Before students even reach senior year, there’s a lot of pressure to choose a career path or college major and have everything planned out by the time they graduate high school. As most people know from experience, this is oftentimes much easier said than done. Personally, I know more than a handful of people over the age of 50 who are still trying to figure out what they want to do when they grow up. And I only figured out in the last couple of years what exactly I wanted to do (and who knows, that could change again in another few years!).
That’s why I’ve always seen a significant amount of value in taking electives. Thanks to the many I was able to explore in school, I had an easier time narrowing down the overwhelming number of potential career pathways that beckoned me upon graduation. At the middle- and high-school levels especially, electives are crucial to helping students discover their passions, weed out the subjects they’re not that interested in, and get the most out of their time in school.
Why Take Electives?
To Develop Interests and Abilities
To one teacher, offering electives at her school means getting to watch “a team of two second-language students being led by a student with autism as they describe the features of their [project] to a panel of engineers. Or watching the shyest girl in the class appear on stage as Lady Gaga.” Electives offer the perfect opportunity to give students the literal or figurative stage to showcase their talents and develop new interests and abilities.
Outside of the self-exploration electives offer, performance-oriented classes like music, public speaking, and athletics also teach students to concentrate, improvise, work through nerves, and perform in front of a crowd. Undoubtedly, electives also help students develop social, practical, and behavioral skills, and can boost their confidence at the same time.
To Explore STREAM
STEM, STEAM, and STREAM are acronyms that stand for science, technology, (reading), engineering, (arts), and math. While students get the chance to learn about many of these subjects separately in core courses, they may not be able to experience the cohesive learning paradigm that’s at the heart of the STEM/STEAM/STREAM movement. That’s why there’s even more value in taking electives, because many of them integrate these subjects together around a specific topic. Like culinary arts, for example. Science shows up when mixing the ingredients together; technology in knowing how to use different appliances; reading to understand the recipe; arts in plating an aesthetically pleasing dish; and math to measure ingredients.
When an elective pairs real-world applications with fairly abstract concepts, academic content becomes “stickier,” and students feel empowered to take ownership of their learning.
To Learn About the World
Not only do electives help students develop their skills and better understand themselves, but they also help students better understand the world around them. One of the electives I took focused on the study of video games—something I didn’t have much experience with. That course really made me appreciate all the intricate elements of storytelling and graphic design that go into creating a whole new virtual universe.
On a larger scale, elective courses like criminal justice, legal studies, and psychology focus on important issues and really open students’ eyes to what’s going on beyond their own world. These subjects can inspire them to pursue careers in such fields, which the world always needs more of.
To Throw Some Fun into a Busy Schedule
Taking electives creates a richer learning experience while also helping to break up an otherwise rigorous schedule or reengage students in school. Some students are bored by the content or bogged down by the demands of core courses, so an elective like digital photography, fashion design, or sports marketing might be just the academic “break” they need to get them through the day. And when you give students the control to choose these “fun” courses—essentially taking ownership of their learning—they tend to really invest in their coursework and stay motivated to learn.
Additionally, the overall tone of elective courses tends to be a little more lighthearted, so even when tests are involved, it’s not the same feeling as the standard high-stakes exams students are used to taking in core courses. That difference alone can help students breathe a sigh of relief and thoroughly enjoy the class without stressing over a big state exam at the end.
As a New York high school senior said, electives enable students to “learn about what they love rather than dictating what they should be learning.” It doesn’t have to be all hard work all the time.
And Finally, To Be Prepared
When students make it into the workforce, it’s important to remember that certain skills simply cannot be taught. Employers cannot give employees creativity, drive, passion, or self-esteem. Those are things students have to discover within themselves, and elective courses help build such skills.
In terms of career-specific knowledge, students need access to classes that prepare them for the careers that will be most readily available once they graduate. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, some of the fastest-growing occupations between now and 2026 are in the fields of renewable energy, technology, and healthcare. So having the chance to enroll in courses like Intro to Renewable Technologies, Cybersecurity, and Intro to Nursing help students explore the fields that are likely to open up the most opportunities for them upon entering the workforce.
Elective courses offer students the opportunity to learn about themselves and the world, and help them develop important life skills that stick with them throughout their lives. As adults, we enjoy culture, technology, sports, the arts, and everything in between. Why wouldn’t want our students to have the same opportunities to grow, be successful, and find their talents?
Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2017). Fastest growing occupations. Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/ooh/fastest-growing.htm
Defending the fluff: The value of non-major classes. CollegeView. Retrieved from http://www.collegeview.com/articles/article/defending-the-fluff-the-value-of-non-major-classes
Futterman, L. (2016, February 9). Beyond the classroom: Electives in school — essential or entertaining? Miami Herald. Retrieved from http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/miami-dade/community-voices/article59407953.html
Hu, W. (2008, October 26). High schools add electives to cultivate interests. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/27/education/27electives.html
Rambo, E. (2011, April 13). Why electives matter. Education Week Teacher. Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2011/04/13/tln_rambo_electives.html