Relying on stereotypes is no way to address problems in science education

File this under “be careful what you wish for”. I have argued in the past that Canada has really lacked a public conversation about science education and in particular gender issues in science education. I sort of got what I asked for. The October 20 op-ed in the Globe and Mail, written by Sumitra Rajagopalan, was entitled “We need tool-savvy teachers” and addresses the problems facing boys in science classes. And while the piece was provocative (as befits an op-ed) and did raise some very important points, it was also deeply troubling.

Rajagopalan begins by stating some real and important problems such as “one in three male Quebeckers leaving high school without a diploma.” There is no doubt that this is a problem that needs to be addressed and she brings up her own work  with underachieving teenagers in Montreal (which I whole heartedly commend her for) to illustrate the issue.

It’s at this point that, from my perspective, the problems begin. She claims that ‘feminization’ of the classroom is the main culprit. This is a provocative claim and, again, one worth exploring. The problem is that in this piece it is not explored with evidence or facts but instead with stereotypes and generalizations.

The generalizations begin with the boys themselves: “boys are born tinkerers. They have a deep-seated need to rip things apart, decode their inner workings, create stuff.” As Jen Ouellette has beautifully argued, there are so many things wrong with this statement. To begin with, we can all probably think of lots of boys that fit this description and, on the other hand, we can think of many who don’t. This claim that all boys have a particular orientation is a false and misleading one. The implication of Rajagopalan’s statement is also that girls are not like this. Again, that is a false claim – many girls are very interested in hands-on exploration (As personal evidence, I have a degree in mechanical engineering – something I chose precisely because of the opportunity for hands-on work. I have experience in welding, sand-blasting and plasma cutting.)

Beyond anecdotal thinking though, there is also no conclusive research base that ascribes these characteristics exclusively and deterministically to boys. While there are gender differences in typical learning style preferences  (and it’s important that I mean on average, not deterministically), gender is only one factor in these preferences. These preferences are also related to overall school achievement, age, culture and geographical region, information processing style, and creativity style. Hoginsfeld and Dunn (2003) found, in a study of teenage students in Bermuda, Brunei, Hungary, Sweden and New Zealand, that the differences in learning style preference between the countries was larger than any gender differences.

To offer an example related specifically to hands-on science education, as a graduate student I worked as a research assistant on a project looking at students’ responses to a science education program that visited their classrooms. One part of the study involved a survey of approximately 700 Grade 9 students from two large Ontario school boards (including inner city and suburban schools). Girls and boys responded in almost equal numbers that they enjoyed science generally and that they appreciated the hands-on nature of the outreach program. Girls in fact responded significantly more often that the program provided positive hands-on experiences that they did not usually experience.

But instead of looking at this evidence and offering a thoughtful consideration of the problems facing boys who drop out of high school, Rajagopalan relies on stereotype, saying that boys are just like this, it’s a fact.

To me, however, the even more troubling and even less supported generalizations are regarding science and math teachers. Rajagopalan writes “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.”

This statement is just untrue. The recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS 2007) directly contradicts her characterisation (one that I might add seems steeped in unexplained contempt for these teachers). In a sample selected to be representative of provincial norms, in Quebec grade 8 students’ science teachers are almost exactly balanced by gender: 52% of students in the study had female science teachers, 48% had male teachers. The average Quebec math and science teacher also had 9 years of teaching experience. Ontario and British Columbia (the only other provinces for which the data are available) are very similar in both gender balance (ON: 55% F and 45% M, BC: 46% F and 54% M) and average experience (ON: 9 years, BC: 13 years). In Quebec, most grade 8 students also have teachers whose major area of post-secondary education is either science, mathematics, or science education. For example 69% of students have teachers with full undergraduate degrees majoring in biology, physics, chemistry or earth science, 10% in pure mathematics. More than that, 61% of Quebec students have teachers who feel “very well prepared” to teach every topic included in the TIMSS assessment, meaning they are confident in their abilities across the board, from reproductive biology to mechanics. Do I wish that some of these numbers were higher? Yes, of course.  Are there some content areas, such as climate science and engineering, where teachers are not well prepared? Yes. But does the evidence support Rajagopalan’s accusations of a horde of female teachers who are scared of science? – Absolutely not.

Science and math teachers in Canada regardless of their gender did not go through high school thinking that math sucks and science is for geeks and I cannot fathom the author’s reasons for saying that they do. Characterizing women’s views about science and math in this way reinforces the exact stereotypes that can cause female students to underperform in math.

The teachers that Rajagopalan is talking about went through high school liking science and math, wanting to study it in university – and that’s exactly what they did. Canadian science and math teachers are, for the most part, highly qualified to teach science and math. They have backgrounds in science and math content areas and certification in science and math teaching. Yes, there are areas where recruiting qualified teachers is challenging. This is especially true in language minority school settings (Anglophone schools in Quebec and Francophone schools in other provinces and territories) and in northern schools. But overall this in not what characterises science and mathematics education in Quebec and in the rest of Canada.

Rajagopalan is playing with gender stereotypes rather than evidence.  I would like to ask her if she would accept unsupported assumptions passed off as informed opinion in her area of science – if the answer is no (and I suspect that it is), then why is it okay to talk about science education in this way? There are issues to deal with but relying on scare tactics and tired stereotypes is no way to address them.

References:

Hoginsfeld, A., & Dunn, R. (2003). High school male and female learning-style similarities and differences in diverse nations. The Journal of Educational Research, 96, 195 – 206.

Pedretti, E., Baker, L., De Coito, I. & Shanahan, M.-C. (2007). Scientists in school impact study. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto, Centre for Science, Mathematics and Technology Education.

Spencer, S.J., Steele, C.M., & Quinn, D.M. (1999). Stereotype threat and women’s math performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 4–28.

Note that this post was updated from its original form. The references to Spencer, Steele and Quinn (1999) and Hoginsfeld and Dunn (2003) were added.

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