Finance Fridays: Math + Social Impact Through Kiva

by Matt Callahan, Scott Center Associate Director

In the spring of 2022, math teacher Christina Tran-Kenyon and the Scott Center teamed up to explore the intersection of math instruction and social impact. Born from a desire to integrate more diversity, equity, inclusion, justice, and action standards into her curriculum, Christina reached out to Scott Center Director Annie Makela to co-plan and deliver a series of lessons in sixth grade to increase students’ understanding of finance as a force for social good, while simultaneously teaching and reinforcing essential math skills. Finance Fridays became a hit with students, providing an opportunity to understand their math instruction in context, while also glimpsing the power of finance for global social impact. 

Students first got an introduction to the microlending model of Kiva, a core partner of the Scott Center. Students learned the basics of loans, how interest operates, and how capital has traditionally flowed. They then learned how Kiva is different by understanding in context how individuals can contribute to a loan through the site to finance an undertaking that is not being financed traditionally through a lender. There were many questions about the risks associated with microlending, demonstrating a critical engagement with the concepts, while others lauded the aim of Kiva: to provide capital to those who traditionally are left out of finance. 

Students then applied their math learning by looking up a borrower, reading their story, finding out how much they are seeking to borrow, and calculating how many lenders would need to finance the loan at $25 each. The emphasis in sixth-grade math is to find many ways to solve this problem, only one of which is to use the standard algorithm. Students were challenged to demonstrate representations of the answer–some formed 100s by using four 25s, others multiplied 25 by 10 to find $250, then added those together. Then students worked backward: if there were 20 borrowers, how much would each have to contribute if they all contributed the same amount? Again, white board markers and pencils were flying. We closed that session by highlighting how different this model is: many individuals loaning relatively small amounts to other individuals, and contrasted that with the traditional financing model. Little did students know it was about to get a bit more complicated.


We began our next sessions of Finance Fridays by asking students to imagine how the microlending actually took place in practice. Most students imagined that when a lender gave money, it was transferred directly into the bank account of the borrower. We then led students through the actual lending and borrowing process: on-the-ground field partners lend to vetted borrowers immediately, with low interest being paid to the field partner, who relays the story of the borrower to Kiva, who posts it on their website. Borrowers find the profile on Kiva and lend to the borrower through Kiva. Kiva transfers the money to the field partner. The field partners use that money to lend to someone else. When the loan is repaid to the field partner, they reimburse Kiva, who then passes the money back to the borrower. The lender can then decide to reinvest, donate to Kiva, or to withdraw their money. Students reflected on this process by noting correctly that, while interest is being charged, that money is staying in the community because the field partners are the ones charging interest. They also correctly noted that, while the profit is staying in the community, the risk is spread through the borrowers. So, while the benefits are reaped in the community, the potential downside is shared by many. One student remarked, “It wouldn’t hurt me to lose $20. I’d survive!”  

These mathematicians then dug into the Kiva website and found a borrower to focus on. They created posters with information about the stories of the individual borrowers and the amount they were seeking. Again, students calculated the borrower’s need, finding how many people would need to support the loan at a given price and how much lenders would have to lend to divide it equally. Students used the algorithm and representations of the problem. They got personally invested in this part of the project, asking questions and seeking further information about the lives and interests of the borrowers. Students also demonstrated strong understanding of the process by finding the field partner information on Kiva and looking up more information about their operations. Some asked, “How close is this field partner to the borrower?” Others, “I wonder if the field partners know this borrower personally?” 

This mini-unit wrapped up with students choosing one task from a menu of options: some created short videos explaining the Kiva lending process, others chose to profile their borrower, and some simply walked the viewer through their math, explaining their reasoning. The biggest win was hearing students ask, “Is it Finance Friday today?!” 

In the end, we saw an important trend: some students who feel less confident in their math skills felt much more confident with this task. Perhaps it was because students were understanding their math in context, or perhaps it was because they understood the Kiva process and could focus more fully on the math content. Either way, it’s clear that students are ready to engage in the rigorous analysis of social impact finance through the lens of math. Ms. Tran-Kenyon is already looking ahead to next year, with goals of incorporating more types of impact investing, as well as some work on percentages (to calculate interest) and ratios. The future of Finance Fridays is bright!