INTERVIEW. The level of young French in school: “We are moving towards more concrete mathematics”, promises the mathematician

the important thing
“It can do better,” Gabriel Attal said Monday, referring to the national estimates. Charles Torossian has been Mathematics Officer at the Directorate General for School Education since 2018 following a report he worked on with Cédric Villani. Mathematician and director of the Institute for Advanced Education answered our questions.

What do you think is wrong with learning math in France?

It is necessary to relativize. We are the 7th world power. So, we have ambitions for our youth and that is very good. But almost 750,000 children are born every year. National education cannot train 750,000 computer scientists. Every child has talent and everyone can find their own way. Regarding the teaching of mathematics, what characterizes France is a greater dispersion than in other countries, with an excessive proportion of students with difficulties and too few very good students, but also a too strong correlation with social conditions. This is one of the reasons that led us to make 21 recommendations to the minister in 2018 with Cédric Villani. Things are moving in the right direction, especially in the first degree.

Not fast enough, apparently, in the eyes of the Minister of National Education. What assessment do you draw from the 19 measures implemented in the past 4 years?

First of all, it is not enough to create a program for everyone to start and for 50,000 schools to apply it with a snap of the fingers. First, we must support change. There is time until 2030 to disseminate good practice to 400,000 primary school teachers. However, what I can say is that the first goal has been achieved. In 4 years, we have made an extraordinary transformation. We have revolutionized continuing education. We have general local training. We have mobilized the management chains and made them coherent. We repositioned educational materials and re-created trust. As a result, as of 2019, he has progressed in assessment in Year 6 and strongly in REP+. We can confirm that the mathematical plan produces profound trend effects. Of course, the faculty is still fragile, especially since the reform in 2015… The whole challenge of today’s activities must therefore be focused on the faculty, as recommended by the minister, while continuing what we did in the elementary school. We can say that we stopped the thirty-year decline and started to improve results at the end of primary school.

Charles Torossian is also the director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Education and Training

What are the implemented solutions that are already producing results?

We have created the position of math officer in the district. We replaced face-to-face training with small group training to invest in skills development. For new teachers, we have implemented special school teaching licenses (PPPE) that are popular in Parcoursup. They are, in a way, normal schools of the 21st century. We reinvested in teacher training, and at the same time there were also financial investments in salaries. This is exceptional, this has not been done for 60 years.

Are you saying that until now it was not the understanding of the students that was lacking but the level of the teachers?

The topic is complex and analyzed in the report. For example, I say that prospective elementary school teachers in the early 80s had 400 hours of math in the regular school curriculum over 3 years, and that it dropped to 40 to 80 hours in 2017 over 5 years. Therefore, it was necessary to multiply these times by five. I am saying that the initial training in 2023 is quite different from that of 2017. And that, in this time frame, we have created 500 math labs, mostly in high schools to allow math to be placed at the center of the projects. institutes. These are laboratories for professional training, with all the necessary equipment and for working with students. But I also say that this plan will last for 12 years. And that it will take time to improve student results and achieve the ambition of the 7th world power.

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Does this already bring about changes in students’ approach to mathematics?

There are indeed some methods that are more effective than others in teaching mathematics, even if some are better suited to certain students than others. We are moving towards more concrete mathematics and pushing into modeling. We also encourage teachers to work on meaning, especially for operations, but also for accessing variables, and to approach fractions much earlier in the school year. By creating mental images, we improve understanding, but we also need to better explain the acquired knowledge with clearer written clues. We also wrote guides for solving tasks from first grade to high school. We brought demonstrations back to the present day, in middle and high school, which is an important thing because it teaches how to provide evidence, how to find arguments. It is very useful in the life of an adult.

Charles Torossian launched the 2019 Mathematical Plan after co-authoring a report with Cédric Villani that made 21 proposals in 2018.

Charles Torossian launched the 2019 Mathematical Plan after co-authoring a report with Cédric Villani that made 21 proposals in 2018.

Good point, as revisionism and fake news invade social media…

Indeed, and that is the whole point of mathematics, which makes it possible to fight against the lack of trust in science. The crux of the problem is not so much demonstration as proof, hence argumentation, hence the French. It is not enough to tell students: “The Pythagorean theorem is like that. » They knew how to register for a long time. They even knew how to solve problems. But for them it was a kind of abstract truth, as there may be other kinds of truth. For example, to say that the Earth is a flat plate. The lesson of Pythagoras or the Earth is flat were two equal truths in the head of the 3rd grader. Well, no. There are arguments that prove the Pythagorean theorem. There is evidence. There is also proof that the Earth is not flat, and we can even estimate the Earth’s radius in the 4th by thinking, thanks to the Pythagorean theorem. By abandoning the evidence, we prevent young minds from distinguishing the stated from the argued truth. What lies behind it is the whole question of citizenship and participation in rationality in society. Do not confuse hypothesis and conclusion, individual case and general case. Being interested in mathematics also means learning to distinguish between correlation and causation.

Cédric Villani wrote the report with you that resulted in the mathematical plan you are piloting. He says that the plan was consensual, that it was well received by all stakeholders and that it is going in the right direction. But also that it is too slow an evolution due to lack of resources. What do you think ?

I wish it would go faster, like Cédric, with additional resources. But what I see is that after 5 years we are still getting there. This requires more energy, of course! But we will get there eventually. I hope that we will accelerate, there is a very strong will at the highest level and that makes me happy.

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