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Teaching the value of a dollar

WWU, a leader in Economics Education, helps teachers prevent the next financial meltdown

Story by Mary Lane Gallagher

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Even English Teachers: Pam Whalley, director of WWU’s Center for Economics Education, teaches economics courses to hundreds of teachers each year. | Photo by Rachel Bayne
Cookie criteria: Brittany Esbenshade ponders a cookie in a decision-making exercise. | Photo by Rachel Bayne
Start small: A simple method can clarify tough decisions. | Photo by Rachel Bayne

As director of economics education at Western, Pam Whalley knows new teachers graduating from WWU will need a strong knowledge of economic principles to teach those concepts to kids.

To really make the lessons stick, they may need some chocolate chip cookies, too.

“And I strongly recommend you include some health-food cookies,” she tells her students in Economics 446, Economics for the Teacher.

“My goal is to make sure our teachers have the background and the training when they leave Western to make economics come to life in the classroom,” Whalley says.

Whalley, the director of WWU’s Center for Economics Education, is one of the state’s top experts in the subject. In addition to courses for pre-service teachers, Whalley also leads workshops around the state for teachers already in the classroom. And she is president of the Washington Council on Economics Education, housed at WWU’s College of Business and Economics.

The cookies Whalley passes out in little baggies in Economics for the Teacher will help illustrate a simple method to get kids to develop the most important skill they’ll need to navigate our increasingly complex economy: decision-making. From high school dropouts and teen-age pregnancies to credit card debt and catastrophic mortgages, evidence abounds that people of all ages make bad economic decisions.

“But when was the last time someone sat you down and taught you how to make a good decision?” she asks the class.

So Whalley has the students decide which of four chocolate chip cookies is the best using a simple method that can also clarify more complicated choices, such as colleges, health plans, jobs and mortgages.

“The reality is, resources are scarce, so people have to make choices,” Whalley says. “We want students to see that decisions have consequences. When we make a choice, we’re giving up something.”

If more people knew this, Whalley believes, perhaps we could have avoided the financial meltdown of the past two years.

“I think at its core is a failure of financial literacy,” she says. “No one held guns to people’s heads and said, ‘You will take out these loans.’ While there were fraudulent practices, we don’t educate our populace about being wary of fraud.”

While economics is included in the state learning requirements for social studies, it doesn’t get much attention compared with literacy, math, science and other subjects on state-required tests.

“I’ll have teachers tell me, ‘I’ll do this, but don’t tell my principal,’ ” Whalley says. “It’s like an underground movement.”

In 2008, more than 600 teachers took one of Whalley’s workshops, which are filled with ideas for all kinds of teachers to incorporate economics into their lesson plans.

Of course math teachers can use economics to bring a new relevancy to their classes, Whalley says, but so can English and history teachers.

“Think about all the stories that hinge on choices,” she says. “And to really understand history, you have to understand the economic forces behind it. They can relate it to the real world.”

So far, teachers from about 90 different classes have taken Whalley’s courses through the center, and almost all say they use at least something from the workshops.

“My favorite is the French teacher,” she says. “I had to ask. She teaches it on the ‘dead’ days: two days before Thanksgiving, homecoming week and before any break.”

Whalley knows why that teacher makes the effort.

“There are fewer and fewer things that children have control over as they grow up these days,” she says. “But if you give them control over their finances, they have control over their lives.”