Quebec's Education Reform


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In the year 2000, the Ministry of Education rang in the new millennium with a whole new way of educating Quebec children. In the mid-1990s, Pauline Marois, then the Education Minister, had noticed a high dropout rate and decided to see what could be done to improve that, so a series of studies were undertaken, and the Quebec Education Program, colloquially known as "the Reform," was born (Guimont). The Reform was implemented gradually, starting in preschool and elementary in 2000, Grades 7-8 in 2005 and Grades 9-11 between 2006 and 2009. Junior high school teachers began seeing children who had been educated exclusively under the Reform in 2005, senior high school teachers in 2007. The first cohort of students who were educated entirely under the Reform are now in their 2nd year of CEGEP (Branswell).

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Longitudinal studies are being done to see how Reform students are faring, but they say it is too early yet to tell (Branswell). However, somebody must have some idea how the Reform is working out, and the people who are in the best position to know are teachers of the oldest students, so I decided to interview a number of veteran senior high school teachers to see what they had to say about the Reform. There are many aspects of the Reform that they talked about, but in the interest of brevity I will only be able to focus on questions concerning whether Reform students are indeed better prepared for the future, which was one of the main intentions of the Reform.

One idea of the Reform is to have school mimic the way things are done in the working world so that students are better prepared for the workplace. In business, people have to consult together on projects, so a central concept of the Reform is groupwork. For example, in high school, a problem, issue or task is presented to the students, and they need to confer together in small groups to try to figure out how to do it.

Tony LIttle, headmaster at Eton College, said, "The different sexes require different teaching methods to bring out students' potential... Boys...require a more physical and active style of learning, [but the] verbal element of [Britain's high school curriculums] favour[s] girls over boys," thus "Boys are being failed by the British Educational System" (Roberts). The kinds of activities that Little is talking about are just the type of groupwork used in the Quebec Education Reform - and obviously it is not just boys who benefit from that kind of work. The idea is that students will become adept at figuring things out on their own, and they will learn more and be more engaged in the learning by doing so.

However, many of the teachers I spoke to felt that there has been too much emphasis on that type of learning in the Reform. Adolescents naturally love to chitchat with each other, and they need no encouragement in that, and having grown up in an academic environment that emphasizes groupwork, by the latter years of high school their expectation of education is that they are going to be able to sit around and chitchat about personal matters much of the time, as long as they get a little work in at some point. The lazy students can just let the more studious ones do the work while they share in the credit for it. (A teacher can't be checking every group at the same time!) In the last two years, even some of the exams have been group exams, sort of: the students do part of the exam and then pass it to the others in their group to read and give them advice on, and then they go and amend it.

With the students' expectation that they are going to be doing groupwork most of the time, when teachers need to explain certain things to the entire class it is difficult for them to keep the students focused. The teachers need to be well prepared in advance with concise, interesting explanations in order to keep the students' attention, because as several of the teachers pointed out, students' attention spans seem to have decreased dramatically.

One question I had for the teachers I interviewed is whether the Reform is responsible for that or whether this is simply the way it is in society now. As one teacher pointed out, kids these days are used to instant information; if they want to know something, they just Google it or look it up on Wikipedia, and they don't have much patience to wait for teachers to take a long time to explain things, and that is largely a result of the society in which we live, not necessarily the Reform. However, the general consensus among the teachers I spoke to is that the Reform doesn't help to increase students' powers of concentration.

One teacher said group activities work better with advanced students, because many of the regular students don't take it seriously or make much of an effort. However, advanced students will thrive in whatever learning environment they're in, and the Reform wasn't created to reach them but rather to reach the weaker students. Also, some schools have a high percentage of weaker students, so those schools in particular having difficulties with the Reform. (The teachers I interviewed were from schools somewhere in the middle.)

Part of the reason some students don't take the work seriously is because they know they will probably pass anyway. Students are generally not held back anymore, and also the evaluation methods have changed. The Reform focuses on "competencies", which means different types of work - for example, "reading texts" and "writing texts" - so students don't just receive one mark per subject but rather two, one for each competency. The minimum mark permitted for each competency is 35%, even if the student did no work at all in that competency, so if a student got 85% for one competency and 0% for the other, the 0% would be bumped up to 35%, so the student would pass with a 60%, whereas without the separate competencies the student would have gotten 43%. The dropout rate in Quebec has indeed decreased, but one could ask if all of those graduates really deserved to graduate.

