Last year, Berlin education psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer asked 1,000 citizens a few simple questions: Are German government bonds safer than owning stocks? Do the Danes use the euro? What does it mean if I have to pay interest on my home loan?
The results were not good. It turns out that more than a third was unable to give a risk assessment of a German government bond. More than half did not know that the Danish still used the krone, and a whopping 70 percent had problems calculating interest.
This basic lack of financial knowhow, according to education researchers, economists and employers, can be attributed to the lack of economics education in schools.
The state of Baden-Württemberg in southwest Germany has decided to tackle this issue head-on. As of next year, the subject will be on the training syllabus for high school teachers. And from 2016, economics will be taught in schools across the state.
Baden-Württemberg state ministers Nils Schmid (economy), Andreas Stoch (culture) and Theresia Bauer (science) have prepared the way for this new economics offensive in schools and universities.
“It is not about ‘economizing’ human beings. It is about empowering citizens, so they are not out of their depth later in life with investment advisors or insurance salesmen.”
Mr. Stoch said that the initiative is intended to help students “represent their own interests in the economy and society, consciously and independently.” Supporters of the change agree that having a handle on the basic principles of everyday economics will empower people in all aspects of life.
This is nothing short of a revolution for school curriculums in Germany. Math was made mandatory in Prussian schools in the early 19th century. Then came mandatory inclusion of history and geography and, more recently, technology and law.
“It has to be part of the skills set of every young person in Germany nowadays to know how the economy functions,” Mr. Schmid said. “It is a huge opportunity to bring school and working environments closer together.”
Eva Marie Haberfellner is supporting the project on behalf of the education initiative of Stuttgart-based publisher Dieter von Holtzbrinck (Handelsblatt, Tagesspiegel, Die Zeit, etc.). “The subject should feature topics relevant to mature consumers, business ethics, sustainability and simulated games set in business/economic reality,” Mrs. Haberfellner said.
Ms. Haberfellner reassured critics who might say commercial interests would intrude on the everyday lives of trainee teachers and schoolchildren. “It is not about ‘economizing’ human beings. It is about empowering citizens, so they are not out of their depth in discussions later in life with investment advisors or insurance salesmen,” she said.
If the politicians get what they want, the subject will be offered as part of the curriculum at all universities in Baden-Württemberg that have teacher-training facilities. Initially the main focus will be at the University of Tübingen, where the Dieter von Holtzbrinck Foundation has an endowed professorship for economic didactics.
For this to work, teachers need training first. Currently, economics isn’t included in the curriculum at any German state, let alone at the teacher-training level, so teachers have only been partially trained to communicate the economic realities of life to schoolchildren.
“In my opinion, future business and economics teachers will have to be able to explain economic processes and contexts in terms of their pupils’ everyday living environment and experience. They will also need to use practical examples from the economy,” said Bernd Engler, who leads the University of Tübingen.
Now Lower Saxony in northern Germany is following suit and developing initiatives similar to those in Baden-Württemberg.
Sven Prange is reporter in chief of Handelsblatt and head of the “reports and names” section. To contact the author: email@example.com