A French lesson

Three new books by teachers in France expose the fallacies of the popular 'child-centred' model of education.

Michele Ledda

Topics Politics

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Marc Le Bris, Et Vos Enfants Ne Sauront Pas Lire…Ni Compter! (And Your Children Will Not Be Able To Read … Nor Count!) Paris: Stock, 2004

Rachel Boutonnet, Journal D’une Institutrice Clandestine (Diary Of An Illegal Teacher) Paris: Ramsay, 2003

Fanny Capel, Qui a eu Cette Idee Folle un Jour De Casser L’ecole?, (Whoever Had This Crazy Idea One Day Of Destroying Education?) Paris: Ramsay, 2004

‘Modern pedagogy’s only use is to justify the abandonment of the ambitions we once had for our children. We are facing a real cultural catastrophe’, writes Marc Le Bris, a 50-year-old head teacher at a primary school in Medreac, France. His book is an attack on the child-centred philosophy that has dominated reforms of the French education system in the past 30 years, and a defence of the Enlightenment idea of an education based on the transmission of knowledge to every citizen.

A schoolchild in the riots of May 1968, the author of this passionate book started his teaching career as a moderniser. When he left teacher training in 1977, he had learnt ‘one thing above all’: that ‘old-fashioned teachers were almost incompetent; they were ridiculous…unthinking labourers working the wrong way round’. ‘Yet’, he writes, ‘the pupils of the older teachers…obtained the best results. At the start of secondary school, their pupils were better prepared. My pupils, pampered by modern methods, were subjected to an academic handicap of which I am ashamed today.’

Along with Rachel Boutonnet and Fanny Capel, Le Bris is a member of Sauver les Lettres (Save Literature) a collective founded by teachers in the year 2000, during the protests that forced education minister Claude Allegre’s resignation. The organisation campaigns against child-centred education through its website, numerous books and other public initiatives. At the beginning of February 2005, one of the group’s surveys showing the decline in French pupils’ spelling ability received wide publicity in the French and the British press (1).

Child-centred education is based on the constructivist theory of learning, according to which learners construct their own knowledge by analysing experience. For Marc Le Bris, this is a false theory, because the whole of humanity, not the individual child, constructs knowledge. The dominance of constructivism means that pupils will be, at best, autodidacts lacking the solidity of systematic learning.

In Britain there is also a strong aversion to the transmission of knowledge. The idea that pupils must be ‘active’ and become ‘independent learners’, rather than depend on the teacher, is seldom questioned. An independent school head teacher recently asked me: ‘We are often accused of spoon-feeding our pupils. How can we help them become independent learners?’

Rachel Boutonnet could have answered that question. A French primary school teacher with a master in philosophy, she kept a diary throughout her teacher training and her first year as a teacher, which she published in 2003. She rejects the idea that traditional teaching methods make pupils passive: ‘I think it is impossible to learn in a passive way. If you have learnt something, you must have been active;…in order to listen, you must concentrate. What the speaker is saying, you must make your own. This often requires effort and will power.’

She also questions the belief that so-called active methods lead to pupils’ autonomy: ‘the fact that pupils are “in research mode” doesn’t mean that they are active. Often…they just ape an activity. They go through the motions that the teacher has scripted for them. Intellectually speaking, they are passive.’

The constructivist method is not so much an alternative to previous teaching methods as an anti-method. Boutonnet captures well the destructive impulse behind it: ‘by refusing to transmit knowledge, the teacher trainers nevertheless transmitted something. They could not avoid this, since they were in the position of teachers…. This something was the rejection of knowledge. In this, they were the experts.’

The limitations of the child-centred model become clear in the way in which children are taught to read. The choice of reading methods splits the educational community into traditionalists and modernisers. Child-centred methods, such as Whole Language, are based on the idea that children should learn to read in a ‘natural’ way, just as they learn to speak, working out the rules for themselves. These start by using whole texts, with the help of pictures, and expect children to recognise whole words from their shape and from the context before they can decode each letter. Children are asked to guess at first, and only at the end of the process do they learn to break down words into their component sounds and letters.

