In the classroom, what are the factors that can contribute to dropping out of school?


Dropping out is a considerable social problem (it affects more than 100,000 young people in France). This phenomenon worsened with the confinement of spring 2020 which helped to weaken the links between the school and a certain number of students.

The insights into the possible causes of this phenomenon are manifold. At the risk of oversimplifying, it can be argued that the work, mainly in sociology or psychology, is divided between causes “external” to the school (social environment, life trajectory, family experiences, etc.) and “internal” causes. »At school (mainly considered on a few dimensions: school climate, violence, evaluation, failure, etc.).

It should be noted that research is increasingly focusing on the multiplicity of causes and their interactions in the history of subjects and in the genesis of dropout. However, most of them do not enter the classroom to study how teaching is going and how it is experienced.

Everything happens as if what occupies most of the students’ school time and what constitutes the main reason for their presence at school does not weigh any weight in the mechanisms of hooking up or dropping out.

This is why, as didacticians (that is to say as researchers who seek to understand the functioning of teaching and learning from disciplinary content) we have proposed a significantly different approach.

In fact, it seemed to us that the students’ experiences – that is to say their ways of experiencing school subjects, the emotions and feelings they associate with them – also weighed heavily on the dropout mechanisms. . This research has been the subject of numerous publications, including a book in 2016, under the title: Vivre les disciplines scolaire. Disciplinary experience and dropping out of school .

Give sense

We therefore administered questionnaires (more than 2,000) and conducted interviews (nearly 200) with students in primary and secondary schools, including SEGPA students (adapted general and vocational education sections), in high school (including students from vocational high schools), and beyond (BTS, GRETA, students).

The results are in line with our hypotheses. I will only mention the main ones here. The experience of school subjects by dropout students is generally negative, from boredom to rejection. This concerns the so-called main subjects, in particular mathematics. The only exceptions are physical and sports education and the visual arts, as well as certain vocational subjects in fields chosen by the students (aesthetics, cooking).

The negative nature of this experience is due to various factors including:

  • imposition (students have no choice in the tasks to be accomplished and in the ways of accomplishing them);
  • the workings of the subject (especially when they are very classic – exposure of the teacher, taking notes by the pupils, formal exercises, etc.);
  • persistent misunderstanding of the content taught;
  • certain functions of the teacher (irony, lack of help for those who are in difficulty…);
  • essentially critical evaluation methods;
  • certain forms of exposure to others.

The lack of relationship to the questions that students ask themselves also appears to be a dropout factor: students have the impression that the school is answering questions that they do not ask themselves without answering the questions they are asking themselves. . Many of them also feel that they are not learning or discovering much. It is also interesting to note that the vast majority of students want to learn.

Again the impression of an absence of utility in relation to his life and his projects. Finally, the constraints which govern the body (for example, the sitting position without possible movements) weigh a great deal.

It is interesting to note that mathematics in a way cumulates some of these problems: exposure to the blackboard very badly when you do not know the answer, feeling that the teachers are mainly concerned with those who understand, too fast pace …

Educational context

This observation must however be refined in relation to the different modalities of functioning of the disciplines – what I have called disciplinary configurations – which vary according to historical periods, according to the country, the moments of the course, the courses, the pedagogies …

French or mathematics do not work in the same way in 1910 or in 2020, in France or in other countries, at primary school or high school, in general or vocational stream, in classical pedagogy or in Freinet pedagogy …

It is thus interesting to note that mathematics is the preferred subject of pupils in primary school before becoming the least popular subject in secondary school in France – but this is not the case in other countries. History-geography, for its part, is more popular in secondary than in primary.

These results raise some questions. They question, for example, certain priorities given to so-called fundamental subjects. Indeed, if we consider the perspective of dropping out, we have to admit that, in many cases, it is the so-called secondary subjects that contribute to school dropout.

This is not without questioning the criticisms leveled against school teachers in the teaching of mathematics. Although supposed to be less trained than secondary school teachers, they nevertheless build a more positive relationship between students and the discipline.

In any case, these results show the importance of teachers and school subjects in the fight against dropping out of school. They also open up avenues for work on the most favorable disciplinary configurations for dropping out of school:

  • reduce unnecessary taxes and leave room for possible choices for students;
  • guarantee and secure understanding, clarify the learning to be carried out and carried out;
  • respect students and ban humiliations, favor formative evaluation;
  • work on relationships with the questions that students ask themselves;
  • focus on the meaning of learning.

Indeed, the way in which the pupils can appropriate the disciplines, whether in the form of understanding, expression or articulation with their identity and / or their personal or professional project is fundamental. Finally, support for educational approaches that favor student research, cooperative work, autonomy and projects seems decisive.

Author Bio: Yves Reuter is Professor Emeritus in Didactics at the University of Lille