Education: they do this much better in France. Or do they?

Oops. We missed this piece from earlier this month at the Social Affairs Unit site, wherein Dalrymple notes the unfortunate similarities between the English and French educational systems.
The similarities, both in causes and effects, were startling. I will just take a few of them at random.
In France, as in England, recent governments have made education a supposed priority. They have done this for the same ostensible reasons: standards have been falling despite vast state expenditures, such that about 20 per cent, perhaps more, of French children leave school unable to read, write or reckon with facility. Reforms are introduced one after the other and abandoned in favour of yet other reforms before they have time to fail. Every such reform has its accompanying rhetoric, promising to raise standards, promote equality and prepare children for the outside world. None ever works, except in the sense of providing bureaucratic employment.
Illiteracy has been actively promoted by the use of whole-word teaching methods, so idiotic that that they could be have been dreamt up only by a leisured professoriat in search of occupation. Spelling and grammar have been deemed oppressive to the lower orders, whose natural creativity is stunted by them. The result has been a general decline in accomplishment, even in the higher reaches of the system: entrants to the Grandes écoles now commonly make spelling errors that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.

16 thoughts on “Education: they do this much better in France. Or do they?

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  3. Rachel

    That was an interesting article.

    The change in the French education system must be relatively recent.
    In the 80’s in Britain I remember seeing a documentary about the French education system. At that time French kids starting school still sat at separate desks facing the teacher and were taught in a supposed “old fahioned way”. The documentary was snidely comparing this to the British style of open plan classes kids learning – “discovering” on their own in cr*ppy modern teaching methods and showing how freer and nicer it was in Britain. They got a French teacher to visit Britain and at first he sneered at the British, as in the usual British – French rivalry, but then they persuaded him that things could be done in a different way. Now I was a kid at the time and I went through modern teaching methods advocated. But in the end it was my parents who taught be to read b/c the school didn’t do it. Even as a kid I disagreed with the program. I hated “discovering” things for myself b/c in a way it was harder than just being taught by rote. As an adult I still have difficulties with spelling.
    I wish mainstream artles on education would write essays like TD’s instead of the usual nonsense.

  4. Jaxon

    I really did not get on at school… discovering things for myself was by far the way I preferred, and still prefer things.
    But alas, as I read much of Dalrymple I seem to be more and more prepared to concede that my way simply is not for the majority – and it shouldn’t have been entirely for me either – I lack self discipline in some very important respects.

    Seems to me, in similar spirit as Pinkers Language Instinct, David Brooks (The Social Animal) seems to have a rather radical notion that what happens between/outside of classes is not only more significant in the persons development, but more important…

    That’s confusing – put it this way, The Social Animal (I’ve only read a bit) is his story mainly about the development of two protagonists – one of which is academically disengaged (like I was) but socially he can move between groups with ease.
    An example in a cafeteria goes something like this, if I recall correctly: He’s mixing with the athletic ‘Hunks’, they casually exchange quips, or jokes, about blowjobs with the sexy girls – the unsexy guys supposedly look on in “voyeuristic awe”.

    Not sure what he means by this; for me, being witness to this sort of undignified behavior (and regrettably I’ve been guilty of much undignified behaviour), what I think Darlymple might refer to as “disastrous” or at least worrying, “insouciance about so serious a matter as the relationship between the sexes” is the sort of thing that, more than anything else, shaped my sense of the character and priorities of a certain critical mass of people. I.e the critical mass, probably the majority, that are doing the most damage; not least the people most responsible for ‘Casino Capitalism’ for instance.

  5. Rachel

    I take Jason’s point that some people might have done better on the modern teaching methods.
    I think it’s a shame that parents can’t chose though. A person should be able to chose whether their kid is learning to read better by phonetics or by whole word recognition. At the moment it is decreed by above that everyone should learn in state schools by a specific way.

    One thing I found hard with modern teaching methods as a 7 year old was having to learn maths by figuring out a maths puzzle on my own. It’s much easier when someone just explains it to you from a blackboard.

