Electives, What is Your Choice?

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In every school that I have taught, there has been some form of electives in place. From photography to robotics to zoology to outdoor education, the idea is to provide an element of choice and agency. However, this choice is continually contradicted by an essentialist ‘core’ curriculum, where what is taught is decided long before the students arrive. This creates the circumstance where students enter electives feeling that they don’t really matter, for if it did then everyone would be doing it.

Another problem with electives is that they are often decided by looking at the core curriculum and trying to fill in the gaps. The issue with this is that the supposed offer of choice is undermined by the fact that students choose from a predefined list, but often have little say in what actually makes up that list. Although this can be answered by asking the students what they want to learn or are passion about once they are in the subject, there are often expectations already set about what such subjects mean through subject descriptions and historical hand me downs.

I was interested in reading Greg Miller’s post on how his school conducted an enquiry into their elective initiative. Through this process they sort to reinvigorate the various courses to make sure that they were delivering the best learning opportunity possible. As Miller described, the purpose was threefold:

  1. CLARIFY that is, to….. “Make clear or plain” the intent of the Year 9 Interest  Elective Initiative.

  2. DISTINGUISH that is, to…..“Recognise or note/indicate as being distinct or different from; to note differences between” current BOS approved/mandated courses and the  new courses.

  3. INVESTIGATE that is, to….. “Plan, inquire into and draw conclusions about” the best way to deliver Year 9 Interest Electives in 2015.

What stood out was that instead of back filling the subject areas, the focus was placed on the areas of: inquiry, self-directed learning, collaboration and connectivity.  Such innovative practises got me wondering about whether there were any other points of improvement that could be made to the age old elective programs?

One question that came to mind was what if all the electives worked together in a collaborative manner, each addressing a different area, but working towards a common goal? A few years ago, as a part of my Digital Publishing elective, we worked with the Photography, to take pictures of all the students for the school yearbook. However, that was only two classes. Imagine if you had six classes working towards a common goal, at what could be achieved? In conversation, Jon Andrews told me about the Big History Project run out of Macquarie University. Aimed at Year 9 and 10, it is about gaining a deeper understanding of “the cosmos, earth, life and humanity.” As is stated in the introduction, it “offers us the possibility to understand our universe, our world, and our humanity in a new way.”

Going beyond the Big History Project, broadly speaking, Project-Based Learning offers a model to work in a fluid and agile manner. In her work with Learning Futures, Valerie Hannon talks about the power of Project-Based Learning. One of the things that stands out are the many entry points available, whether it be a whole week or a few hours. For example, many schools are using Genius Hour as a means for introducing Project-Based Learning. I wonder if Genius Hour could work in the place of electives? Where instead of teachers taking set subjects, their role is to support students with whatever it is that they are doing.

A similar example to the Genius Hour, Passion Projects, 20% Time or whatever you want to call it is the account given by Jon Andrews in the book Experiences in Self-Determined Learning of ‘Immersion Studies’. (You can also hear a presentation of this on the TER Podcast.)  Like an electives program, Immersion Studies Time was a designated time in Early Years designed for students to engage with the Arts. What is significant about this initiative is that it fits with school’s heutagogical philosophy. It is not an event, a one off, rather it is another cog all running together.

I have taught in an environment that ran inquiry-based programs in two hour blocks. Beyond the issue that if there was something on that week, such as sport or a public holiday, students simply miss out on their dose of inquiry. The bigger problem was that, as Kath Murdoch points out, “we can’t expect kids to be curious ‘on demand’.” If such pushes to innovate, to wonder, to be curious are not celebrated and perpetuated elsewhere, then there is a danger that they often go nowhere. This starts, Murdoch explains, long before planning. It is a way of teaching.

What about you then? What are your experiences of electives? Of Genius Hour? Of heutagogical learning? I would love to know. Comments welcome, as always.


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Aaron Davis

I am an Australian educator supporting schools with the integration of technology and pedagogical innovation. I have an interest in how together we can work to make a better world.

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6 thoughts on “Electives, What is Your Choice?”

  1. A great read with many, high quality links. I was honoured to be mentioned in this post which starts with the mention of student agency.

    Where I am currently working we are exploring the idea of student agency. For me, student agency translates to an inclusive curriculum where students strive to become ‘self-directed learners’ through the provision of learning opportunities which involve them in more decision‐making processes through greater choice of subject matter, learning methods and pace of study. This sometimes, but not always, results in extensive use of digital technologies and can result in memorable experiences where students ‘learn by doing’ with relevance to the real world. Student involvement in determining new and exciting (non-mandated, non-core) electives in Year 9 & 10 is one way of developing student agency.

