Like every year for twenty years, the results of the Pisa survey, published Tuesday December 5, will be closely observed. A sign of the importance taken by this survey which tests the level of 15-year-old students in a panel of 85 countries, the Minister of National Education Gabriel Attal must speak immediately after the publication, in order to present a battery measurements.
Because everyone fears another dropout in mathematics and French, even though the trend has been clearly downward for twenty years already. The minister should announce the establishment of “level groups” in college classes, for example, in order to prevent the best from being “pulled down”, he announced to Parisian November 13th. But another challenge could also be to reconcile young people with mathematics.
What did Pisa observe in 2012, during the last edition of the focus on mathematics? That these are particularly unpopular with young French people. “Only 5% of 15-year-old French students completely agreed with the following sentence: “I like activities that concern mathematics”, while 25% of them strongly disagreed. with this assertion, notes Nadir Altinok, education economist at the University of Lorraine.
“When you don’t like math, you quickly hate it”
However, liking or not liking this subject is far from negligible on academic results: “The gap in level between math enthusiasts and others was 32 points, the equivalent of a school year in terms of achievement,” continues the researcher. Without it being possible, however, to separate the cause from the consequence: either we succeed better in a discipline that we like, or we like a discipline because we succeed in it.
There is one element, however, likely to put the importance of the link between appetite and results into perspective: “Students in South Korea in 2012 were both the best at math and those who liked it the least,” notes again Nadir Altinok, who sees it as a “sign of the very significant academic pressure in this country”.
“When you don’t like math, you quickly hate it,” notes, educated by his interventions in schools, the mathematician Hugo Duminil-Copin, winner of the Fields medal in 2022. Why so much hatred? “Error is punished during assessments at school, even though it is an integral part of the mathematical process. In my job, I spend my time not understanding and making mistakes. We must desecrate the gravity of being a failure because it is part of learning. Students must gain confidence: the equations that they have difficulty solving will become natural, just like addition that they may have had difficulty acquiring when they were little. »
However, nothing is pushing in this direction while the school system “makes maths the discipline of selection above all”, adds Mélanie Guenais, vice-president of the Mathematical Society of France. “This material is the one that opens the most doors. So all the attention is focused on performance, where it should be shown that to be a good mathematician you must above all be creative, try different avenues…”
“They tell themselves that they are rubbish because their parents were too”
In his establishment classified as REP, the Val-de-Nièvre college in Domart-en-Ponthieu (Somme), Aurélien Dessenne notes the discouraging effect of this approach, particularly on the most vulnerable. “Very often, my students are fatalistic, they tell themselves that they are rubbish because their parents were too, and that it’s normal because math is complicated. » Also, the principal and the team of mathematics teachers have implemented a pedagogy intended to give confidence, based on work in small groups, cooperation between students and “a positive evaluation”.
When an assignment is missed, “we go over with the student what he did not understand, and he redo his homework”, continues Aurélien Dessenne. This second chance changes everything. Thanks to this project, certified by the National Council for Refoundation, the success rate for the college certificate, which was 71%, jumped to 92%.
More than adding additional teaching hours to already overloaded schedules, Grégoire Borst also calls for an in-depth review of programs and teacher training. According to this professor of developmental psychology at Paris Cité University, “school in France is based on a huge implicit: we start from the principle that children know how to be concentrated and attentive, that they know how to memorize and regulate their emotions. As a result, these skills, although essential, are never taught. » This observation would largely explain another French specificity: the very unequal nature of academic success, “because only certain parents pass on these skills to their children”.
Learn the “executive functions” of the brain
Hence the urgency, according to Grégoire Borst, to bring in the “executive functions” of the brain in programs. According to research, three of these basic skills form the foundation of learning: working memory – the ability to retain information and then manipulate it – the ability to break out of routines and flexibility, which allows to change strategy when faced with a problem. “Today, neither teachers nor students hear about them, which is astonishing, because they are the basis of everything, and can be trained very easily,” insists Grégoire Borst.
For example ? In smaller classes, extracurricular activity leaders could offer games that promote good skills, linked to the maths program. “One study showed that playing the goose game for an hour benefited all math abilities for nine weeks. Playing “neither yes nor no” leads to resisting automatisms, etc. “, illustrates the researcher.
Will it be heard? Ana Caban is a student at an engineering school in Nancy. “However, for a long time, I was average in math. I even thought about dropping this specialty in my final year. » Ultimately, Covid decided otherwise. “During this period, I got into the game thanks to the support of my teacher at the time. He was very available by email and reassured me a lot. I could send him a message when I couldn’t find it, etc. He helped me to look further, to not get discouraged at the first difficulty. This is how I finally became passionate about this subject, of which I discovered a really fun aspect. »
Poor results of national assessments
– At the start of the 2023 school year, for the first time, fourth graders were tested in mathematics as part of national assessments.
– A third of the students obtained a score below 225, which places them among the worst performers. They especially have “difficulties in problem solving and geometry”, detailed the ministry.
– Not everyone is affected by these difficulties in the same way. Boys do better than girls.
– “Significant differences are observed between students enrolled in priority education and those in the public sector excluding priority education,” writes the ministry in a press release.
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