in elementary and middle school), star on a sports team, take on leadership positions and get into the “best” colleges. Maybe all this pressure helps motivate some kids, but it breeds anxiety and depression in too many others.  Parents need to actively embrace imperfection. Burn some cookies; get a parking ticket; track mud on the carpet. Let your kids see you survive being less than perfect. And encourage them to try something they might not be good at, just for fun.

#5 Sports Let me say this up front: Your child is unlikely to be a professional athlete. They might play in college, but probably not on scholarship. In 20+ years, I’ve watched a lot of kids go through youth sports, traveling sports, and high school sports, and I’ve seen many more kids burn out on sports than I’ve seen earn money at it. This is not to say I don’t value sports — I loved watching my son play basketball. Let’s just see youth sports for what it is. For most kids, the valuable things they’ll get out of sports will be: resilience, friendships, leadership skills, teamwork, fitness, and if they’re lucky (and don’t get seriously injured), a lifelong hobby. Balance the time/money devoted to sports with music and art lessons or camps devoted to coding, language immersion, or community service. That way, your kids learn a sense of balance too. And when you talk about their futures, talk about other careers — and how learning (not grades) can help them get there.


We have so much to learn

canstockphoto46498066What did you read over break?

As usual I plowed through a few fun books, like Ruth Ware’s The Lying Game, Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, and Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.

But I also set aside time for a few “good” books — you know, the ones that require a little more concentration and thought. The ones you know you should read but don’t always want to.

Here are the ones I made it through:

The Mystery of Capital by Hernando de Soto (which I borrowed from my son, Sam)

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann (my book club’s January pick)

The End of Average by Todd Rose (recommended by friend Chris Parris)

A little econ, a little history, and a little psychology.

I confess, it was hard to put down the fun, vacation-y reads to dive into these serious books, but I learned a few things. Most importantly, all three reminded me that we educated adults don’t know half as much as we think we do — something we should keep in mind as teachers.

For example, we’re so sure that we know why the U.S. economy flourishes, while many other nations struggle. (Take your pick of the various explanations, from the self-serving “Americans are smarter” to the self-blaming “America’s imperialist behavior prevents other nations from thriving.”)

But de Soto makes a convincing argument that our biggest advantage — which we have failed to export along with other free market ideals to developing nations — is our flexible system of property rights.

Do you know how easy it is to start a business here? It took me one afternoon and $155 to register my business, NeverBore LLC, in the state of Minnesota. It’s harder to buy a house — given the credit checks and title searches required — but you can still do it in about 45-60 days.

In Haiti, buying a house with a legal sales contract would take you 111 bureaucratic steps and about 4000 days. Formalizing ownership of an urban property in the Philippines would take 168 steps — and at least 13 years!

So virtually no one bothers, and in many developing nations the majority of people live and work outside the official system. They can’t borrow against their homes or protect their innovations, and that’s what is stifling their economies.

OK, so we don’t really understand our own economy. But we know our history, right? Wrong again. De Soto and Grann both taught me a lot that I don’t remember learning in school.

For example: Most American settlers (our revered pioneers) were illegal squatters. Yes, there were laws like the Homestead Act, but those generally happened after the fact — legalizing what had been illegal. Not so different from DACA, really.

And Grann’s book reminded me how elusive justice has been for most Americans for most of our history. Dozens, maybe even hundreds, of Osage Indians were killed for their oil-money inheritances in the early 20th Century, and very few cases were ever even investigated.

A few of the cases were big headline news in the 1920 and 1930s, but even those don’t make our history books or stick in our collective understanding. Why is it that I know about flappers and Loeb and Leopold and Sacco and Vanzetti, but not about this?

Well, at least there’s one thing we do know — and that’s the importance of working hard, getting good grades and getting into the right college. Right?

Wrong again. According to The End of Average, Google researched 144 key indicators — including SAT scores, grades and prestigious colleges — to figure out the best way to identify talent. Guess what they found?

“We couldn’t find a single variable that mattered for most of the jobs at Google. None.”

The author also notes that 31% of college graduates can’t find a job in their field, and 35% of employers cannot fill good-paying jobs.

Why are we so confident in our system, when it isn’t doing what we want it to do? Or what we think it does?

There are a lot of good reasons not to stand in front of a classroom and lecture at kids, but perhaps the best is this: When we tell kids what we know (or think we know), they mistakenly think we’re telling them all there is to know.

The most important thing to know in any field, whether it’s economics, history, psychology or another discipline, is that our understanding barely scratches the surface of what there is to learn. A good lesson to remember as we head back to school.

Follow me on Twitter @MarthaSRush

Beat Boredom is available on Amazon or at Stenhouse.com.