This is a translation of a blog post by French primary teacher Françoise Appy. The original can be found here.
Just as we choose a tool suitable for a task, our teaching methods should be focused on delivering our intended results. It should be as simple as that. Nothing else should pollute the discussion. But it does. The pedagogical advice given to trainee teachers, and the successive reforms which have claimed to revolutionise education, are equivalent to asking someone to use a fork to saw a plank. How did this happen?
As early as 1975, traditional instruction was replaced by an education that was supposed to ‘promote a child’s development, enable him to acquire a culture, prepare him for professional life and to exercise his responsibilities as an adult and a citizen’. In 1989, schools, now seen as the places where this new education would take place, became a national priority, at least according to what people said. Emphasis was placed on equality, and schools were required to contribute to developing the personality, raising levels of training, facilitating social and professional integration, and promoting the exercise of citizenship. In 1990, the state education system founded in the late nineteenth century by Jules Ferry was dismissed as too selective but at the same time too narrow and no longer in line with society. In 1998, we heard how the schools of the French Republic promote equal opportunities and give an important place to citizenship and secularism; once again, the ideal of national schools that promote knowledge in a complex world. In 2002, we were still hearing about the republican school and equal opportunities, and primary schooling was seen as the foundation. In 2003, the Minister of Education announced that he wanted to ‘meet the challenge of knowledge and intelligence’. In 2005, the primary missions were ‘the transmission of knowledge and, equally importantly, the promotion of the values of the Republic’. In 2007, it was still about transmitting values, training intelligence, nourishing minds, preparing children for adulthood and professional life: the school as the pillar of equal opportunities. In 2008, it was a matter of giving each child the keys to knowledge and social integration; primary schools were required to transmit basic knowledge and skills to each pupil.
A common factor in all these successive education ministries is their claim to reject the republican schools founded by Jules Ferry in the late nineteenth century; thus they replace traditional instruction with the new education, and make the school a vector of values and a place where a child finds self-fulfilment. The school insists on its mission of training citizens ready to integrate into society, endowed with a critical spirit, and imbued with republican values. This mission to create citizens justifies the reduction of time spent on traditional instruction in academic subjects; they must share curriculum time with many other educational goals which are supposed to be equally important. It is also abundantly clear that the idea of pedagogical freedom is gradually fading. In 1990, it was clearly stated that the pedagogical models of yesteryear should no longer be used, not because they did not work, but because they were too didactic and narrow. This made way for a system which would be child-centred: based on the ‘physiological, psychological and social reality’ of the child.
More than four decades have passed, during which we have repeatedly fiddled around with the primary school’s mission to give all pupils intellectual formation and republican values. And what is the result? We have achieved an equality of ignorance: most students entering secondary school have lamentable levels of knowledge; they lack even the basics; they are culturally impoverished. As for republican values, here too we see an inverse correlation between the intention and the effect, as behaviour in the classroom has seriously deteriorated.
Let us examine more closely the methods proposed by successive ministries to achieve the noble ambition of producing effective citizens. They are ‘child-centred’ and we can all observe the consequences. Constructivism, even when it is not named, has entered our national education system. Constructivism knows no limits. Once it has arrived, the pedagogical requirements imposed by the Ministry of Education will take this direction year after year. All the while, effectiveness is never mentioned in these official ordinances. The word is banned. The mission of schools was proclaimed to be the humanistic principles of equality and personal development, so it was imagined that the means to these goals must reflect this ideal of personal fulfilment, an assumption that was never questioned; an assumption that was very pleasant to believe. Since children are culturally, socially and economically diverse, schools have had to minimise these differences by dumbing down, by removing grading, by minimising the importance of specific knowledge for success. No student should think they are better than others due to their academic success. All must believe that they succeed. In the same way, in order to develop democratic values, we will have to make each classroom into a mini-democracy, where pupils have a say in rules and sanctions. In order to promote personal fulfilment, we will remove all struggle, all bad grades, all demanding exercises and all repeated practice from the classroom, and introduce play based learning. There are countless examples. All of these practices rest upon a confusion between the ends and the means, and a denial of reality: evidence which clearly indicates what is effective and what is ineffective pedagogy is completely ignored. Schools are no longer authoritative, so they are invaded by the outside world, in the form of new technology and parental interference; there is no competition; grading is disappearing; students work on projects according to their own interests; school trips proliferate; and despite this orgy of constructivism, results are still not improving. Faced with a fiasco that can no longer be hidden, the only solution proposed is yet more constructivism, and the absence of results is attributed to refractory teachers who use archaic practices. This is a denial of reality. It is a hellish vicious cycle from which escape will be extremely difficult, even if we have a strong will to break free.
For more than forty years – for several generations – it has always been the same solutions to the same problems. This is indeed a denial of reality. It could have been avoided if educational decision makers would sincerely consider effectiveness. They would have needed to realise that there are better methods for achieving their objectives, even if these methods do not suit their ideology. Let us look at some examples. They wish to achieve critical thinking. Many studies have shown that this relies upon a store of factual knowledge in long term memory. No one can have a critical mind without a certain amount of knowledge; we need to form people’s minds. Thus it is counterproductive to reduce the transmission of knowledge if we wish to develop critical thinking. The same applies to creativity. We are told that schools wish to develop pupils’ creativity, while at the same time reducing the acquisition of knowledge to the most basic level. This ignores the fact that creativity depends upon experience and knowledge; creativity does not function in a vacuum. In all my years of professional practice, I have seen pupils emptied of creativity, especially artistic creativity. Since we have been claiming to train creative children through our local programmes, we have found that they do not know what to do with a blank canvas, and when they do attempt something, it is staggeringly impoverished.
All this is entering public discussion. Evidence in education has made great progress, and our knowledge of cognitive architecture gives us clear indications of what we should do to promote successful learning. For behaviour management, the same applies. Here too, there is a denial of reality; the evidence of surveys and meta-analyses, which give very precise indications of how to be more effective, are ignored, as though they did not exist. Denial of reality. The French ‘educational sciences’ still refuse to acknowledge this type of education and research, but do not hesitate to promote their pedagogical injunctions, even if these are based on nothing but a few ideological, a priori assumptions, which have been unchanged for decades. Theirs is a science only in name, a façade which allows them to influence those who still trust them with educational ideas that are ineffective, or even harmful.
I will conclude with the words of Daisy Christodoulou, who in her recent book Seven Myths About Education, summarised the issue very well: ‘The fundamental ideas of our education system are flawed. When one looks at the scientific evidence about how the brain learns and at the design of our education system, one is forced to conclude that the system actively retards education.’
To learn more about the evidence which suggests effective methods see here and here.
To consult the official texts see here.