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Crypto comes to the classroom
Dec 28, 2023

Crypto comes to the classroom

Cryptocurrency is now a part of personal finance classes in high schools across the country. Yanely Espinal, host of “Financially Inclined,” says teachers need more resources to teach their crypto-curious students.

The year was 2021 and the United States was in the thick of crypto-mania. Ads promoting the cryptocurrency Bitcoin featuring celebrities like Megan Thee Stallion and Tom Brady got a lot of attention from young fans.

Some ads touted cryptocurrency as a new type of currency getting a lot of hype. While those ads were right about the hype, they were wrong about crypto being new. Even back when those ads were made, Bitcoin — the first successful, decentralized cryptocurrency — had been around for well over a decade. Now, 2024 will mark 15 years since Bitcoin’s launch.

15 years is a drop in the bucket in historical terms, but literally a lifetime for teens.

Yanely Espinal, host of Marketplace’s “Financially Inclined” podcast, has been talking to teenagers about crypto and she says they have so many questions. She spoke with Marketplace’s Lily Jamali about how teachers are trying to figure out how to handle crypto-curious students.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Yanely Espinal: Teachers are surfacing saying we need cryptocurrency resources, our students want to learn about this, they have a lot of questions about it. And in the state of Georgia for the first time ever, there’s actually some learning standards that the teachers have to align instruction to that actually includes cryptocurrency and historical examples of buying speculative investments. And so now that teachers are seeing that they have to explain how this works to students, they’re looking for resources to help them wrap their minds around it first.

Lily Jamali: You’re hearing from teachers, but you’re also talking to students. You just finished a nationwide tour where you spoke with kids from 37 high schools across the country. What are some of the questions that you’re hearing from students about crypto?

Espinal: I get a lot of questions about crypto and investing in general from students. I think one of the big things that students just want to know is, where can I put my money to grow it? They recognize that inflation is high, they’re seeing the headlines in the news and social media, and they’re seeing celebrities go off on social media complaining about inflation, too. I think they’re very aware.

Jamali: And do you just tell them not crypto? That crypto is not the place to grow their money?

Espinal: Well, I think we have to avoid two things. One is we have to avoid evangelizing around any particular financial topic or strategy. But we also have to avoid the opposite of that, which is trying to actively dissuade students from pursuing any kind of financial behaviors or activity. So, I think that as educators, our job is to educate them, empower them, and inform them and then say to them, so what do you think now that you’ve learned everything that we covered in this course? Now that you’ve studied it and explored it and analyzed it, what do you think? Do you think it’s a safe investment for you? Or a good place for you to put your money and your family’s money?

Jamali: Over the last year or two, a lot of people have lost so much money investing in crypto and we know there’s been some predatory behavior targeting people from marginalized backgrounds for these kinds of investments.

Espinal: Right. And I think that’s the problem with it. Right now, what we know about crypto is what we often have heard from the media from what’s happening online, and not really from an educational source. It’s very hard to find somebody who’s not invested in crypto or actively against the idea of crypto who’s just a neutral. Like an educator who is just like, “I’ve got no skin in the game, I just want you to understand what this is and how it functions so you can decide if you’re ready to invest in crypto or if it’s best for you to stay away.” Because you don’t need to invest in crypto, you don’t need to participate, but what you do need to do is make informed choices with money. So, you have got to understand crypto, you have to know how it works and why it was developed. Why some people are for it and why some people are against it and where you stand.

Jamali: Do you think young people like high schoolers have a different approach to crypto than maybe someone who’s older and has made more investments over their lifetime within the traditional U.S. financial system?

Espinal:  Oh, yeah. 100%. I’ve met students who were telling me they already have crypto and put $50 or $100 in. I met a student who said that they put in almost $1,000. The thing is that they saw so many celebrities talking about this and they saw the hype around it. That hype machine creates FOMO. The fear of missing out is such a strong psychological influence and they wanted to be part of that, especially when they see people they admire doing it.

Jamali: That’s what worries me, though. There is so much hype and there are a lot of questions about whether celebrities like Larry David or Tom Brady should have been sending that message about crypto. These are people these kids admire and they were getting compensated to do that.

Espinal: Exactly. That’s why it’s important for us to encourage students to analyze what’s going on and what the source of the information is. They’re like, “I saw Megan Thee Stallion teaching me about Bitcoin on a Cash App commercial.” And I say, okay pause right there and let’s back up, right? It’s a commercial for Cash App. We have to try to teach them to think this way. Because this generation, I have to say, from the students that I’ve worked with in high school, they are part of a generation that does not see the lack of privacy online and the constant barrage of advertising and marketing tactics being used against us online, they don’t see that as an invasion of privacy. They don’t see it as something that’s manipulative or negative. They just see it as normal. Because ever since they can remember getting on an iPad for the first time or playing on mom’s phone for the first time, this has always been the normal internet that they’ve experienced and known. So, it’s on us as adults to tell them “You’re being manipulated by what you’re seeing online and you’re taking it as fact instead of recognizing that it’s an advertising campaign.” We need to teach them how to recognize and decipher between information that’s presented factually and from an unbiased source versus information that’s clearly promotional material.

Jamali: It sounds like there’s some financial literacy being taught here but also some media literacy. What has your experience been like teaching teachers about crypto and giving them tools for teaching about it?   

Espinal: It’s so much fun because I teach a certification course that’s nine hours of instruction and the tenth hour is an exam that teachers have to pass to show they actually mastered the content. And the very fist session of the course is just understanding the history of money. The teachers just get so shocked because they’re like, “are we not going to talk about Bitcoin and the blockchain?” I’m like, no, no, no, no, before we even get into any of that, we all have to agree on a common definition for money. Because most people think money is dollars and coins or credit cards. They think of the payment types that they’ve experienced, rather than thinking of the concept of money, which is really anything that generally can be accepted as a form of payment for goods or services or to repay debt or to pay your taxes.

Once we start talking about these things, we go through a historical lens, and I share with them Aristotle’s six principles for what’s considered sound money. Whatever you use as money, it has to be scarce. It’s got to be durable, recognizable, divisible. It’s got to be portable, and it’s got to be fungible. So, when teachers start learning this stuff, they go, “Wait what? Aristotle was talking about what makes something a good form of money back in like 350 BC?” So, when we start thinking about money through this historical lens, we can understand why crypto currency might be criticized for not being a good form of money or why it might be perceived to be a potentially good alternative to traditional forms of money. Because we’re looking at it through the lens of Aristotle’s principles of sound money,

Jamali: I can tell you; I never learned this stuff in school and I’m so glad that that education is getting to people now. And on that point, 25 states now require students to take a personal finance course before they can graduate from high school. Is cryptocurrency a part of that curriculum?

Espinal: It really varies from state to state because in each state, the legislation doesn’t necessarily tell you specifically what you have to teach. Most states will choose to create their own personal financial literacy standards of instruction and then the teachers will have to align their lessons and their objectives to those standards. I think right now, it’s very much in the exploratory phase. Like let’s just expose students to these concepts that they themselves are curious about. It’s interesting when you have a class about money and then students come into that class thinking we’re going to be talking about what they perceive money to be, like if they think cryptocurrency is money, and then you don’t even mention it in the classroom, then they feel that your instruction is irrelevant. They’re like, “you’re not even going to talk to us about crypto, how is this class about money?” So, I think it’s very important for educators to stay up to date with the instruction that they’re teaching their students so that the students can actually see that this is relevant to their real lives.

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