Elective vs. Required

I’m currently in a debate with myself.  I have 3 required middle school “technology” courses (one for each grade level) that I have turned into computing/computer science courses. They meet once or twice a week for just a trimester.  I really want to expand the MS computing courses but the schedule is crammed.  Re-evaluating the whole schedule is not in the cards right now.  I’ve been given the opportunity to develop an 8th grade computer science course as an elective.  8th graders are given both a free period and an opportunity to take another academic course, which right now is only a second language course.  We would offer computer science as another option.

There are pros and cons to this. On the one hand, having it required means everyone gets exposed to it, so there’s the possibility that someone who didn’t think they’d like computing ends up liking it.  On the other hand, it means that my class is big (we can only divide by 3 right now and the 8th grade is big) and I have kids who clearly don’t want to be there.  If it were elective, that would solve my two problems: the class would likely be smaller and it would include mostly kids who really want to be there (with the exception of those who will be there because their parents told them to).

My ideal scenario would be to make computing required and a full academic class for all grades, but this might be a decent compromise and/or transition to that.  I could really demonstrate what can be done with more time.  Or it could bust and I end up with no kids enrolled and then that sucks.  What am I missing? What would you do?

9 Replies to “Elective vs. Required”

  1. My daughter wanted to read your post over my shoulder, ’cause she said it had something to do with her (no, you don’t teach at her school). Her bottom line: she wants more tech. Her class is tool based — not a lot of programming, which is not the teacher’s interest. But, the tools (which include the adobe suite, flash, video editing, etc.) are tools they use to create, and, more particularly, to create in their other classes. Her take was that they use the tech teaching in many of their other classes, that the learning transfers to the things they want to do (including making brochures and videos, using photoshop, etc.). Right now, they have 2 blocks of tech each week (which I think means 1.5 hours 2X a week). She would like to have tech every day (in 7th grade).

    To make time, she’d give up music. At first, she talked about the teacher as the main reason, which is a local issue. But then she talked about some reasons why she thinks music doesn’t work in the structural level in MS, as compared to tech, art, and PE (three other “specialist”, non-academic classes). I don’t know if the same issues would apply in your school.

    I think that’s the question you would have to address in order to make tech into a required academic class — where the rest of the schedule would be modified. The kids just don’t have time for everything.

    On the other hand, I know exactly where you are coming from for a class that doesn’t “count” in a competitive environment like the one I suspect you have. The kids just can’t devote their energies to a class — they’ll get a lot of pressure from everyone to finish their math/english/language/etc. first before they can watch the videos in a “fun” elective. And, really, I don’t think you can teach programming in those circumstances (to most people — there might be a few who find the activity so enriching that they do it anyway, but I suspect most of those will be boys).

    So, I’d vote for testing out the 8th grade elective with a strong sell before hand to try to get the subset of girls who would see it as a fun, useful, or good CV building activity.

  2. Tricky question. After 30 years of teaching programming I have come to the reluctant conclusion that most CS should be an elective. Not everyone needs to know how to program or know what a bubble sort is. On the other hand the stuff I do not enjoy doing; using Photoshop, Excel, and other tools, should be required just so the kids can survive in the tech world. If your course is primarily programming then make it an elective. You will have a chance to do more with kids that are interested in what is being done. Keeping class numbers high is a factor of what you are teaching in a programming course. Use some of the magic words in the course description: games, mobile apps, iPad, Android, animation, robots, etc. Using one of these or a combination will get a line of kids wanting to sign up for the course. And the good thing about these magic words is they can all lead to fun and learning to program.

  3. bj & garth,

    You raise all the issues I’m wrestling with. The music,art, pe stuff is a challenge, but right now all three of those, plus drama, get 4 or 5 days/week. My take on the technology tools, and how we’ve handled that here (because I’m in charge of that 🙂 ) is to work with the teachers to teach them the tools and then require the students to use it in projects, sometimes with my support if needed. I could do more in this regard, but it works fairly well. I’m also working on having some students help with this.

    garth, I think you’re right on selling it. That’s what I’m going to have to do to make it work well. If I get as many kids as opt for a second language, I’d have 16-18 kids, which is about right.

