In France, an assumption that math is important
Euclid would feel right at home in a math class in Paris. The geometry problems on the blackboard would look familiar to the third-century B.C. Greek mathematician, as would the method of work: methodical, clear, and anchored in the language of proof.Skip to next paragraph
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"This is an easy one. Who wants to go to the board?" asks teacher Daniele Glaziou at the Lycee Henri IV, a top high school in France.
Hands fly into the air - even though the experience of puzzling out a geometry problem in front of a French math class often includes a level of sharp criticism inconceivable in most American classrooms. Here, it's not enough to get it right. It's just as important to get it fast.
"Yes, that's right, but she got through it quicker than you did," comments the teacher on a student's performance.
What's telling about French math instruction is the assumption that runs through society that mathematics is important. Mathematicians figure prominently along with generals and writers among those deemed the great heroes of France. The habit of systematic "analysis" as a basis for solving problems is developed young - and persists long into life.
"The US doesn't care much about the results of mathematics education, because thousands of very capable Russians and Koreans come in every year. But France has a very selective elite culture. There's a very generalized opinion that math not only allows you to understand everything, but that the only way to understand anything is to understand its mathematical structure," says Jean-Michel Kantor, a professor of mathematics at the University of Paris 7.
Yet even here, there's a new focus on how to make make math instruction less abstract and more accessible to all students. "It's long been accepted that if a student doesn't grasp a math course, it's probably because his father and grandfather weren't good at math, either," says Jean-Pierre Kahane, chairman of a government commission to reorganize the teaching of mathematics. Failure in math is just seen as an inevitable part of the system. What we're trying to do now is introduce more interdisciplinary, problem-solving into the curriculum. It's a good idea, but difficult to put into practice."
Many of the students at Henry IV plan to continue in two grueling years of preparation seminars for entrance exams into elite professional schools, such as the cole Polytechnique. That's what students call "the royal way," and it opens doors for professional careers in government and industry. But to get through that door, math skills must be rock solid.
"Those that make it through the top mathematics programs leave with the certainty that they will always be able to make a good living," says Catherine Dupr, national chairperson of the Mathematics Teachers Association.
Math instruction begins early, and there are clear national objectives. Some 90 percent of three-year-olds in France attend free, universal preschool. Even preschool is treated as a professional activity for students, who are treated as if they are there to learn. Preschool lessons often include math games and problem-solving with double-digit numbers.
Moreover, teaching - especially math teaching - is a high-status profession in France. Even preschool teachers are highly qualified, and they're paid as much as elementary school teachers. The notion of perfecting and sharing lessons is built into the professional culture. "The children really work in a French pre-school. It's not babysitting. Even mathematics has its role to play," says Philippe Wolf, director of studies at the Ecole Polytechnique.