One often hears the mantra: seize the moment or opportunity, and this time I did. When Sebastien suggested that I go to Europe early and visit the Marchals, I didn’t deliberate over the decision. I sent an e-mail and bought a ticket.
Frederic and Marion (Guillaume and Heloise) Marchal are old friends that Sebastien and I knew before we were married. The Marchals lived in Morristown for 2-3 years for Frederic’s work, and they returned to (near) Paris right before we got married. Marion was a “prof” (high school teacher) for many years before becoming an administrator.
What was the opportunity I seized? I observed classes in Marion’s high school for a week!
Paul E. Victor High School
Within educational literature and the media, American students are often compared to students in other countries, based upon test scores. Although I believe the American education system has much to improve, the comparisons made to other countries’ scores leave out much needed context, which is necessary in evaluating the whole of a system. French students are among the best in the world, when comparing assessment data, and they are well-known for the grueling and monstrous le Bac. Le Bac is the final high school examination that determines entrance into a university. This is no SAT! Included in Le Bac are multiple choice questions, writing samples, and oral examinations which lasts about 4 hours for each course students take their last year of high school. So, with the opportunity at hand, I headed to France to spend a week at Lycee de Paul E. Victor. My desire was to compare the French and American education systems, in particular, the pedagogy teachers use in the classroom.
Before arriving, I had a biased expectation of what teaching looked like in France. These expectations were not completely ignorant stereotypes, as they were based upon informal conversations with my husband, a French friend, and family (Belgian). Throughout the week, I was surprised by what I found the two systems had in common and the stark differences. Some of my assumptions were confirmed while others were quickly corrected. My previous idea of the French Education System was corrected and revised as a rough draft is for a manuscript. I found myself pulled back and forth between questioning my personal teaching philosophy and confirming it.
During my week in Cergy, I observed in English, Philosophy, French, Math, Biology, History, and European (class where students take core classes in English) classes. In some cases, I observed more than one class with a teacher, and at other times, I observed a single class. Obviously, my experience is quite finite and took place mostly at one high school. Assuredly, my experience would be different with more time and varied observation placements. With this in mind, I present my “findings” and/or anecdotal notes.
I found the differences between the French and American education systems begin with foundational philosophies on what education is and the position of a teacher and a student. In France, the general public views the position of a “teacher” differently than in The United States. Teachers are still revered as an authority within education. Their purpose is clear: teach the student (to pass le Bac). Notice, I use the word “teach”. As a result, the idea of the purpose and function of a teacher has a great effect upon students’ and parents’ expectations of schooling. Teachers are expected to teach, so in many classes, they have the authority of knowledge, and they often share that knowledge through lecture. Overall, students seem to have an underlying respect for the position of a teacher. Each student may not like a particular teacher, but I believe because of the respect for the position, they show respect within the classroom. Of course, there were side conversations and the occasional sighing, but I never saw disrespect vocalized or shown through body language the entire week.
In contrast, I believe Americans question authority, and to a degree, the idea of questioning the status quo is often encouraged whether it be in politics, pop culture, or religion. This attitude or philosophy of having individuals in authority prove themselves and their positions carries over into the atmosphere of a school. Teachers can be questioned. They are often questioned by the government as to whether or not they are using the correct teaching strategies within the classroom. They are questioned by parents when a child is not succeeding or a child is punished. In the end, their authority, personally and positionally, is often questioned by students. It is all too common for a student to react in a disrespectful manner to correction or because s/he does not prefer the teaching style of the teacher.
Based upon the idea that a teacher has authority (France) and a teacher can be questioned (U.S.), I will continue to share specific examples where I see these ideas lived out. Although there are exceptions, most French teachers used lecture as their primary teaching strategy. A few teachers used a form of cooperative learning, but the majority transmitted knowledge through lecture with questions interspersed throughout. They are well trained within the discipline that they teach, and they can be seen, in the classroom, as an authority of that particular subject area. In general, students were told when to add to their notes during a lecture, and students wrote verbatim what the teacher said. All students took notes the same way, writing in full sentences and paragraph format.
Within the American classroom, it is increasingly common for students to work in cooperative groups and create projects about the topic they are studying. When I teach, I assume that students can acquire knowledge for themselves. In the modern world, they are able to research anything with Internet access. My desire is for students to work with that knowledge – to apply, synthesize and evaluate it. To a degree, I hope for students to question the truth of what they are learning and to work to prove it themselves. Although I believe both education systems desire for students to think critically and to have skills needed to be successful in life, in the U.S. system, there seems to be more opportunity for students to learn in a variety of ways.
