Since joining Twitter earlier this year, I've become a Tweet-happy fool, easily overtaking the Spousal Unit in sheer volume of Tweets. (It helps that so many science-writing pals are Twittering fools, too.) But while that medium has its strengths, it's really not the place for any kind of substantive debate. So when the folks at Quirks and Quarks sent me a link to this op-ed in the Globe and Mail, I really couldn't sum up my reaction in a series of 140-character tweets to do the topic justice. Because honestly, it kinda pissed me off.
Let me set out some caveats upfront. What I know about Quebec's current educational crisis could fit in a couple of paragraphs, tops. Apparently there is a significant high school dropout rate, a problem that is "particularly acute among boys." (This is no doubt a situation that exists in other major cities in the US, as well as Canada.) And the author, Sumitra Rajagopalan — a biomechanics professor at McGill University — is well-intentioned and to be admired for putting her money where her mouth is and working with underachieving teens in her far-from-copious spare time. My problem isn't even with the "complete rethink" she advocates for science education, namely, focusing on hands-on activities. I am all for finding creative and innovative ways to get students engaged and thinking deeply about math and science. Sometimes you need to get your hands dirty. She's right: at-risk students in particular "find regular classrooms stifling, and are often starved for hands-on activities."
No, what got my knickers in a twist was the constant harping on the "feminization" of the classroom and the repeated hearkening to outmoded (and unhelpful) gender stereotypes throughout the entire article — and it wasn't all that long an article. This is not conducive to a thoughtful critique. At all. It's an unnecessary distraction that merely serves to undermine Rajagopalan's broader message. Consider just these few sample quotes (and if you suspect I'm being unfair and taking them out of context, follow the link to read the whole thing):
"Boys are born tinkerers. They have a deep-seated need to rip things apart, decode their inner workings, create stuff." I think we can agree that many boys do have this tendency — although we could debate whether such behavior is culturally learned vs. innate. Those are the ones that tend to gravitate towards science. Or mechanical engineering. Or NASCAR garages. But note the implicit assumption that these interests are for boys — what about the girls who like to tinker with stuff, and be creative? Where are the hands-on learning activities for them?
I humbly offer my co-blogger, Diandra, as an example of a compulsive tinkerer. She's an experimentalist who works in condensed matter physics and nanotech, and builds stuff in her lab all the time. She also wrote The Physics of NASCAR (see sidebar) because of her curiosity about the sport, and impressed all the tough guys at the track with her deep knowledge and intelligent questions about the intricate workings of car engines, tires, auto bodies, and so forth.
Also? I am married to a (male) theoretical physicist. The Spousal Unit generally does not enjoy this sort of thing; his expertise lies in pondering deep questions about time, entropy, and the origin of the universe, augmented with well-chosen equations. Hanging picture frames or towel rods is the extent of our combined expertise in the tinkering department — and we called my construction worker brother to ask a couple of questions about the towel rod project before drilling (questions about the structure of the wall; the drilling/installation was self-evident). The point is, this has less to do with gender than Rajagopalan makes it out to be. People learn differently — not girls and boys. Some like to get their hands dirty and build stuff, others don't.
That goes for the folks who teach math and science, too:
"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…. Forget tools-based activities — this teacher has hardly done any herself." There is so much contempt dripping from these sentences, I'm frankly shocked they were written by a woman scientist. Again with the unnecessary gender stereotyping! No doubt there are some math and science teachers in high schools who fit this description, but there are plenty of others who don't. I've met quite a few high school math teachers in recent weeks, while touring for The Calculus Diaries, and they were both male and female — and the female teachers had just as strong backgrounds in math, science or engineering as the male teachers who showed up. I guess the "social science" types just stayed home, lest they be asked to solve a differential equation on the spot, or be ridiculed by Rajagopalan and her ilk.
