This past Easter, to introduce the concept of income tax to my daughter, I took a third of her candy from her basket.
(Full disclosure: I already take her candy when she’s asleep, but now I’m going to justify it as part of her education. It’s very lucky the Easter Bunny has always brought my favourite candy to our house.)
In reality she’s got many years to go before she needs to worry about the CRA, but this had me wondering: what should kids learn about the tax man?
The Canadian Revenue Agency says there’s lots for kids to learn. In fact they offer lesson plans for high school teachers to teach in math classes, as well as social studies, economics and accounting.
These lessons are valuable for high school students says Shahal Rajan, a Learning Leader and math teacher at James Fowler High School in Calgary. At his school they use part of the CRA’s lesson plan and add to it, as it doesn’t cover all the outcomes that the government wants them to teach.
Rajan teaches Math 10-3, a course which is designed for students who will be entering the workforce after high school. They are taught lessons about sales tax, wages and buying groceries using unit pricing. Many of his students are immigrants to Canada who are learning far more than math in their lessons about income tax.
Teachers work together to use social studies, English, math and the province’s required CALM (Career and Life Management) classes to help students understand taxes in a way that’s meaningful to them.
This is called task design and is considered authentic learning, because it’s meaningful, practical and tangible explains Rajan. “Students are engaged and when they go away, they can actually use it, ‘Hey, I learned something’.”
Because many of his students are immigrants, Rajan says the big challenge is reading comprehension. “There are things in the income tax guide that students may not understand the meaning of.
“We use a lot of cross-curricular activities. We’ll join up with social studies, ‘can you give us a history of income tax’ for example. Or we’ll go to English and say ‘can we help these kids understand how to read these things.’ I’m only the math person, so I work with a lot of different teams to make sure my students understand income tax.”
The students will ask “why can’t I work under the table and save taxes?” So they go into the history of taxes, why taxes are important for services like maintaining roads and providing healthcare, he says.
Helping the whole family
Because his school has many students who don’t speak English or French at home, lessons about taxes can be valuable not just for high school students, but for their parents too.
“They’re coming from countries where say, income tax may not be a big priority,” says Rajan. “So they’re coming in with that mindset, but they’re coming out of it with ‘hey, I can teach my parents how to do this.’”
“I’ve had parents call me, and say ‘my kid is in your class, I need more information’. And we can get web resources or whatever else they need.”
Why don’t they teach this to all kids?
Rajan agreed that it would be useful, but says that in some math courses, there simply isn’t time to add on more subjects once they’ve covered the 55 outcomes that are required.
“Many students in the higher math courses are saying ‘when will I ever need this?’ In my Math 10-3 program, I haven’t heard that comment once.”