    Reading and English was being left alone to read or write something. Then Two minutes in the hour was with the teacher looking at your work individually, marking it and then you were left alone again.
    My parents just read together with me and had me repeatedly learn letter sounds by rote repetion and write words until I remembered them. That’s old fashioned stuff school is not allowed to do.

    What are schools like in the USA?
    Do they still have spelling bees and chanting/repetion of times tables or is it all modern teaching like UK?

  6. Jay C

    Rachel, the controversy over teaching methods is certainly existent in the US. There is no unified national policy on it. Some districts insist on “whole language” (Look and Say reading, banned in UK state schools as inferior to phonics) and what is often called “fuzzy math”- allowing children to play among each other to “discover” basic math concepts instead of explaining them in the standard notation so crucial to grasping high school algebra and above. The predictable consequence is a large cohort of functionally illiterate and innumerate people, who will find many of the doors to a contented and prosperous life closed to them. There is much opposition to Constructivism and “modern” approaches which rely on facilitation of a supposed innate drive to learn at the expense of traditional didactic teaching. Unfortunately constructivist theories have been so dominant in teacher training college that the current generation of educators struggle to accept there could be a better alternative.They malign direct instruction with pejoratives such as “drill and kill”, implying that nothing of value can be imparted. This does not take into consideration the necessity to have a well-developed mental schema and stock of basic facts in order to synthesise a more complex understanding.

    From my research, American schools with some exceptions in rabidly “blue” states are less affected by political correctness and more likely to teach the superiority of the West, Christian values, patriotism, etc. although high-profile legal rulings in the Supreme Court forbid explicitly religious activity and prayer in public schools.

    I was homeschooled until summer of third grade/ UK year 4 and my mother taught me old-fashioned rote arithmetic, spelling, grammar and punctuation with regular tests. I had to sit quietly and work while she supervised me. I was encouraged to read widely from a young age and although I did not appreciate fiction (to her disappointment) I learnt science, history and geography not taught in schools until secondary by the age of 9. I didn’t see this as an imposition or “too hard” due to my non-exposure to the lowered standards of this age. When I finally went to school, I was advanced a year and still top of the class by a comfortable margin.

  7. mike

    There’s been a gradual shift for the better here in Australia. At the primary levels there’s been a slow return to phonics after the frivolous experiments of the seventies and eighties (interestingly, easily the biggest success in improving literacy in remote Aboriginal areas was achieved by an academic who bucked the trend and introduced a program based overwhelmingly on phonics). At secondary level where I teach, moronic academic fads like genre theory and the like die hard and still dominate the English curriculum, but in other areas there seems to have been an admission that learning facts isn’t necessarily bad for one’s health.

    Interestingly, though, one of the educational ideas which TD seems to support (if I remember rightly), that is, loosening regional restrictions for parents when choosing selective schools, has not worked very well in Australia, for interesting reasons.

  8. Rachel

    Thanks Jay C and Mike. That was interesting reading.

    Jay C: Your anecdote about getting to secondary school level at the age of 9 through home schooling reminded me of reading a book explaining Darwinism and simple Biology when I was 10/11 years old. At school they did the same thing that was in the book only at age 13. I was definitely not a genius and I suspect many kids could do things at an earlier age than they currently do in schools.

    TD had an old article somewhere about his father’s old school exercise books being at a level that would frighten most teachers today.

  9. Jaxon

    “TD had an old article somewhere about his father’s old school exercise books being at a level that would frighten most teachers today.”

    I think that was Lost In The Ghettos, but he may have said more or less the same thing in several essays.

    I can tell you now, no exaggeration, from about the age of thirteen to sixteen, this arcade game was far more important to me than school… I don’t recall doing ANY homework, other than memorising for spelling tests (which was like cheating, that’s why I did it, it was the only thing where I was virtually gauranteed ten out of ten) also, I had the 12 times tables on a poster (why 12 x and not just 10 I don’t know) – I got reasonably good at that.

    The reasons are complicated, it wasn’t merely parental neglegence, my older brother did very well academically… bit of a long story; and did I suffer?

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