Voices in Education

The Differences Between Us: French and American Classrooms
In one scene from the new French film, The Class, about an inner-city school outside Paris, the teacher has students conjugating verbs on the blackboard. After one student’s mistakes generate jeers and catcalls, the teacher challenges the rest of the class to do better. When they too fail, he in turn ridicules them. Later, losing his temper at two students, he labels them what roughly translates as bitches. For a basically compassionate guy, his use of mockery and sarcasm to control his class of immigrant outsiders is disturbing.

All of this was not unlike our 17-year-old daughter’s experience at the much wealthier public lycée she attended last year when my husband’s work took us to France. From our first encounter it was a struggle: administrators there were reluctant to take her. American students, they claimed, were one to two years behind their French peers and they doubted she could compete—especially with just adequate language skills and in the terminale, or baccalaureate year where the heavy, content-driven curriculum depended—logically and sequentially—on what had gone before. We asked about mixing upper and lower courses, causing further consternation: classes were not available à la carte. We had a lot to learn.

There were many kindnesses over the year, but being ridiculed and humiliated by teachers was a surprising and painful new educational experience for her as the only foreigner, or étrangère, in the 2,000-student school. The first five minutes on her first day she was mortified to tears by a teacher outraged that she’d rushed in after the bell while her peers waited beside their desks. “Do you think the rules don’t apply to you?” the teacher began in an opening salvo. By the end, none of the other students would look at her, nor would anyone speak to her that first day.

Later that week in physics, a classmate raised a timid hand, “I don’t understand.” “Then I can’t help you,” said the teacher. “I just explained it.” He then told the girl’s neighbor to stop trying to assist since the girl didn’t seem able to grasp even the simplest of explanations.

Our daughter described the terror she felt and her peers showed when making presentations in a philosophy class, stuttering in the face of the teacher’s frequent interruptions of “unimpressive,” or, “really?”

I asked a French friend on leave from her Parisian middle school and teaching for the year at our public high school in Cambridge MA, what she thought about such differing cultural approaches to class management. Taken aback, she described teasing and sarcasm as useful tools in shaming bad behavior. “American teachers are too careful,” she said. “We are much more aggressive in France to stop trouble before it starts, and if the methods are sometimes harsh, well, they’re also effective.”

French parents and even the British ex-pats I talked to were solidly behind what they laughingly called “curb training.” As one put it, “If children can’t behave before they get to school, they do after they arrive.”

I was present for a dictée, given in a first grade class that had three little boys in a state of collapse. In a country that still requires handwriting analysis for some job interviews, penmanship is highly valued. Beyond spelling and punctuation, the dictée is about perfectly formed letters. By contrast, I thought about how invented spelling had empowered the furious writing behind our elder daughter’s first novel: “The Dangrus Stry abut a Pak of Snyks.”

In the French school system, the stakes are high: memorization is emphasized and learning is rigid and rationally organized around a curriculum that comes from a central Paris office. Educators rolled their eyes when I asked about in-class accommodations for learning disabilities and individualized ed plans. Tracking in France happens not through classroom assignments but rather on a school-wide level. Based on test scores, kids begin to get funneled into technical or college preparatory schools by middle school.

At our daughter’s lycée, she was placed in one of six groups of students in their final, terminale year (science focus). Each cohort of 30 students spent their entire day together moving from History/Geography, to Philosophy, Math, English, a second foreign language, Biology, and Physics/Chemistry. Although total class time was maybe six hours a day, the school ran from about 8 am to 5 pm with a two-hour lunch and hour-long gaps scattered throughout the schedule. This structure precluded school-wide socializing as well as school-sponsored afternoon sports or drama activities.

Save for science labs, all classes were lecture format—dictated slowly and precisely with headings, subheadings and numbered points. Student notes were word-for-word identical, complete with colored headings. Papers were handwritten: she never saw computer use among teachers and students, and although all students carried cell phones and had computers at home, no one seemed to have heard of Facebook or other social web sites.

Homework meant memorizing lecture notes in preparation for weekly contrôles, or exams. She lost points on her first history exam for “hors de sujet” or analysis. “Not relevant,” her teacher said, about her thoughts: he was only interested in whether she could recite the material. In math, (a curriculum based on the foundations of continuous mathematics that made her father ecstatic), she was horrified to see she’d received a 14/20 until she heard her classmates whispering, “Impossible! L’Américaine?” and learned that she’d received the top score.

She ended up doing well in math and science—a credit to the teachers at her Massachusetts public high school. And maybe a response to a French parent who had this to say about her young daughter’s third grade experience in a Cambridge classroom: “Teachers greet the children with hugs and never, ever tell them their answers are wrong—just that there may be another way. Yes, American children are happy, perhaps naively, like their parents. They certainly are confident, extroverted, and independent. It remains to be seen, however, whether they learn.”

About the Author: Colleen Gillard is a Cambridge-based free-lance journalist. She has written for the Harvard Education Letter in addition to newspapers and magazines across the country.