A recent controversy in France has centred on the teaching of mathematics. According to Luc Ferry, former Minister of Education, it has been reduced to a pure tool for student selection; and the teaching methods lack rigour “True mathematicians are people who can’t understand that we can’t understand. It annoys them (…) When they see an equation, it’s like a musician reading a score, it’s like music in their heads“; finally, according to him, the maths taught in schools is useless in “real life” which leads him to say: “Like 90% of French people, I have never used, not even for thirty seconds, what I learned in maths throughout my schooling .”
Ferry’s opinion is in response to the plan unveiled by the parliamentary deputy and mathematician Cédric Villani who was appointed to head a government working party to revive the appeal of teaching maths and physics to French young people. It’s striking that a country like France ranks poorly in this field. A study published in 2016 , by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Success (IAE), an independent scientific think-tank based in the United States reveals “The (French) students at CM1 level score 488 points in mathematics and 487 in science, below the international average (500) and the European average (527 in maths, 525 in science).” Which makes France the worst ranking country in the EU on this scale. The same study shows that across the EU, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland and England are on the leaderboard. At the global level Asian countries dominate, with Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan leading and Northern Ireland reaching sixth place worldwide.
This dire situation needs addressing. How can we make science education more relevant? This is not a new question. To quote a famous example, we recall that Marie Curie, believing that her daughters Irene and Eve were given unnecessarily large volumes of work due to the teaching in State schools, worked on a plan with a group of teachers. The cooperative was composed of Jean and Henriette Perrin, Paul and Jeanne Langevin, Edouard and Alice Chavannes, and Henri and Irene Mouton; the classes were taught by the parents taking turns. Apart from the fact that they were non-standard teachers, the real originality of this small group lay in their teaching methods based on practical exercises.
So, according to the historian Jean-Pierre Poirier, ” Marie Curie, having finally made it to the School of Physics and Chemistry, taught children the basics of elementary physics; she amusingly illustrated the abstract phenomena described in the textbooks: dismantling the ball bearings of a bicycle, she dipped the balls in ink, and made them mark out a parabola on an inclined plane to illustrate the law of falling bodies ; another day, it was a pendulum which inscribed its regular oscillations on paper blackened with smoke; or students built a mercury thermometer and found that its results were consistent with those of a laboratory thermometer.” Marie Sklodowska Curie would think up many funny and original experiments to illustrate the founding principles of physics and chemistry. That is an inspiring role model. A more recent example is the initiative led by the “La Main à la pâte” foundation. This association, founded by the Nobel Prize for Physics laureate Georges Charpak, is based on the investigative approach. This method, developed in the US, aims to teach science based on experimentation, observation, and questioning, in order to develop children’s listening and reasoning skills.
As Daniel Rouan, president of the Association and a member of the Academy of Sciences, says in an interview , “It can be done from very simple things, like a flowing object and an object which does not flow. Rather than a lecture, students discuss among themselves and try to imagine the answer. The materials at their disposal guide them towards the answers and the teacher is there to help them. They also have to do written work by filling in an experiment notebook and developing their use of scientific language. This provides for exciting lessons and creates a positive classroom atmosphere.” It should be noted that this method is similar to that used in Singapore, which, as we have seen above, is the leading nation for science education. Within the EU, the main objective of the Fibonacci project is to “design, implement and test a strategy for the dissemination of inquiry-based science and mathematics education, based on investigation, making use of research centres.”
At the international level, other initiatives also exist such as MathsRiders® from the Helen Doron Educational Group, which aims to teach mathematics from an early age through creative and imaginative lessons. Young children can solve equations while having fun. Everything seems to indicate that science education gains in effectiveness when it has a practical element. Also, just because teaching abstract principles does not have much use in everyday life does not mean that learning these principles should not be based on experimentation and practical and concrete case studies. These are two different issues. Was there really a need for a controversy to resolve this problem?