Within both education systems, I believe the systems can be characterized by the term “student-centered”, yet this plays out in two completely different ways. In France, education is student centered in that it is somewhat individualized to the students’ interests and is focused on upholding very high expectations of student achievement. When students enter high school, at the age of 15-16, they must choose a track of study. The number of possible tracks varies depending on the size of the school, but common ones include languages, sciences, business, technology, and vocational. Once students choose a track, they take specific classes for the chosen emphasis throughout high school. The track determines the universities to which one can apply and the future career the student will have. In addition, the students’ work load and year-end exams are challenging and demand high content knowledge attainment. When students finish high school, it is approximately equivalent to an Associate’s Degree in the U.S.
Again, school is seen as a place to learn. There are increasingly more clubs available as extracurricular activities, but it is nothing in comparison to high schools in the U.S. where a third to half of a yearbook portrays extracurricular activities. On average, the students’ school day ranges from around 8:30 am – 5:30 pm, with an hour lunch break (it is France, right?). The focus of school is to produce students who are ready for a specific career path.
In contrast, “student-centered” in the United States looks very different. We desire for our students to have every opportunity possible, which means that students have the opportunity to explore many different courses within high school from the Arts to Biology to U.S. Government. Through professional development and reform, teachers are charged with determining how best to meet students’ needs and learning styles. Teachers are incorporating a variety of strategies to reach all types of learners.
At other times, our “student-centeredness” seems to arise out of our anxiety of being questioned. Teachers have an increasingly difficult time, saying “no” to our students. We redirect students privately, as not to embarrass them or start a power struggle. We make comments like, “That is not exactly right . . .”, as we are fearful of damaging a child’s self-esteem for a wrong answer. At times, we initially seek parental involvement in order to avoid being questioned about decisions we make in the classroom later.
This is one insight that made me question my professional practice. I often lean towards giving grace to students, which has its merit, but there is a point where “grace” is detrimental. Repeatedly during my observations, I saw teachers say, “No, that’s not right” or say, “___, stop talking” in front of the class. These comments were not disrespectful to the student, and the students did not seem hurt or alienated. I wondered if we (if I) are tiptoeing around “feelings” when we need to prepare students for the reality of this world. It is ok to be wrong; everyone will be wrong at some point. It is ok to be redirected; everyone will be off track at some point. Personally, I need to reassess what “student-centered” means in the college setting. If my goal is to prepare caring, called, competent teachers, then my students will need to hear the word “no”, as in “I am not accepting you work late”, or “ ‘no’, you need to find someone who was in class to give you notes”, or “ ‘no,’ your work is not meeting expectation, go back and revise it to meet our standard for quality work”.
Both systems have detrimental extremes that may fall under the umbrella of being labeled “student centered”, like having a fifteen year old make a long-term career decision or treading too cautiously over upsetting a student. I believe each system could learn positive approaches and mindsets from the other. Neither is perfect, yet there are beneficial practices within each.
Below are some other random noticings from my observations in France:
- When a new school is being built, 1% of the budget is for artwork.
- Students begin taking English in elementary school. They pick up a second foreign language in middle school. In high school, depending on their track, they may study a third.
- In both high schools where I observed, there was no school staff assigned to supervise students in the hallways or “cantine” (cafeteria). Students behaved in a proper manner, and no supervision was needed.
- Religion is completely separate from schools in France. Students are not allowed to wear any type of religious dress, including Muslim burkas or hijabs.
- Smoking is more common is Europe. Students are allowed to smoke outside.
- Parents are not involved in school, as they are in the U.S. Parents are not allowed in the classroom, and there are no parent organizations, like PTO.
- High school schedules change daily. Students may have an hour of algebra on Monday, Thursday and Friday, or biology on Tuesday for two hours and Wednesday for one hour. Teachers are only required to be at school during the hours they teach, and many teachers have a whole or half day where they work from home.
- In both schools where I observed, the teachers switched classrooms as well. So, the teachers did not have a dedicated classroom, and there was nothing on the classroom walls. The teacher’s lounge was quite important, and all teachers saw each other often.
- There were no soda machines in sight!
- There are no lockers.
Each of these noticings speaks volumes about French beliefs and philosophies, but I think my post is long enough. Let me know what you think about my observations and your beliefs of the education system in the U.S.