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Le Critique: New Book Attacks French Educational System

Feb 10, 2011

Last fall, Peter Gumbel published 'They Shoot Schoolchildren, Don't They?' - a book criticizing the French education system as rigid, intimidating and unresponsive to students' needs. The book has sparked controversy throughout France and the U.K.

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British Ex-Pat Finds Fault with French Schools

Peter Gumbel is the European editor at Fortune magazine and a lecturer at Sciences Po's graduate school of journalism in Paris. He's also the author of They Shoot Schoolchildren, Don't They?, a controversial new book that sharply critiques the French public educational system.

A British ex-pat, Gumbel had spent time living in France before moving to the U.S. He and his wife were living in Los Angeles when they had children and decided to settle back in Paris. As he told French magazine Le Connexion, this was partially because he 'thought French education was marvelous.'

And while Gumbel hesitates to criticize his children's school, he admits that their actual experience was 'a culture shock.' Schools in the U.S. strive to nurture children, providing support for emotional and social growth as well as academic education. But he found that in France, 'There is deliberately no fun: school is about the transmission of knowledge.'

The problem goes beyond school being boring. Gumbel admits that students who make it through the French system will have a good education, but getting there can be terrifying. Rather than encourage creative thinking, teachers jump on the slightest mistake. As a result, even the most accomplished students struggle with low self confidence - Gumbel quotes an international reading study of 45 countries in which French children did well, but when asked to evaluate their own performance, placed themselves at 42 out of 45.

As a university lecturer, Gumbel believes the long term results of the French approach to education is that students believe there is only one right answer and that there is no room to be wrong. He struggles to get students who have spent their whole lives being told to 'sit down and shut up' (Gumbel's words) to open up and participate in the college environment.

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A Flawed System

Gumbel does note that the problem does not lie entirely with bad teachers. There are many good teachers in French education, but the structure of the system stifles students. The marking system rarely acknowledges students for doing well, but marks them down severely for the slightest error.

Furthermore, students who are struggling are often left behind. Teacher assessment is based on whether or not they get to the end of the proscribed curriculum by the end of the term, not by the performance of their students. So teachers are forced to race through the curriculum; if a student falls too far behind, he or she is just held back a year. This can create severe emotional and social stigma for the students, and discourage them even more from speaking up in class.

In fact, interactivity is another area that provides a stark contrast between French classrooms and American and English schools. In the U.S. and U.K., interactive teaching and student self expression are seen as important tools for engaged, effective learning. In France, learning is something that students are expected to submit to, and if students fail, they're likely to be told T'es nul - you're worthless.

However, Gumbel isn't entirely critical of the French education system. As noted above, he acknowledges that students who manage to get through are very well educated. French schools set high standards, with a much broader range of subjects making up the core curriculum: math, science, French, foreign language, history, geography and philosophy.

The problem, as Gumbel points out, is that the French system hasn't established an effective way to get most students to achieve those standards. Instead, it takes an attrition approach to education: Survive or fall behind, and if you fail, there's no one to catch you and help you get back on track.

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