Math Comes to Life Through 5th Grade Classroom Economy

5th Graders Love Math!It was payday at Calhoun, and people were busy depositing their checks, paying rent and reconciling their bank accounts. But these weren’t your typical employees: the scene was being played out in Molly Cohen’s fifth grade math class, where students have been engaged in a classroom simulation as part of an ongoing project in financial literacy.

For this fifth grade economic construct, students earn pretend money through such jobs in the classroom as homework monitor, administrative assistant, banker and even loan officer. Students receive bi-monthly paychecks for their work (printed to look like real paychecks with tax deductions), and are responsible for paying for basic needs--rent for their seats. Once they’ve paid their rent, fifth graders can decide to save their remaining money or purchase coupons for certain privileges, such as having lunch with Molly or watching a video in class.

Fifth grade math topics come to life through the lens of the classroom economy: students practice working with decimals while balancing the withdrawal and deposit columns of their bank sheets; they work on percentages when calculating the interest of a loan; and through the simulated banker-client relationship, they learn to articulate these numerical concepts and work together to solve a problem.

5th Graders Working Hard on MathThe classroom economy also instills a key non-math skill: responsibility. “When [my students] get a check, they work harder to hold on to it than they would a homework assignment, since no replacements are given out for lost checks,” says Molly, who adds that they also learn the importance of preparing for unexpected life events. Early on, the class made a series of “Life Happens Cards.” When one is drawn, a student is faced with either a financial emergency (ex: “you tripped on your way to school and owe $75 in insurance fees”) or surprise (ex: “your grandma sent you $100 for your birthday”).

By bringing real-world situations into the classroom, Calhoun fifth graders are learning first-hand about the impact of their own financial decisions. But the ultimate aim of the classroom economy project goes beyond creating smarter spenders. “When math is hands-on, it resonates more with students,” says Molly. “They’re much quicker to do the math when it’s put in a real-world context.”