Subject-centred methods, on the other hand, lead the child, step by step, from the simple to the complex. Explicit or synthetic phonics teaches the alphabet, starting with the most regular associations between letter and sound – eg, the letter ‘a’ sounds [a] as in apple, not [ei] as in gate. It simplifies reality, even distorts it for pedagogic purposes, in order to break up the process of learning into gradual steps. For example, to read the word ‘cat’, it teaches that the letters ‘c’ and ‘a’, put together, sound [ca] even though the syllable ‘ca’ has no meaning in the English language. Because this method synthesises single letter sounds into syllables, it is called synthetic phonics in English and syllabique in French.

Despite overwhelming evidence over the years that synthetic phonics is by far the best method (2), educationalists in France and the UK have been reluctant to implement its adoption, because its principles conflict with the child-centred model. As Geraldine Bedell explains in an excellent article in the Observer, this resistance is due to the belief ‘that synthetic phonics is traditionalist teaching of the stuffy grammarian type…. True, some educationalist conservatives may favour it – but there is nothing cramping about being able to read’ (3).

Given the importance of the UK government’s National Literacy Strategy, you may think that synthetic phonics would be recommended by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES). Think again. Despite the rhetoric about basics, it uses only a diluted version of phonics. As Bedell explains, ‘where good synthetic phonics programmes will teach 43 letter sounds and combinations in 16 weeks, the literacy strategy stretches the process out over years’.

In France, Le Bris and Boutonnet note that the Whole Language method is effectively compulsory. It’s not that the French government officially endorses la globale, it’s just that la syllabyque is a subject-centred, teacher-led method and as such it is considered bad practice. Boutonnet’s encounter with the inspector shows how child-centred teaching is enforced. After being strongly criticised by the inspector and told that she must use the new reading methods, she asks if synthetic phonics is forbidden. ‘Of course not’, replies the inspector. ‘What a way of putting it. We do not want to make people change their ways in an authoritarian fashion – we’d rather they thought about it….’

In his book’s appendix, Marc Le Bris presents a number of inspection reports criticising excellent teachers who refuse to adopt the teaching methods suggested by the state. He believes that, although it is an unpleasant experience, school inspection is an indispensable means of protecting children’s education. But he deplores the fact that inspections have changed from checking what children have learnt, to enforcing the adoption of particular teaching methods.

The British education system becomes more and more child-centred with every successive reform – but research overwhelmingly shows that the most fundamental part of teaching, the beginning on which subsequent learning depends, should be subject-centred. Adopting synthetic phonics would mean accepting that the transmission of knowledge is the main purpose of education, and that the child-centred model is wrong.

Modernisers present themselves as democratic and attack anyone who defends academic standards as elitist. The model based on the transmission of knowledge is often attacked as inappropriate for children from a ‘disadvantaged background’, or for lower-ability pupils. Traditional methods might be very good for academic pupils, goes the argument, but in a comprehensive, mixed-ability environment the teacher should address the learning needs of different types of pupils.

Yet the use of child-centred reading methods could itself be the cause of some of the intractable problems of today’s schools. Despite claims as to the educational importance of other media, children’s access to knowledge happens almost exclusively through reading books. Even most of the information now available on the internet is only accessible through reading. If children are not taught to read properly and promptly, they soon fall behind in most subjects and their intellectual development is impaired. We can then blame their genetic make-up or the socioeconomic conditions of their parents for what is essentially a failure to teach them. The school system creates inequalities and then naturalises them. Can this really be what happens?

Dr Kerry Hempenstall, senior lecturer in psychology and disability studies at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Australia, suggests as much: ‘such erroneous practices have been especially damaging to vulnerable students – those who aren’t self-sustaining, who can’t afford ineffective strategies, who rely on teachers rather than their parents to educate them.’ (4) A former teacher who has worked with children with low reading abilities all his life, the Australian psychologist blames constructivist reading methods for what appear to be genetic or socioeconomic deficiencies: ‘it often takes until Year 4…before teachers acknowledge the validity of parental concern. Then it is tempting to blame genetic inheritance, or a lack of home-based reading (a supreme irony) for this suddenly urgent problem.’

