Friday, 5 December 2008

My adventures in the French education system

Well I've made it through my semester at the Sorbonne. I finished my final exam (a 4 hour process spread out over 2 days) earlier this week and hopped on a train to Zurich immediately after. Now I'm settling in at my parents' house in Zurich and I'll have the opportunity to reflect a bit on my three months in Paris and on what I want to do next. I just called to get my result and am pleased to report that I passed with the highest distinction, so I am now a certified French speaker according to the Sorbonne. Nifty!

This was an incredibly interesting three months. Not only was I able to dramatically improve my French, but I also learned a great deal about French culture and way of life. One thing I experienced with a bit of frustration was the obsession within the French education system for test-taking. I think it's safe to say that never before in my life have I been in a course so preoccupied with exams.

The Sorbonne provides a certification once you complete the course, and in order to receive this certification you need to pass a final exam. I was aware that there was a final exam for the course when I signed up for it, in fact this was one of the elements that attracted me to it; I liked the fact that the pressure of having a final would ensure that I would keep working hard. But of course the main goal for me in the course was to learn French, not to obtain a certification. So I was quite surprised to find that my professor, and the program as a whole, seemed to be obsessed with the final exam. Every day our professor would mention the final exam at least once. If a student didn't know something, she would go on a little rant about how we wouldn't pass the final exam if we didn't know that particular grammar rule. When doing exercises in class, every time someone said something wrong she would yell "zero!" I found it thoroughly amusing. Zero on what?? We were literally just talking in class. But she was alluding to the fact that if we said that on the final exam, we would get a zero for that question.

In fact the entire time the professor's attitude seemed to be that we weren't there to learn French, we were there to pass a French exam. Everything in the class was tailored to the exam. And to that end, most of our time was spent taking practice tests to prepare us for the final. Each week we had at least two, usually three tests. One day we even spent the entire two-hour class taking three different tests! And even though the certification makes absolutely no difference to me, over the course of the three months I found myself getting more and more nervous about the exam. All of my studying became geared around what would be on the exam, because the professor had drilled such a fear of it into me! This came at the expense of more practical execution of the language, and I left Paris not happy with my comprehension level although I can read and write in French now very well.

In speaking with my French friends I learned that this is just how the French education system works. It is very much test-focused. You go to school to prepare for an exam, and if you pass the exam you can enter a career as a _____. One of my friends in Paris is a teacher, and he said he also says "zero!" when a student says something wrong in class, and he had never thought of it as being strange. In fact, many of my French friends speculated that it is not because of arrogance or cultural and linguistic pride that French people tend to speak very poor English compared to their Northern and Eastern neighbors. They said it is rather because the French education system doesn't prepare students to actually speak English, it only prepares them to pass a test in it. A German friend of mine agreed with this characterisation, claiming that the high level of English proficiency in Germany is a result of a very practical teaching method, whereas in France English is taught to a test.

The Education Gap

Of course, France isn't alone in its predilection for test-taking, it is perhaps only the most extreme example in the old world. I have found the difference between the education systems in North America and Europe to be one of the most stark contrasts between the two continents. I often find that Americans are horrified by some of the precepts of European education systems, and vice versa.

For instance in Europe, it is common for education systems to include a test for children around the age of 12 that determines how they will progress through the remainder of their state-provided education. If they do well on the test in math, then they will attend a school which grooms people for a career in math. If they do well in writing, they will begin to be groomed as a writer. And if they do poorly - as many immigrant children do because they may not yet have a complete grasp on the host language - they are put into a trade school at the age of 12 that will prepare them for a blue collar life. By the time they reach secondary school (high school in the US) they are taking specialized courses and preparing for a career. Fewer people attend university in Europe than in the US (although in the UK this is quickly changing), and when they do, they attend highly specialized programs preparing them for a specific job. Law school and business school, for instance, typically come straight after secondary school.

In the US system there is no such test for 12 year olds to determine where they will go to school. In fact there is no standardized test to determine where a student will go to school until the SAT, which students take at the age of 17 when they are applying to universities. And that test is becoming increasingly less and less important to the university admissions process. I'm told that in France, the score you get on your business school entrance exam is the most important factor in being admitted to a university. In the US, the score you get on your SAT, ACT or GMAT is only one small part of a larger application package.

The idea that a child at the age of 12 would have to take a test to determine the rest of their life is horrifying to many Americans. In the US everyone attends the same high school no matter what their strengths and weaknesses (except for some magnet schools that have been set up in urban areas). A large percentage of Americans enter university undeclared, not deciding what they want to major in until their sophomore or junior year. And most universities require students to take a core package of history, math, science, language and literature classes no matter what they're majoring in. This last concept in particular has been baffling to Europeans as I explained it to them. "Shouldn't you have learned all of that already in secondary school?" they ask. In truth, I don't have a good answer to this question.

I myself have remained fairly torn about which system is better. On one hand, I am American and the idea of making a 12-year-old take a test to determine their life does seem essentially creepy to me. And placing such importance on tests seems to me to be making education largely a game of luck. For example, you never know what's going to be on a test, so you study what you think will be on it. If you guessed right, you'll do very well. If you guessed wrong, you'll do poorly. Why should that game of change determine the grade you get for the whole course? In the US, my final exams were usually only 10 to 20 percent of my final grade for the class. The rest is based on your work over the course of the semester. At the Sorbonne, your work over the course of the semester only accounts for 20 percent!! The rest is all the final exams (written, comprehension and oral).

On the other hand, I think the US system, where every middle class person is expected to go to college even if they don't know what they want to do, is rather silly and a colossal waste of money. I never felt challenged at university in the US, and in hindsight I wish I had selected a major before I entered and stuck with it, rather than being undecided for so long like most others. The system in the UK probably makes more sense, where most people take some time off between secondary school and university, and when they enter they go for something specific. They don't go to university just to go to university like in the US.

Perhaps a happy medium between the two systems is what I would prefer, because I'm not entirely comfortable with either system right now. My experience in the French education system was at times a bit frustrating, but it also explained a lot in terms of what I've observed in French habits and attitudes.

6 comments:

Alex said...

Very interesting! All those tests sound like a real drag

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