Consumer education: coping with everyday life – shaping society

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Education systems can support learners in building consumer competences that are necessary for managing everyday life and for transforming the systems and environments of consumption. Isabelle Penning and Heike Müller explain how.

Children and adolescents today belong to the first generation of citizens to be datafied from the very beginning: their parents search the Internet for ways to get pregnant, or they use social media to post photos, from ultrasounds to graduation certificates. But what can and should happen with this data, today and in the future? Such questions already move children and adolescents, and the answers should not only be provided by companies. After all, consumption is a central area of life, with great significance for our participation in society and social positioning.

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In particular, and in addition to innate preferences and aversions, we learn what, how and why we do (not) consume. Educational processes related to the consumer role of citizens take place informally as well as in formal education. Three examples:

  • Nutrition: What food is served at home, in day care, at school, in canteens? What ideas do people develop about the origin and safety of food or about the value of work?
  • Money: Is money an openly discussed topic? How – at home, at school, in adult education; only between adults, perhaps in disputes, or also with children and adolescents? Who may co-dispose and have their own money?
  • Social media: Who shares which photos and videos, on which platforms, when and why? Who links whom, under what conditions and with what consequences? How does one get data about oneself deleted?

The aim of consumer education in general education is to enable all learners to lead a self-determined and responsible life by:

  • using independent consumer information,
  • exercising consumer rights,
  • acting competently to cope with everyday life,
  • building an understanding of the interactions between consumption, environment, market and society,
  • reflecting on the importance of consumption for identity and social integration, and
  • participating in shaping the framework of consumption and production patterns.

Consumer education cannot be assigned to a specific discipline but constitutes a task to which every subject can contribute. Small steps can already go a long way – for example, linking a Maths lesson on decimal arithmetic with consumption. In a German case study, the young protagonist receives a cellphone bill from his parents, as he has made several in-app purchases in a gaming app that was initially free. This raises questions that are relevant for the subject matter and for consumer education: How much is the bill? And who has to pay it when the protagonist is only fourteen years old? In our experience, this has a positive effect on the pupils’ motivation – and that of the educators.

To enable all learners to participate in and shape society, consumer education must be part of the cultural development of educational institutions and curricula from the very beginning and at all levels of the education system. The European Commission has made continuous efforts to protect and educate consumers across Europe. Nobody should reinvent the wheel, but there is an urgent need to turn it further to do justice to learners and life in the 21st century.


Isabelle Henning

Isabelle Penning is a junior professor for the didactics of technical-economic education in an inclusive context at the University of Potsdam. The focus of her research is on subject-specific teaching and learning methods, such as student-run companies and maker tasks, and on inclusive design.

Heike Mueller

Heike Müller is a researcher in subject-matter didactics of Work Studies Education at the Institute of Vocational Education and Work Studies at the Technische Universität Berlin. She is currently pursuing a doctoral degree with her research on consumer education.