Here in Britain, it would be ironic if a school system that purports to be centred on the needs of the individual child were actually creating, or at least increasing, inequality in the abilities of its pupils from the first year of primary school, then naturalising it with concepts such as aptitude, gifted and talented pupils, dyslexia, disadvantaged background, or disaffected pupils. To add insult to injury, our education system could then be shifting the blame on to parents, and sending them to parenting classes.

French secondary teacher Fanny Capel certainly thinks that the school system creates problems: ‘When I meet the parents, who are usually at a great loss, they brandish the most predictable alibis, the most reassuring: “My daughter is dyslexic”; “He’s had a bad French teacher in his first three years”; “She has never liked reading”. They medicalise, they particularise, they personalise the problem. They are completely and utterly wrong, and one can understand why: how could one admit that it is the whole institution that, from primary school, and usually despite the efforts of its teachers, organises the deprivation of knowledge perpetrated against their children?’

Her book focuses in particular on the reforms proposed by former education minister Luc Ferry, exposing the child-centred focus behind the back-to-basics rhetoric. She also explains how the target of 80 per cent of pupils obtaining the baccalaureate is being pursued through lowering academic standards. In the last section of her book she attempts to provide an alternative vision for a school system that offers good academic education to the majority of children.

She quotes the belief of the Enlightenment thinker Marquis de Condorcet, that ‘it is possible to educate the entire mass of a people, in everything that each man needs to know for…the free development of his practical skills and mental abilities,…so that he will not rely blindly on those to whom he is obliged to entrust his private affairs or the exercise of his rights;…in order to defend himself against prejudice with the sole force of reason’ (5).

Although Capel accepts Condorcet’s principles, she is aware that they have never been realised. She makes it clear that she doesn’t want to go back to a ‘mythical golden age’ and she is aware that ‘the majority of pupils of the Third Republic [1871-1940] did not go beyond the certificat d’études [primary school]’.

Between the school of the past, which offered knowledge to a minority of children, and the school of the present, which increasingly refuses to transmit knowledge, Capel chooses neither: ‘we must invent a school that has never existed: a school that really has the means…to emancipate intellectually the whole of a generation.’

Those who criticise the modernisers are accused of being either conservative, or utopian. To the former Capel responds, quoting Hannah Arendt (6), that ‘conservatism…is the essence of educational activity’, adding that ‘to conserve a school that gives children the means of changing the world is the only revolutionary project worth pursuing’. As for the charge of utopianism, she just shrugs it off: ‘the only challenge that matters to us, every time we enter our classroom is this one: can we, for the time of a lesson, share with our pupils the idea that there is nothing more important in the world than Baudelaire’s moving struggle to reach the sky?’

That this respect of the teacher for her subject can not only be construed as utopian, but is also considered bad practice, gives a measure of the bankruptcy of today’s education. Yet while convincing pupils that studying literature is a worthwhile enterprise may sometimes be difficult, it is not as utopian as trying to enthuse them with the National Literacy Strategy.

The only way out of this situation, however difficult, is for teachers to reclaim their professional autonomy and expose the ridiculous teaching methods imposed by the government. ‘This book is not a cry for help’, writes Fanny Capel, ‘it is a call to arms’. It might even be time, yet again, to join the French.

Michele Ledda is an English teacher in the north of England.

(1) ‘When Not Learning Your Spelling Is A National Emergency’, Charles Bremner, The Times (London), 3 February 2005

(2) See, for example, the recently published seven-year study by Rhona Johnston of University of Hull and Joyce Watson of University of St Andrews, The effects of synthetic phonics teaching on reading and spelling attainment

(3) ‘When words fail them’, Geraldine Bedell, Observer, 20 February 2005

(4) Reading Problems: The Causal Role Of The Education Kerry Hempenstall, System, 1999

(5) Condorcet, Esquisse d’un tabaleau historique des progres de l’esprit humain, (Sketch for a historical picture of the progress of the human mind, London, 1955)

(6) Hannah Arendt, ‘The Crisis In Education’, in Between Past And Future, London, 1961

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Topics Politics


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