One positive aspect of the hands-on activities that students do - and one of the major focuses of the Reform - is that the problems are more real-life and practical, whereas education in the past had much more emphasis on the theoretical. However, the students are limited in how difficult the problems are that they can solve, because, as all of the teachers I spoke to mentioned, students are weaker in basic skills than students in the past, both in math and in language (reading comprehension and writing) ("out the window" is how one teacher put it, and another asked, "How far back do I need to go [to make the work simple enough for them]?"), and the reason they are weak in those basic skills is because too much emphasis has been put on the groupwork and not enough on those basic skills. The groupwork is based on the principle of learning through self-discovery, but as one teacher pointed out, they are still children, so there is not necessarily a need for them to try to figure everything out themselves every time; "Why reinvent the wheel?" That same teacher had a suggestion as to a better way that the self-discovery could be accomplished: It shouldn't be all student-led; instead, teachers should be facilitators and should stage the lessons and poke and manipulate the students to go in the direction they want them to go rather than leaving them almost entirely on their own. Besides that, there are many facts which cannot be learned through self-discovery but simply need to be taught, and this is one area where the Reform has fallen short, according to the teachers I spoke to. By the end of high school, the students are so used to the culture of self-learning and groupwork that it is difficult for teachers to get them to stop chitchatting long enough to get many basic facts into them. One teacher said that while the students were in fact better prepared for the working world in the area of groupwork, that's not all that goes on the in the workplace; they also need to have the individual skills, but the Reform has "lost sight of meeting basic standards and skills."

One teacher stressed that the biggest thing the Reform students have lost is a  work ethic. They (and often their parents too) have a sense of entitlement, that if they studied for 20 minutes, they should pass, and if they don't, it's the teacher's fault. This is of course not entirely because of the Reform, but the Reform's policies have certainly contributed to students' sense that they can get what they want without putting much (if any) work into it. The same teacher said that it used to be that there would be 3-4 students in a class who had a lot of difficulty with the material, but now there can be a third of the class like that, not because they are any less intelligent but because they're lacking the basic skills and the work ethic. So that puts teachers in a difficult position: do they give the students what they really deserve for the work they do, in which case they will take a lot of heat from the parents and from the education system, or do they lower their standards?

One teacher said that teachers in general tend to be "hostile to change"; they like the status quo, so that could be one reason that many teachers don't like the Reform. However, any kind of curricular change is going to result in a lot of extra work for the teachers to adapt to, and most teachers work incredibly hard already. Also, there do seem to be genuine problems with many aspects of the Reform. However, some teachers feel there are more positive than negative aspects, and one teacher pointed out that we certainly wouldn't want to go back to caning to get the students to learn! (Fun Fact of the Day: Eton's last caning was in 1984!)

I myself am on my way to becoming a secondary school teacher, and having worked in the system already, I am well aware of the difficulties, and I know it is not an easy field to work in, perhaps especially now. Nevertheless, I intend just to do the best I can and have the maximum impact that I can have on any students who happen to cross my path, no matter what methods I am required to work with.

Photo credit: Flickr


Bastien, Richard. "Addressing a Few Misconceptions about the Québec Education Reform." Schoolscapes 3.1. Ministère de l'Éducation autumn 2000. Page 1. Web. 3 November 2011.

Branswell, Brenda. "Reform Cohort Graduates to CEGEP." The Montreal Gazette 24 August 2010. Web. 3 November 2011.

Dawson, Mike. "Report card on educational reform." ACDSA Citizens for Democratic & Autonomous Schools. (originally printed in The Montreal Gazette 17 March 2010.) Web. 3 November 2011.

Guimont, Gerard. "Highlights of the Educational Reform and Pedagogical Renewal in Quebec." Pedagogique Collégiale 22.3 spring 2009. Web. 3 November 2011.

"Québec Education Program: Secondary School Education, Cycle 2." Éducation, Loisir et Sport Québec. Web. 3 November 2011.

Roberts, Laura. "Boys failed by education system says Eton headmaster." The Telegraph 19 January 2010. Web. 3 January 2012.

"The Education Reform: The Changes Underway." Ministère de l'Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport October 2005. Web. 3 November 2011.

Waddington, David. I. "Fighting to defend progressive school reform in Québec." social issues. John Dewey Society's Commission on Social Issues, 15 May 2011. Web. 3 November 2011.

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