    At the high school level, it’s an elective and my classes range from 2-10 kids. I have 20ish students right now, spread over 3 classes. It’s like 10, 7, and 3.

    bj, I’d be curious as to whether your daugher is more interested in the tools–like video editing–or programming or both. I usually do both programming and tools in my classes. They have to create videos of their robots, for example. They also do presentations and papers. I try to practice what I preach!

  4. This is a very interesting problem. Once or twice a week for a trimester is not a lot of in-class time. Can you expect the kids to put in a lot of out of class time? Whatever you do will have to be fairly self instructive; either a good text or very clear (and not overly boring) tutorials. The language will have to make cool things quickly and easily, if it does not boredom will occur and class numbers will drop like a rock. The limited in-class time sort of eliminates hardware based programming (Arduino, Mindstorms, etc). I think what you have to do is get a real good concept of what you want to achieve with the course. If the kids have their own laptops I would have different ideas than if they only had access to school computers and maybe an unknown home computer. I am very interested in what direction you go with this for the obvious reason it is something I might be able to use in my middle school. I do have some ideas depending on what you want to achieve with the course. If what some more input email me. gflint@mcsmt.org

  5. My d is primarily interested in tools now, because that’s what she knows best (and what her teacher knows best). She enjoys the tools (playing with photos and videos and layout and things like that), but she also finds them useful for classes, where a growing number of their projects require integrative design (not just an essay, but an essay with a picture, not just a report, but a report with graphs and diagrams). She likes using the computer to do these things (rather than just hand drawing).

    She hasn’t seen the need for programming in her other classes in the same way — and I don’t know how much people do expect that of younger kids. She’s not the kind of kid who, write now, would think it was fun to just program a robot to do something (she will, in class, but in her free time, she’d rather tinker with photos). And, right now, there’s no need for her to tinker with robots to do something, say, for science class. She’d probably be more intrigued if the programming was being used for another class, like science or math (say, to log data and then to analyze it, using something other than xl in science, or to do some mathematical calculations like pascal’s triangle).

    I think to peak her interest in programming, one would have to show her a way to use it for other things she wants to do. Say, with a bubble sort, she’d actually need to have something to sort, and have the computer be useful in accomplishing that task.

  6. BTW, our class does the tools in class differently — with coordination between the tech & academic teacher. Say, in their social studies class, they made brochures about national parks. The SS teacher had them write paragraphs but then the tech teacher showed them how to lay out the brochure in In Design, during their tech time (which, as I said, is 2 blocked periods). I’d guess at least part of the logistics is that the computers are in the tech lab (kids do not have their own laptops, and though there are a bank that rotate through the other classrooms, each classroom does not have a complete set of computers, and having the adobe suite for every kid would probably be a stretch, anyway).

  7. If you decide to make it “elective”, you can trim down the number of students in the class as you said, but you will get almost all boys in the class. (unless – I can’t remember – do you teach at an all-girls’ school?) If you do decide to offer as an elective, I would make the explicit request to counseling that they balance girls and boys. I’ve been offering CS classes at our summer camp for years and I always get almost exclusively boys in the class – the balance isn’t healthy for anyone. I have started requesting that they make the class at least half girls.

    As far as making it elective vs. required: Does it make sense, in today’s age, that a kid can take an intro programming class a sixth-grader and then choose to never program a computer again in their entire secondary school career? Many kids do. Is that good for the kids?

  8. Dawn, I do have all girls, so the balance isn’t an issue. I probably wouldn’t even consider it in a co-ed school. As for your final question, I agree with you, we should probably have not just a requirement in Middle School but Upper School as well. Baby steps.

  9. My basic recommendation is not to require anything that does not have something else requiring it as a prerequisite. If they aren’t going to be forced to use the material repeatedly, it is better to have it as an elective.

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