Choosing Classes

By Nathan Woods

I teach at a school that was established ten years ago to offer something different in New Zealand’s compulsory education sector. It is committed to a ‘student-centered’ approach to education, where students have more choice over what and how they learn. One feature of the school is that every five weeks students can select a new set of classes. The classes are based on topics thought to be relevant and interesting for high school students. Entry into classes is not restricted by age or ability levels. If there is nothing a student wishes to enroll in for a particular five-week block, they may choose to work on individual or collaborative learning projects out of class instead.

One of my roles as a teacher is to ‘help’ students in my homebase (similar to a form class) to choose their classes. Predictably, some students make better decisions than others. Students who are achieving well at school usually make ‘good’ decisions. They select classes that challenge them, and that meet their interests and their needs. Some students, however, seem to do the opposite. They choose the easiest classes, and try to avoid anything new and/or challenging. They fill their schedule with hours of ‘independent learning time’, but seldom complete any projects.

Of course, I try to challenge students, encourage them to try something new, or to work a bit harder on a subject they are struggling with, but often they simply ignore, or reject such advice. They tell me the subject they don’t like is “boring”, that the topic “sucks”, that they don’t learn well in “formal classes”, or that they would prefer to follow their own, individual, “interests and passions”.

According to Kemmis, Cole, and Sugget, school curricula often contain “practical compromises” between competing orientations. These compromises place students and teachers “in the difficult position of having to live through a confusing array of roles and competing aspirations” (Kemmis et al, 1983, p. 8). The tensions that arise when helping students to choose their classes can be analysed in light of some of these competing orientations, and “practical compromises”.

For instance, a personal relevance orientation (Eisner, 1979) informs the belief that choices allow students, in partnership with their teachers, to design a personalized learning plan – one they will invest in. This orientation legitimizes students’ individual experiences, and positions them as agentic, co-constructors of their learning. However, it also places a strong emphasis on students’ “freedom to choose” (Eisner, 1979, p. 113), which can be problematic, especially with younger learners, who may lack the knowledge and experience to make appropriate choices; it can also elevate individual needs above collective goals and responsibilities.

On the other hand, my belief that students could make the wrong choices when choosing classes and designing their timetable, was informed by a more academically rational orientation (Eisner, 1979). By encouraging students to choose one style of learning, teacher, or subject over others, I was communicating the idea that certain kinds of knowledge were more important than others. I was also worried that a purely relevance-oriented curriculum would rob students of the opportunity to acquire what I considered to be the best kind of education, one in which they would “ask questions about life, truth, justice, and knowledge and read the works of individuals who have provided powerful and lasting answers to such questions” (Eisner, 1979).

My views were informed by my own educational experiences, especially at the university level, where I felt I had gained access to knowledge of the best and most important variety. However, the ranking of certain kinds of knowledge and styles of learning above others is seen by some people as an arbitrary process and simply a reflection of the instructor’s biases – indeed, it is often the case that teachers assume,  “what worked for me should work for everyone”. When this happens some learners can become alienated; they struggle to find meaning or relevance in the content and feel as if their individual skills, dispositions and interest are being marginalized.

Crucially, these competing orientations to the curriculum cannot be separated from the social, historical or cultural contexts in which they are practiced. As Grundy has pointed out, “if we scratch the surface of educational practice…we find not universal natural laws, but beliefs and values” (1987, p. 7).

Over the past thirty years a decisive socio and cultural change has taken place in New Zealand’s educational landscape and it is crucial to understand this change in order to make sense of the tensions that arise between students and myself when we negotiate ‘their’ choices. Since the 1980s a raft of neo-liberal reforms have redefined the meaning of education in New Zealand, “de-emphasising knowledge as opposed to skills and ‘information’ for the marketplace; imposing an assessment or outcomes-driven curriculum; commercializing content; reorganizing schools as businesses and de-professionalising the work of teachers” (Codd & Sullivan cited in O’Neill & O’Neill, 2008). In this environment, education aims to produce citizens with the skills and disposition needed to meet the demands of a constantly changing global economy. Students ‘read’ and respond to cues in the environment that value and reward an entrepreneurial spirit.

For much of the 20th and 21st century, an academically rational (traditional intellectual) orientation to curriculum was maligned for being elitist. However, a more damning criticism in this new, economically inspired environment is that this archaic belief in a liberal education has no ‘currency’; it is no longer relevant, and must be replaced by something more  viable commercially. In an economically rational world schools are required to offer an ever-increasing range of products and services designed to appeal appeal to their clients (society, corporations, parents, and students). A public appetite for tangible outcomes, those that have currency in the employment market, overshadows any concern for the intrinsic value of knowledge acquisition, or the life-long pursuit of wisdom.

A personal relevance orientation can drive schools to provide an increasingly individualised, or ‘tailored’ curriculum. Neoliberal ‘reformers’ have latched on to this trend and have used it to feed a public’s desire for a ‘quick fix’ to a range of social and educational ‘problems’. In the process, they have attempted to persuade us that knowledge from the past – our cultural inheritance – is no longer necessary, creating the myth that anything academic is old and irrelevant, and too closely wedded to the dispositions and biases of a privileged few. It must, they demand, be eradicated – it has no place in the modern, global economy, which commands devotion to new technologies and the pursuit of social and material ‘success’.

There is another, more ‘dangerous’ dimension to knowledge acquisition, one seldom acknowledged today. That is the idea that the slow absorption of knowledge  – a growing acquaintance with profound ideas – creates informed critical  thinkers who have the ability to challenge the status quo and to question things that are taken for granted.

According to Eisner, “awareness of the various orientations to schooling expands one’s options in curriculum planning and thus contributes to one’s professional freedom” (1979). That is certainly true – the curriculum is not an object that can be handed from one person to another. Curriculum is a dynamic, constantly shifting activity the takes place as various stakeholders interact within particular socio-cutural contexts. I cannot, easily, abandon my beliefs about what knowledge I think is most valuable and necessary for students to learn – neither can they.

So, what happens when  educational values and orientations clash? I believe it is professionally irresponsible  to leave students to fend for themselves in a fiercely competitive, market-driven environment, but this does not mean I should ignore their views about what and how they wish to learn – their curricular choices. On the contrary, I should try very hard to understand my students’ views, to accommodate them where possible, and to challenge them when I think it appropriate. Of course, I will not insist that students agree with me, rather I will encourage them to consider my views respectfully and to discuss them critically – I will treat their views in the same way. The conversations we have will form an important part of the curriculum.


Eisner, E. (1979). Five Basic Orientations The educational imagination: On the design and evaluation of school programmes. London: Macmillan.

Grundy, S. (1987). Curriculum: product or praxis. London: Falmer Press.

Kemmis, S., Cole, P., & Suggett, D. (1983). Orientations to curriculum and transition: Towards the socially-critcal school. Melbourne: Victorian Institute of Secondary Education.

O’Neill, A.-M., & O’Neill, J. (2008). How the official curriculum shapes teaching and learning. In A. St.George, S. Brown & J. O’Neill (Eds.), Facing the Big Questions in Teaching: Purpose, Power and Learning. Melbourne: Cengage Learning.


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