Electives during distance learning: how schools can offer students thousands of options

For Schools Sep 08, 2020

Quick Look

Engagement and electives go hand in hand

  • Traditional schools have the budget, staff, and resources to teach core subjects well, especially during distance learning
  • But to meet a students' interests and needs, schools need to offer electives, too
  • Schools struggle to offer a wide variety of electives because of staffing, scheduling, and budget contraints
  • Fortunately, Outschool's live online classes can help schools massively broaden the range of electives they offer students (with little to no extra work from your teachers and admin)

Imagine the weekly schedule of a fifth grade student named Jared...

Most of the instruction Jared gets is in math and ELA. The teacher assigns some asynchronous science and social studies. And if he’s lucky, he has some music, art, and physical education a few times a week.

How many of Jared’s interests and needs are addressed by this schedule?

Now, imagine Jared learns his core subjects, but in between, he also gets to...

...learn about live animals in a class taught by a zookeeper.

...explore Spanish in a class featuring the music of Taylor Swift.

...build his communication skills in a Minecraft engineering class.

Which option leads to the more well-rounded, prepared, and engaged student? If you’re thinking option two doesn’t sound like a typical school curriculum, then you’re right.

But we’ll get back to that later.

Why traditional schools teach core subjects well

Forces in and out of traditional schools make core subjects the logical focus for teaching and learning. Historically, the core subjects are what parents expect. State testing focuses on math and ELA, and often includes science and social studies. Colleges expect to see grades for these subjects on transcripts and employers expect levels of proficiency in these areas, too

Additionally, staffing and budgeting limits push schools to focus on core subjects, and to develop the curriculum, support structures, and processes to help students learn these subjects well. And teachers learn how to teach them during teacher prep programs.

Traditional schools, by design, teach the core subjects effectively.

As schools rebound from spring school closures, it’s more important than ever to have focused instructional priorities. In many cases, it makes sense for schools to focus more on core subjects, so students can build literacy and numeracy skills after a spring of stagnation or learning loss. Plus, many state and federal testing requirements will be back on school districts’ plates this year, as Betsy Devos has told districts not to expect the same waivers that they received in the spring.

Overall, both the capacity of schools and expectations from governments, colleges, employers and families make core subjects the necessary focus of traditional schools.

But the core subjects are not enough

However, the core subjects on their own make for an incomplete education. Students need to explore passions in interesting, personalized elective classes, too.  Why? Here are two big reasons.

Electives open the door to engagement

This fall, many students will continue to learn from home in less than ideal environments. This can be demotivating for kids who depend on the support and routine of traditional school settings.

Electives can be a transformative experience for helping a child develop an identity as a learner.

When students participate in interest-based electives, though, they get the nudge needed to engage in school. After a student makes the decision to put forth effort in a class that they genuinely enjoy, they get to experience the positive benefits of class that may have been previously foreign to them. They receive positive feedback from teachers and peers. They contribute meaningfully to academic discussions. They get tangible evidence of the connection between their effort and their progress.

Meeting students where they are by providing them options for choice-based electives can be a transformative experience for helping a child develop an identity as a learner.

Give your students 1000s of elective choices with Outschool

Electives offer students a competitive advantage

Students need to experience a broad range of topics to prepare for the working world.  Look no further than the popular book Range by David Epstein, which highlights the benefits individuals experience from developing skills and knowledge across a wide swath of interests. In Epstein’s research, he found “a raft of studies that showed how technological inventors increased their creative impact by accumulating experience in different domains, compared to peers who drilled more deeply into one.”

For students to thrive in an ever-accelerating world, they need the chance to experience a wide range of topics, not just the core subjects.

Driven by genuine interest, students can build background knowledge and skills that carry over to their core classes. Renown education leader Robert Marzano’s research suggests that when students have a broader base of knowledge to learn from, they can more effectively identify similarities and differences between topics and concepts.

For students to thrive in an ever-accelerating world, they need the chance to experience a wide range of topics, not just the core subjects.

Offering electives is challenging for schools

There are challenges to schools offering the elective program that students need, especially in these times.

It’s hard to offer a “taste test”

It’s difficult for students to explore different subjects in a traditional school setting. Students may get stuck in an elective they’re not interested in because of scheduling or staff issues. Students’ schedules often are set once in the fall, with a small window for revisions. After that, it’s inconvenient for students to rearrange their schedule to fit their interests.

Through Outschool’s one-time classes, students can explore a variety of elective topics during a single session without committing to a full semester devoted to a subject.

Teaching staff are limited

Teachers typically have credentials and degrees making them well-suited to teach one core subject. These teachers often are genuinely interested in their subjects, too, staying well-informed and skilled in these areas.

Because fields evolve so rapidly, though, and most brick & mortar teachers are working full-time, they often lack the recent, real-world professional experience required to offer specific electives that are cutting-edge and in areas outside of their content area.

Remember that “live animals” class I mentioned in the hypothetical intro to this post? On Outschool, students can take that class, and it’s taught by a professional zoo keeper. You can imagine that this scenario is unlikely to take place in most traditional schools.

School budgets don’t grow on trees

School budgets are limited, and electives often get only a small percentage of the total budget.  Also, the money is often allocated in advance. Schools develop an elective, hire a teacher to write the curriculum, assign a teacher to teach it, and purchase materials.

If there is a surge in interest in a specific area, few districts can quickly decide to devote a teacher’s time, curricular resources, and building space to a new elective. Even if they did have the budget, teachers’ and students’ schedules are already set, so it’s impractical to disrupt them in the middle of the year.

On Outschool, teachers can quickly create and offer high-quality classes to leverage current students' interests and get them excited to learn. For example, teachers create classes about Minecraft, LEGOs, and recently-published YA novels.

As many students learn in a remote or hybrid environment this fall, school resources will be stretched thin. To help kids keep building their foundational knowledge and skills, many schools will make the appropriate choice to focus on teaching core subjects.

By offering thousands of classes taught by passionate teachers, Outschool can help schools fill in the gaps. When your school partners with Outschool, you can keep focusing on teaching core subjects, while still giving your kids the chance to explore their passions and develop a range of skills and interests they need for a well-rounded, engaging education.

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Gerard Dawson

Gerard Dawson is a teacher, parent and writer for Outschool.

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