The Rise of the Electives and the Smorgasbord Kids (And Why Trades vs Academics is Obsolete)

One of the most common dichotomies in modern education is “trades vs. academics”. Supporters of one (often the trades) will decry the predominance of the other, and demand equal consideration from educators, government and society as a whole.

However, I think the debate is clichéd and misses something important.

One of the most noticeable trends I have witnessed in my 19 years of teaching in BC is the growing hegemony of secondary level electives. In grades 11 and 12, and particularly in larger urban and suburban schools, it’s really quite amazing the number of electives a student can choose from. Presumably, the explosion in electives is a response to the BC Ministry of Education’s reductive and counterproductive obsession with improving the graduation rate.

I hesitate to offer specific examples of these electives as I have taught some of them, and I fear the homicidal wrath of many teachers whose careers depend on these courses. (Yes, Serious Education Types, that was a joke.) Suffice to say, most of these courses are… ahem… not particularly rigorous. And that’s just fine, if you take one or two. The problem is that many students – a significant minority in the schools in which I’ve worked – embrace this smorgasbord and consume a diet almost completely composed of non-academic and non-trade electives.

This growth in these “third way” courses has been aided and abetted by a change in BC’s graduation requirements. In my opinion, these requirements have become so loose and flimsy that once you make it to senior secondary, it’s really quite difficult to fail if you choose the “right” courses, come to class every day, and do the work in class. [To be fair, some students face such atrocious personal lives that even this minimal set of expectations is beyond them.]

So what you have is an explosion of electives, many of which fulfill replace the so-called academic course requirements, and a grad plan that sets the bar so low you barely have to raise your feet.

But what does this have to do with the aforementioned dichotomy between trades and academics? Well, I view successful academic and trades students as belonging to the same group: they tend to be motivated and focused students who are generally willing to work hard for their future. Their course selections may be different (though not as different as you might think), but they are very similar in their focus on the future and their willingness to invest in themselves by working “beyond the minimum”. Collectively, they contrast with a third and growing group, a group of students who have a poor work ethic and want to get through school with as little effort as possible.* For this third group – the “smorgasbord kids” as I call them – the phenomenal growth in elective options has been a godsend. They quite consciously “game the system”, and choose courses and teachers in order to minimize work. And they are quite open about it. When I talk to some of them in my remedial language arts class, they agree, without trepidation, that they should be in a regular English class. But they’ve consciously chosen the easier path. For one bright young man, it is a desire to avoid homework. For a second, it’s a desire to work full time. And for a third, I kid you not, it’s because he wants more time to play video games. Not surprisingly, most of these students tell me they avoid vocational programs because they’re too much work.

I worry a lot about this third group. Many of them are quite bright and engaging, but they are doing themselves a terrible disservice. When they realize (sometime in the future) that those nagging teachers were right after all, and that a minimum wage job may not cover all the bases, it can be a dreadful struggle to make up for lost time. The classic example is a young man in his early twenties who I recently taught in a political science class at our local university.  He was in my office, almost in tears. His writing was extremely poor and he had trouble articulating a coherent and sustained argument. His essays barely earned him a “P”. I asked him what courses he took in high school, and, no surprise to me, it was a jumble of non-rigorous electives. He narrowly passed English 12, but did very well on his other courses. Apparently his GPA was very high when he graduated, yet he was completely unprepared for university when his desire for betterment finally arrived. He wasn’t ready for academics, and he wasn’t ready for the trades. He also wasn’t ready for business or the fine arts. He frankly wasn’t ready for anything.

So the contrast isn’t between academic kids and trade kids; for me, the most crucial distinction lies between those who are willing to work hard for their future and those who aren’t. Should we continue to empower the latter?


*It should be noted that many non-teaching educators and Ministry of Education apparatchiks deny these young people exist. The doctrine that adolescents naturally love to learn is so pervasive amongst the cognoscenti that any contrary notions are simply ridiculed and ignored. And if the upwardly mobile acknowledge that these kids exist, it’s obviously the fault of teachers. Set them free from the factory, so the argument goes, and adolescents will naturally choose challenging and enriching course work rather than the easiest way out. I’m sure that describes the teenagers you know.


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  1. on September 30, 2013 at 12:12 pm