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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Faut-il revenir aux « bonnes vieilles méthodes » ?

by Laurent Mouloud

The French Education System: Should We Go Back to the Good Old Methods ?

Translated Friday 21 September 2007, by Emma Paulay

Learning. Confronted with failure in the school system, the promoters of old school methods are gaining ground. Without really convincing the teaching world.

Are current teaching methods off track? They have been bad mouthed for a number of years. According to their critics, of which there are more and more, they fail to transmit fundamental knowledge, put the child in charge, and undermine teachers’ authority. In short, education, or rather “educationism”, supposedly a throw-back to May 1968, is at the heart of the problem of failure in schooling. The solution? It is staring us in the face: an urgent return to the “good old methods”.

With the support of many groups, such as “Sauver les lettres” (Save Letters) and a multitude of successful personalities such as Marc Le Bris and Jean-Paul Brighelli, the demand to bring back the old methods has received a very positive response from the current government. As given by the former government. In 2006, Gilles de Robien launched a crusade against the “global method” of learning to read that he feels has caused generations of illiterates and dyslexics. It doesn’t matter that this method hasn’t been used for years. They say the classic B-a, ba, syllabic method must be imposed at all costs.

Official texts reflecting this sticking out of the chin never saw the light of day. However, the message, of a return to the education of yesteryear, slipped through just fine. Much to the disappointment of many. “To me it’s just nostalgia, it doesn’t correspond to any objective reality” says an irritated Dominique Guy, a mathematics teacher in a college in a ZEP (high priority area) and member of the program for educational reflection and action (CRAP). “Faced with real difficulties, these people are incapable of doing anything new and can only think of going back to methods that have already shown their limits.”

What do the figures say? According to a recent report by the high council of education (HCE), around 15% of children with a weak IQ and an unstable social environment begin secondary school without having mastered any French language skills, either written or oral. At the same time, another group, 25% of pupils, have only partially acquired the necessary skills to continue school. Whilst acknowledging this fact, Samuel Joshua, an educational science teacher at the University of Provence, puts this into perspective: “The situation was no better forty years ago. Except, at the time we didn’t know it. School was for the elite and excluded a whole section of the population without that being seen as shocking.” Joshua, an educationalist specialist, denounces the debate as being artificial. “Whether it be traditional or modern, everyone is providing an education! Methods have always been disputed and are constantly changing.”

As they see it, current educational methods are not the direct cause of failure. “They are only one among other, equally fundamental, aspects” explains Dominique Guy, “such as the pupils’ social environment, teachers’ training, the lack of teamwork, overloaded and ill-adapted syllabuses…At the same time, it is true that these methods need to be evaluated and improved.” Lack of concentration of pupils in class is a major stumbling block for today’s teachers that needs to be overcome.

“The average pupil spends 2 hours and forty minutes in front of the TV each day and lives in a "have everything right away" culture, deplores educationalist Philippe Meirieu. As a result: thirty years ago, a child could give full attention to a puzzle for 15 minutes; today’s children can only manage six minutes. Although it is true that educational methods participate in the fight against failure of schooling, we shouldn’t make a scapegoat out of them. They can provide more favourable conditions for pupils to succeed but they can’t do everything! They can’t counter televisions’ commercial bombardment, or reduce social inequality or develop an ambitious policy for sensitive areas…”

Co-founder of the university institutes for teacher training (IUFM) and of the national syllabus council, Philippe Meirieu observes that for the last 10 years the education system has not been able to bring down the percentage of pupils who re-sit a year or who leave school with no qualification. This explains the “feelings of distrust of the system”. Dominique Guy confirms: “Parents only have their own school days as a reference. They have trouble getting accustomed to methods which have enormously changed. This creates worry and makes them receptive to even the most conservative opinions. Even if that is not a good thing.”

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