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How Microlending Builds Financial Literacy Skills and Empowers Students

By Kristen Janiak Goggin — March 28, 2017 5 min read

A core tenant of global competence is that global content and skills can be integrated into what is already being taught in any classroom. Yet many people struggle to think of ways to easily integrate it into math. Today, Kristen Janiak Goggin, middle school math teacher at Town School for Boys in San Francisco, California, shares how she connects authentic, global issues to her math curriculum through project-based learning in microfinance.

April is Financial Literacy month! Join Kristen and the Council for Economic Education for a special #GlobalEdChat on the importance of teaching students to be financially literate. Just type #Globaledchat into the search on Twitter at 8 pm ET this Thursday, March 30, to participate.

Teachers understand that creating authentic, real-world learning experiences engage students in a way that improves learning and makes it more enjoyable. At Town School for Boys in San Francisco, 6th graders engage in a yearlong study of microfinance using project-based learning that explores what it means to run a business while developing meaningful success skills along the way. While global education initiatives have traditionally focused on humanities and science classes, the boys find many lessons of mathematics complement their journey while partnering with nonprofit Kiva.org, which is headquartered in San Francisco.

Setting the Stage Through Inquiry

In conjunction with a math unit on data displays and number systems, the students begin their investigation of microfinance by exploring the driving question: How can we convince new and existing lenders to make loans to a specific geographic area through advertising? The boys begin to learn that you can’t advertise a product that you don’t know a whole lot about, and they dive into a guided inquiry of microfinance.

The students investigate sites like Kiva.org, If It Were My Home, World Bank, CIA World Factbook, and UN Statistics. The inquiry is scaffolded and the boys explore the sites and concepts around microfinance through vocabulary and fact scavenger hunts. Through this exercise, the students reflect on how we can all be better consumers and creators of statistical representations as they learn about many kinds of graphs and statistics that help tell a story. Alongside the Director of Library Services, students investigate campaigns by the Ad Council and brainstorm ways to inspire others to do social good alongside lessons on research techniques, citations, and fair use.

Modeling Microfinance

After the students become familiar with microfinance, credit, and the platform Kiva.org, they investigate the question, “How can we model the process of microfinance in our own community?” Over the years, students have realized that in order to really empathize with borrowers all over the world, they need to become borrowers themselves.

Creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving become essential skills in the math classroom as they devise business plans to convince their lenders (the faculty and staff at the school) and explore costs and financial needs through loan applications. The boys poll their peers for product ideas, evaluate products online, discover the usefulness of unit rates, and determine an appropriate markup that will allow them to make profits long term. Then, they patiently wait for loan approval and loan fulfillment, and they hope. During this 30-day wait, boys are constantly using percentages to determine funding, proportions, and averages to consider their loan on a real-world market.

Setting Up Bank Accounts and Becoming More Financially Responsible

As the students begin to receive dollars, they recognize the need to keep the money in a safe location. They investigate different ways to store and access money as well as different bank account options. A favorite way to practice financial literacy is by playing Financial Football online. The exploration of percentages and equations continues as they learn about interest and the concept of the bank as a business. The students set up their own online banking system using spreadsheets and learn the importance of thoroughly documenting their deposits and withdrawals. As they struggle to keep up with the demands of calculating their finances, students connect to our investigation of expressions and equations, and set up banking ledgers that are calculated with functions.

Sales and Exploring Profit

But the real fun arrives when the boys actually set up their small businesses. Gross versus net profit, break even points, capital, and taxes are a few of the mathematical concepts explored while also discussing marketing, advertising, and leadership. The boys are constantly finding ways to keep their businesses stocked with product and their consumers happy. They are also aware of the need to raise capital in the hopes of improving product quality or to introduce customizable or bulk products at lower unit rates, while also paying off their loans according to their monthly schedule. Presentations to younger students about the concept of Kiva.org provides opportunities for leadership and helps advertise not just products but the mission behind their businesses in the first place.

Empower Others

The success of their business allows them to repay their loans and use their profits to become lenders themselves. This experience allows them to decipher their lending priorities, consider what their lending portfolio says about them, and ultimately make loans that will have a profound effect on individuals, their families, and communities, as they connect with and loan to the “unbankable” around the world to help alleviate poverty. Bill Ferriter has some great resources on lending and both he and Diana Williams have done wonders to promote microlending as a learning tool.

To date, Town School’s portfolio has invested over $20,000 in loans over 6 years and has impacted over 750 borrowers in addition to their families and communities. And now that Town School has a robust lending profile, we can easily use it as the basis for a wide variety of math lessons. Ratios are explored by uncovering biases and gender roles in our lending; and percents, fractions, and circle graphs are explored by simply strategically eliminating some of the key figures on the team’s profile page and allowing the boys to fill in the blanks.

While many teachers feel that a yearlong study of microfinance in their math classroom is inconceivable, trust me when I say that there are smaller and more manageable approaches that can be weaved into all disciplines and grade levels. What’s important is finding real-world application of material and developing global competence in our students.

Connect with Kristen and Heather on Twitter.

Kiva U, Kiva’s educational program, has a robust curriculum for all grades and disciplines.

Photo of student on tablet courtesy of the author.

Group photo is courtesy of Brandon Smith, Kiva. Caption: Students at Town School for Boys met with Chelsea Clinton at Kiva to share their microlending project. She included Kiva in her book, It’s Your World: Get Informed, Get Inspired & Get Going!

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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