Illustration: Christina Zhang

To be applied or not to be? That is the question most Ontario eighth graders find themselves asking during their transition from middle school to high school. When faced with the choice, students are forced to make a decision that might very well define their careers.

The biggest difference between the two streams are their approaches to learning, as well as concepts covered by the curriculum. Academic courses help students build on abstract reasoning and independent skills, while applied courses provide students with more hands-on opportunities, and focus more on real-world skills and applications. Though the contrasts between the two streams are largely in their general curriculum philosophy, students are often confused and misinformed of the differences between and implications of each. However, this becomes a serious dilemma, as this choice may not only limit students’ future high school courses, but postsecondary options and beyond.  Understandably, at 13-years-old, few are ready to decide their careers.

To combat this, a pilot project was introduced at Oakwood Collegiate Institute, where Grade 9 students do not get to choose between academic and applied. Instead, all students are enrolled in academic courses, but, students who would typically choose applied receive an additional elective where they can receive a little bit more specialized assistance. The elective is also worth a credit so students taking this course would not be falling behind. Considering the facts, should MGCI mandate academic courses, or should the system stay the same?

Academic for All

By Grade 9, students are often still unsure of  what courses they want to pursue, and even less so of future career paths and occupations. The small difference between taking applied and academic courses in Grade 9 may define whether a student gets on the path that allows them to earn the credits to apply for university programs. This is not to say that choosing applied courses is inherently a bad choice, but rather that Grade 9 students risk limiting their postsecondary education opportunities by making big decisions at this stage of their education.

Given the choice to have one million dollars removed from one’s bank account, most people would decline. Inadvertently, someone illiterate may perceive the agreement to be offering one million dollars, and sign the contract. It is this same analogy of making blind or misinformed choices that pertains to many students when choosing applied courses, as they consequently reduce their career prospects. Without the “proper” instruction and training, there will be fewer opportunities open to them.

The necessity and demand for knowledge and experience is increasingly important in our ever-developing world, as technology continues to surpass and outperform humans. Without specific academic credits, many individuals are robbed of opportunities to even attend university or college. Thus, without postsecondary diplomas, students lack the formal evidence of being “qualified” for numerous jobs. Though individuals in applied courses shouldn’t be labelled “incapable” or “incompetent”, they are presumably in much higher risk of not having secure jobs.

There’s no doubt that middle schools recognize these obstacles, and while some step in to try and help these issues, many are unable to provide the necessary guidance. This leaves Grade 9 students all across the province misinformed about the differences between applied and academic courses. How is someone unknowing of the consequences expected to adequately make decisions that could impact the rest of their lives? In a study of TDSB students, “only 40% of students who took applied courses in Grade 9 had graduated after 5 years [1].” But students don’t know that. That’s the problem. By choosing applied, students are potentially closing doors for the future that they may not be informed about, and limiting their options before they have decided on their possible occupations.

Blindly signing a contract may only lead to a loss of one million dollars. But by allowing students to make the wrong decisions, these impacts and consequences can cost them much more than just money. In academic courses, students gain confidence from learning in new ways, and are forced to think about problems in various approaches that may be challenging to them. These courses offer students more independence in working, and emphasize greatly on theoretical and abstract applications of problem solving.  It is only here that they obtain opportunities to eye-opening experiences, proving them better at a subject than they thought they were. On the contrary, there are no noticeable consequences to not doing well in Grade 9, and though not ideal, failed courses can always be retaken over the summer.

The learning process takes time and effort; you don’t get better if you stop trying. The implementation of this system helps students to detect and separate the material they really don’t understand (on which they can request more help), from material that simply requires more time or effort. It leaves their doors and opportunities open, and provides another year to decide whether certain subjects are really not for them. This extra time to more accurately assess their study habits and areas of strengths and weaknesses will help them make more accommodating course selections in Grade 10, as well as their many years to come.

Freedom to Choose

Every student at Marc Garneau is unique, and we all have our own learning styles and paces. If taking an applied course is the appropriate pace for some of us, why should we be forced to change that pace? Removing the choice to take applied courses does exactly that: it forces everyone to take academic courses that may be too challenging or fast-paced for some. This may prove to be counterproductive as students would be learning less, and struggling more. The proposed solution for this issue is enrollment into a “Grade 9 learning strategies” course, which seeks to assist students with concepts they don’t understand. However, just how effective is this system? How well can teachers assist us if we can’t keep up with the content? Questions like these remain unanswered, and aren’t worth the risk until the sample size grows.

To elaborate on the youth as well as the success rate of the system, we can examine C.W. Jefferys Collegiate, a school who did a similar system in the past. Though they experienced an increase in students passing the academic English course, the results don’t guarantee the same results consistently. Demographic differences are just one example of a factor we must consider before making such a massive change, and so far, there aren’t enough schools doing this to determine the true success rate of the system. Moreover, there are still many question marks surrounding the effectiveness and consequences of academic-only options such as the emotional stress a student may endure. All these factors contribute to the massive barrier of uncertainty which surrounds this risky system.

Another question we must ask ourselves is whether or not it’s necessary for a student to take an academic course to be successful in the future? The answer is undoubtedly  no; taking an applied course can be just as rewarding for our futures as taking an academic course. In fact, it can be even more rewarding for certain students as it “keeps our options open,” as stated by the Ontario Ministry of Education. For example, if a student wishes to become a professional musician, they  don’t need to take a university-stream math class to succeed in the career, and they should have the option to take applied instead. This would give the student more time to practice and improve their abilities and set them up to succeed, rather than forcing them to take a demanding math course they don’t need. Introducing this system would not be creating opportunities, but rather closing and limiting students.

Research has shown that 13-year-old students are ill-equipped to make the important decision of choosing between the applied and academic streams [2]. However, is removing all applied courses the best solution to this issue? Removing applied courses not only limits the freedom of choice for students, but also closes certain opportunities for us. Alternatives such as the “Individual Pathway Plan” (IPP)—which was created to solve these issues—are not used to their full capacity. A study conducted by People for Education discovered that only 16% of schools follow the IPP. If more schools were to utilize the IPP, these issues wouldn’t be as prominent, and would be a step in the right direction to removing misinformation from  students.

Middle schools also complain about the lack of guidance counselors, but many of the alternatives available do not require them. Teachers could utilize power points provided by the school board to educate their students about the differences between applied and academic during class time. An assembly could be organized for all 8th grade students to underline the importance of the transition as well. With all these options available, mandating all academic courses is a gamble, one that is not worth betting our education.