creative commons licensed (BY-SA) flickr photo by mrkrndvs: http://flickr.com/photos/aaron_davis/16593420862

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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