    Another consideration could be to consider what to do with ‘teaching time’ by reducing mandated hours for core subjects to their bare minimum requirements. Why is is that schools deliver 560 hours of English, or 480 hours of Maths, or 520 hours of Science across Years 7 to 10 when only 400 hours is required for each? Maybe even a reframing of terms such as ‘teaching time’ and ‘mandated hours’ to ‘learning time’ and ‘student agency’ could be a great start.

    Thanks for taking the time to write.

    Regards
    Greg

  2. Great thoughts and as provocative as always.

    One idea that you’ve discussed is that notion of all subject . elective areas working together, which I believe should be ‘almost’ absolutely mandated at certain points. Well, mandated is a bit strong, but firmly encouraged. The issue with this not happening more so related to teachers not wanting to, or, having the time to organise the integration of their subjects.

    I very recently heard of a college that did the exact of this where students in one particular class i believe, cooking/home eco/food technology, were wanting to raise money for something or other. They had the ‘math’ class looking at profit margins based on costs, the photography students taking images of the finalised products, the visual arts students design and create the packaging and the multimedia/media students develop the online /offline propaganda/advertising. From all reports, big success with a focus being on DEEP LEARNING.

    Could this not lend itself to elective type subjects, still being focused on their core curriculum, tying in with all others under one ‘banner’ or over arching topic? Think Challenge Based Learning but on a grande’ scale. Whole cohort rather than one inquiry unit with one class. Take this a step further. Why could students from other setting not work on joint inquiry based tasks? Digital technology breaks down, smashes down, barriers that once used to limit connectedness. I no longer have to bus 25 students 2 hours to another setting to collaborate. Thanks to G-Hangouts, Skype and even Facetime, that connectedness/collaboration is so much more fluid and accessible.

    All of this then of course almost drives students to be collaborative, think critically, become connected and demonstrate creativity, OUTSIDE of their own class, as if often not the case. I see countless planners and units of work that promote collaboration and connectedness, however, that limit students to the classroom itself.

    Food for thought!

    1. Thanks for the thought provoking comment Corrie. I was thinking of a group of students in a school collaborating. Sadly, I wasn’t pushing the idea enough. I love the possibility of connecting and collaborating between schools. I know that Anthony Speranza started investigating this using Google Apps and Genius Hour. So much potential and possibility.

  3. I have lost count how many meetings about electives I have participated in over the years. What should be offered? Which should run? Should students be guided or given free choice? Staffing? Fees? Materials? How to solve timetable issues? Should electives support mainstream subjects to improve academic performance? What is the educational value of electives such as basket weaving or making board games? Do electives need to have an educational value? I have heard electives promoted and challenged in so many ways that I could confidently offer The Philosophy of Electives elective!

    I wholehearted agree with your comments Aaron and those of Greg Miller too. “Elective” means a something that you elect, you choose to do. Surely this is different being required to pick from a selection list that others have assembled for you? With respect to Forrest, electives are ‘like a box of chocolates’. You might get to pick which chocolate you have, but someone else chose what flavours are in the box. Personally, I would rather make my own chocolates and experiment with creating my own flavours. Even if I mess it up, just let me give it a shot!.

    Teachers work very hard, often very creatively, putting together elective subjects that they sincerely believe will be interesting to students. To me though, this misses the point. Students should be choosing what they do. There must be constraints of course. OHS, time, costs, supervision and content appropriateness must meet specified criteria. Their must be accountability. Some sort of student contract outlining goals, timelines and product/outcome. Why can’t students use ‘elective’ time in ways THEY think would be interesting? Something along the lines of Genius Hour perhaps? Something that lets them be creative in ways they want to be creative.

    Otherwise we should stop calling them “Electives” because they are not; they are ‘Selections’!

    1. Thanks Alan for the great response. I could not agree more. Unless they are given the choice, then the notion of ‘elective’ is a ruse. What is worse is when students get their ‘third’ choice or don’t get a particular subject as they have had a similar subject in a previous block.

      Although the solution may be complicated, there has to be a better way.

      1. True about “third” choices. The least popular elective tends to be filled with students who are their because other electives choices were full or because they had not returned their selections on time. The students don’t want to be there and the teacher of that elective has a room full of disconnected, often disgruntled and disinterested students to manage. Situation lose lose!

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