Jul 31, 2018

What ever happened to book reports?

I remember the good old days in school with monthly book reports. I’m not sure when they disappeared, or maybe they just morphed into some other form of more creative self-expression. What was more important, the product that was turned in, or getting kids to actually read books? How can we get students to read books not just for entertainment but to learn about something important?  Here are my thoughts after reading books with the FinLit Fanatics Book Club this summer.


1) Lead by example: read the books yourselves and refer to them in class

I know how hard teachers work. I taught in public high schools for six years---the hardest job I ever had! There never seems to be enough time to do anything for yourself, including reading. And if you are going to read, you would probably rather read something NOT related to what you teach! Especially in the summer! But I can’t stop thinking about a cartoon I saw a few months ago floating around social media that drives the point home. We may not be parents to our students, but we definitely can set examples for them.

Let’s talk about a book that you could read and incorporate in your personal finance class. For the month of July, the NGPF FinLit Fanatics book club selection was The Little Book of Common Sense Investing, by John C. Bogle. Bogle, known to his friends as Jack, was the founder and former chairman of the Vanguard Group, the only “client-owned” mutual fund company and one that has consistently tops the rankings over its 40+ year history. So, if you were going to read just one book on investing ever in your lifetime, this would be a good choice.

Many people passed on this month’s book….July was too busy, and perhaps they looked at the 267 pages (albeit very little pages) as I did and wondered why it would take 267 pages to tell us to stick to traditional index funds, which Jack invented, and which we already knew about because we have read all of the relevant blogs and materials on NGPF.org! If you read the book, you quickly realize there are some great, relatable tidbits that you could use in class during your lessons on investing.

Here are just a few of the “tidbits” I found to be most compelling and useful:

  • Gotrocks Parable
    • What is the stock market?
    • What happens when you try to “beat” the market
  • Components of Stock Market Returns and historical patterns
    • Corporate Earnings
    • Speculative Return
  • Relentless Rules of Humble Arithmetic
    • Compounding
    • Impacts of costs and taxes
  • Reversion to the Mean
    • Data used to prove ridiculous odds in picking a consistent “winner”
  • How investing in the future will be different
    • Dealing with lower returns to the market
  • Asset allocation
    • When do bonds make sense
    • ETFs – the newest thing – good or bad?

I also appreciate how Bogle lays out the chapters. For you skimmers out there, key points are highlighted and easy to find. He also ends the chapters with a section called “Don’t take my word for it” in which he includes relevant quotes from other noted industry experts on the topic.

2) Come up with a motivating assignment

You are the teachers. You know your kids and what they can do. I will simply share with you my thoughts for ways to incorporate a book like the Bogle book into the curriculum.

  • Perhaps in an honors or advanced class, you could expect all of your students to read the entire book over the course of your investing unit, and design a “book report” to be the final assessment for the unit. Julius Prezelski of Mt. St. Joseph High School in Baltimore offers the opportunity to read a book from a list of relevant finance books (the Bogle book was one of them) and put together a 5-7 minute "Ted" talk on it as an alternative to a final exam (I think for his seniors).  
  • I also think the book could be divided into groups of chapters (along the lines of the key concepts listed above) and assigned to groups to digest and report the key lessons back to the class. (Learning by teaching.)
  • You could design a quantitative project around one of the data-driven lessons in the book, perhaps comparing investment returns (gross and net of costs) for two or three types of funds or portfolios (including a broad market index fund as the baseline) over a set time.  Or assign one of the projects, number chugs or data crunches in the NGPF Investing Unit (after reading some/all of the book).  
    • William Bernstein’s If You Can—more of a pamphlet than a book with a fee download—is also a great one to use as the basis for this sort of assignment.
  • Another idea would be to have your students research a few funds (domestic equity, foreign equity, bonds, index funds, ETFs) and figure out in the fine print exactly what the true costs are.

We won’t always be there to help our students once they leave the classroom. Maybe we can set them on a path to independent learning by showing them the value of a good book.

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