Here's where we get into her beef with the so-called "feminization" of the math and science curriculum:
"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." Ahem. First off, what, exactly, is uniquely "feminine" about this? Framing "hard" science and math as uniquely "male" is (a) incorrect, and (b) fosters exclusionary behavior for women who might otherwise be interested in those fields. Note also the breezy dismissal of historical and cultural contexts — they're just so girly! — and the strong preference for "rigor," which, in Rajagopalan's mind, apparently only extends to math drills and problem sets.
As a science writer with a humanities background, I believe very strongly in bringing science back into the broader culture, not setting it off as something scary or separate — which is not the equivalent of "dumbing down." Understanding the history of math and science can actually enhance learning and student comprehension. Ditto for exploring deeper questions of why something is so, the reasons behind the math and science, and for tying what one learns in class with one's own daily experiences. As I wrote in The Calculus Diaries, I did quite well in my high school math and science courses, but I still ended up with math anxiety, because I was just blindly following rules and figuring out the "tricks" — my deeper comprehension was entirely lacking. (And it's not a gender thing: Chris Mooney interviewed me recently for the Point of Inquiry podcast and admitted his experience had been similar.) The entire book is about finding math in the world around me, then building my own problem sets (with the help of the Spousal Unit), and it's also chock-full of historical and cultural references. The rigor of a math or science class should include those aspects as well.
Which is not to say we should dispense with the traditional forms of "rigor." (The book doesn't include many derivations, because there's plenty of other math books available that cover that; but it does include a "further reading" list of the resources I found most useful.) I studied classical piano as a child (from age 8 through my sophomore year of college) and I'd compare a traditional math class to practicing scales. It's absolutely essential to do those rote exercises, over and over again, no matter how tedious, because without them you will never develop the technical proficiency needed to execute a decent performance of, say, Chopin's Ballade #1. But if that's all you ever do — if you never stop to think about why you are practicing those scales, or have the chance to see them used creatively in a brilliant musical composition — you will never have a deep appreciation of music, and, more critically, you will never be able to write your own symphony some day. You need both elements. It's not either/or, any more than the problems in math and science education can be reduced to male vs. female.
"Fewer male graduates now would mean fewer scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs in the future." Well, yes, it might very well mean that — unless the girls step up and become scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs, too. You know, like Rajagopalan herself. I'm glad she's concerned about the boys, but traditionally, girls are far more likely to be pushed out of math and science fields. Why isn't she concerned about the impact of that on the number of scientists and engineers and entrepreneurs in the future? It reminds me of all the hand-wringing generated by a series of 2006 articles in the New York Times about how boys were suddenly at risk of being overtaken by the girls in academic achievement, and who will hire them/marry them then? Huh? Won't someone think of the poor emasculated boys?
Look, it's not that I don't care about the boys; I just don't see why they're being singled out for special concern. We need to do a better job educating all our students about math and science, steering them toward careers in those fields — regardless of gender.
So what is Rajagopalan's vision for the ideal Future Science Classroom?
"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." Um, I believe those classes used to be called "shop." They are, indeed, excellent for the kid who likes to get his — or her — hands dirty. Because once again, Rajagopalan is traffacking in gender stereotypes. But apart from that, here's where we find common ground. I just wouldn't limit it to one kind of lab. I mean, Neil Gershenfeld has had smashing success with his "fab labs" at MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms, where male and female students can play, build and create to their heart's content — learning more about math and science — and the process of math and science — than they'd ever learn in the standard curriculum. And today, the New York Times has a story about a chemistry and physics of cooking class at Harvard — a class that draws both male and female students. Let's dispense with these meaningless labels of "masculine" and "feminine" and just support any kind of hands-on activities that foster student involvement and deeper learning in math and science.
Having ragged on the poor woman for an entire blog post, I'm willing to bet that, when cornered, she'd concede at least some of the above points. She's a woman in science, after all; she can't be blind to those concerns. She also didn't have a lot of space in her Op-Ed for nuance. But it's unfortunate that the substance of her message was drowned out — for me and many other readers –by the constant harping on boyz, boyz, boyz and the gratuitous digs at "feminization."
Comics courtesy of the gifted (and sometimes NSFW) Zack Weiner, evil mastermind behind Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.