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Can 'Curious George' Teach Economics?

Can children's literature be used to teach economics to elementary school students?

Some think so. The Council for Economic Education calls it "sneak-onomics." I ran across the term while reading the agenda for CEE's national conference Oct. 7-10 in St. Petersburg, Fla. It has a whole session dedicated to the idea. Here's the description:

Sneak-onomics: Children's Literature as a Hook for Economic Thinking

Are you an elementary educator who loves children's literature? Then you will find some interesting and engaging ideas on how to use ideas in children's literature as hooks for interdisciplinary lessons that infuse economic concepts and decisionmaking. These real-world E-STEM (Economic, Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) lessons begin with a problem that originates in children's literature and jumps out of the pages into real-world decision making.

But is this really a thing? That's what I wondered when I came across the term. Tons of edu-jargon, acronyms, and catch phrases have been coined throughout the years. Some, like STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) have caught on. Others haven't. 

While there is little evidence that the actual term "sneak-onomics" exists in bigger circles than on the CEE agenda, the idea it refers to—using children's literature to teach economics—really does exist.

The conference presenter, Deborah Kozdras, is an instructor and chief creative officer at the Gus A. Stavros Center for Economic Education at the University of South Florida. She holds workshops to train teachers on the concept. (She actually doesn't call it "sneak-onomics" herself but says the term is growing on her.) The idea basically boils down to teaching students decisionmaking skills and how to "think like an economist" by weighing things like costs and risks and benefits, she said.

Kozdras started teaching this idea at the request of Florida elementary school teachers in her area who said that they just didn't have enough hours in the school day to fit in lessons on social studies.

"We wanted to look at how we can sneak in more," she said. She worked with the school districts to develop the training program.

Kozdras isn't the only one who has thought to use children's literature to teach economics. There are several websites that provide examples of how to do it.

Among them:

  • The Council for Economic Education, Classroom Clues; and the University of Arkansas. There's even a curriculum guide you can buy on Amazon.com
  • The Center for Entrepreneurship and Economic Education (CEEE) at the University of Missouri-St. Louis  posted a presentation and lesson plans on the topic during its 2013 conference. One lesson explained how to use the book, A Chair for My Mother, to teach the economic concepts of scarcity, opportunity cost, income, and savings.
  • Also in St. Louis, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis is hosting a workshop July 9 on how to use popular children's stories and a whiteboard to teach personal finance. The workshop is on CEEE's list of recommended events next to more familiar programs like the Stock Market Game and an entrepreneurship challenge.
  • Rutgers University has an entire web page called EconKids that is dedicated to the idea. It reviews new children's books on how well they teach economic concepts. It has a "top five" list and a "book of the month," although it appears the list is no longer being updated.

It's unclear how many teachers actually use the concept in their classrooms. Kozdras said a "couple hundred" teachers take her  workshops every year. She hopes showcasing the idea at the CEE conference will spread the word further.

The lessons are geared toward students in kindergarten through 5th grade. Children learn better if the subject matter is relatable, according to Kozdras. Plus, teachers can kill two birds (or more) with one stone by teaching economics along with literacy and problem solving. This is especially helpful given teachers' time constraints and can make the lessons more engaging, she said.

Kozdras also has a teaching blog called Yumonomics, which offers lesson ideas. She centers those lessons around food, hence the name of her site.

One example she lists is the book, Curious George and the Pizza Party. Teachers can use that popular children's book to guide students through math questions. For example, they can figure out how much pizza they need by determining how many people will be there and how much pizza each person will eat.

Read on for a Q&A with Kozdras on her workshops. And if you are using this idea in your classroom or school, leave a comment. I'd love to hear about it.

Q: How did "sneak-onomics" get started?

"It got started when one of the supervisors of one of our surrounding districts mentioned that it's very difficult for (elementary school) teachers to get time to teach social studies. In fact, some districts have only five minutes because of the focus on literacy and math. We wanted to look at how we could sneak in more of the social studies. One of the big ways is through (teaching) economic decisionmaking."

"The whole idea of sneak-onomics is because teachers are so pressed for time so I tell them it's not about economics; it's about decisionmaking. If we can get kids to think about choices rather than just making that instant choice, perhaps they'll make  better financial choices, too."

Q: How does it work?

"In almost all (children's) books someone has to make a choice. It may not be monetary and that's OK. You have to teach about the choice and that there are consequences to every choice. So we try to sneak in the concept of decisionmaking wherever we can. We're teaching them to slow down your thinking and figure out how to make the best choice. Think like an economist. Decisionmaking is also part of the civics standards."

Q: Can you give us an example?

"It's always about decision making. When we have a specific problem—when someone wants something and there's scarcity—then there's costs and benefits and opportunity costs. We talk about how we can trade things and the consequences of choice. Say you're reading a story about Jack and the Beanstalk. Instead of doing what his mother asks him, he trades the cow for magic beans. So you ask what are the opportunity costs and what are the unintended consequences. It all worked out OK, but there also was that part where the giant was trying to eat him.

Three Little Pigs is a great example. They all want houses. One decided he was going to work harder and make his house sturdy. The others made a different choice, and there were consequences." 

Q: Can you do sneak-onomics work with other subjects too?

"Yes. In some workshops we've embedded the decisionmaking in with the science workshops. Students have to read a letter from a company and (solve a problem.) For example, they have to develop some new cookies. They have to figure out what type to make, what are the flavors people like best, what are the costs of the flavors, and the kids look at that data and explain why they made that decision. So you're having them read different texts like charts and graphs, and they're writing a letter back to the company. You have math, reading, science, and decisionmaking."

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