Quebec is fast becoming ground zero in the battle against high dropout rates among high-school students. The situation is particularly acute among boys, what with one in three male Quebeckers leaving high school without a diploma.
While opinions vary as to the cause, several critics point to the "feminization" of the classroom as the main culprit. The solution, they say, is to simply recruit more male teachers, even if it means creating quotas. But this is simplistic. What we need is a complete rethink.
I confront these challenges regularly when working with underachieving teenagers in Montreal. They find regular classrooms stifling, and are often starved for hands-on activities. So we set out to build a solar-driven Stirling engine from Coca-Cola cans and straws. We start by crunching a few numbers. This is when problems emerge.
It's bad enough they couldn't multiply five by two without a calculator, or find the volume of a cylinder with a calculator. These boys could barely hold a ruler to draw straight lines, apply glue without squirting it all over, or use a drill to bore holes. Yet, boys are born tinkerers. They have a deep-seated need to rip things apart, decode their inner workings, create stuff.
In the case of these teens, one could blame the absentee father for not setting an example, but, in Quebec, the problem runs deeper. Enter today's typical math/science teacher. She's young and female with a social sciences background. She went through high school believing that "math sucks" and "science is for geeks." Like most girls, she's never held a wrench.
Add to this the reformed Quebec curriculum that's dumbed down the technical subjects to an art. Gone are the math drills and abstract problem-solving. Instead, there's the socio-cultural context of science and math. So solving a math equation becomes an essay question - complete with the reasoning behind the reasoning and how this is related to the student's life experiences.
And forget tools-based activities - this teacher has hardly done any herself. Instead, we have sanitized science labs where students barely get to touch, let alone tinker. Paranoid about safety, she asks the students to simply push a few buttons, then write a mile-long report on their "work."
And you wonder why our boys are failing.
Here's a simple idea: Instead of spotless science labs, how about a workshop in every school, replete with metal sheets, machinery and Krazy Glue? Here, boys could roll up their sleeves and get down to some real work. And never mind those soot-stained hands, dirty fingernails or even the occasional bleeding finger. This is their way of learning.
In fairness, the new Quebec curriculum includes engineering design. But, again, teachers are ill-equipped to implement these guidelines. This is where teachers' training departments should join forces with engineering schools to train the next generation of technology and tool-savvy teachers.
The issue of failing boys in school can have serious repercussions: Fewer male graduates now would mean fewer scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs in the future. For a country already lagging in innovation and productivity, that's a consequence we can ill afford.
Sumitra Rajagopalan is an adjunct professor of biomechanics at McGill University.