Statement of Gilles de Robien
Press Conference on the Basic National Standards
Wednesday 10 May 2006
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Last March 23d, the High Council of Education submitted to me its recommendations on the basic national standards, the “socle”. I wish to thank them publicly for their valuable contribution; I have largely followed it in drawing up the document I am happy to present to you today.
The definition of basic standards for understandings and skills is also based on the recommendations of the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union in the matter of “key skills for the education and life-long learning”.
I especially wished to present today’s decree in the presence of representatives of parents and of the teaching profession. Yesterday I transmitted it to the HCE, which will give me its opinion and advice a few weeks from now. In the meantime, to arrange a concert of efforts before presenting the final product to the Superior Council on Education, I am also presenting it, this project which is of national scope, to the commission on cultural affairs of the National Assembly.
To begin, then, I would like to say two things.
The First, is that this is an action of reconstitution.
For the first time since the school legislation of Jules Ferry in 1882, the Republic is going to outline clearly the essential content of our compulsory education.
This action has become necessary because in the course of time the curricula have experienced so many amendments that the general public has ended by not being able to see it clearly at all! The parents of our students, in particular, no longer can distinguish, through this anthill of activity, the materials, the practice, the coherence, the logic, the upshot of it all. Certainly, the least one can do, one who undertakes to be judged by his performance – as is the case with all public servants – is to define clearly the nature of the tasks he has taken on!
We are dealing with the intellectual training of our children; with their access to liberty and responsibility; with their ability, too, to find their place in the world of work, and to continue their education during their whole lives!
Finally, this redefinition will permit the educational institution itself, as well as the students, to set its objectives and be evaluated in consequence. To identify clearly what one needs most imperatively to know, this is the path towards the structuring of one’s spirit and the mobilizing of one’s will.
The second thing I wish to underline, and it is a consequence of the first, it that the basic standard is not a final destination, but is a springboard.
It doesn’t describe the maximal ambition of our educational system; it describes that which is an absolute obligation to transmit to all our adolescents up to the age of 16, whatever might be their path – including their apprenticeship.
And when I say obligation, I mean obligation as to result, for which the Minister of National Education will be directly accountable! This is, then, the new public direction!
This is not a question of establishing a hierarchy among the disciplines, nor to limit teaching to a bare minimum! It is rather to establish (within a teaching environment as rich as one would wish) a logical link between the base and the construction. One builds a house beginning at the base!
Nor does this imply that the roof is less important than the foundation! It is not a question of value, but of logic.
This means, simply, that once any single pillar of this base is not in place it is not reasonable to wish to build the other parts, for that would be to build upon sand! The national basic standard thus furnishes a principle of organization, not a principle of limitation.
The national basic standard is the common culture, that permits one to go out into the world with the necessary tools.
Five pillars have already been specified by the legislation:
1. Mastery of the French language
2. Knowledge of the principal elements of mathematics and the possession of a scientific culture
3. The possession of a humanistic culture
4. The command of a living foreign language
5. The mastery of the usual techniques for communication and information control.
I wish to add to the above, on recommendation of the High Commission on Education, two additional pillars:
6. The acquisition of social and civic competencies
7. The building of personal autonomy and the acquisition of the spirit of initiative.
Each pillar may be declined in terms of knowledge, skills, and attitudes. What links them is entirely logical: the things learned make the skills possible, while the two, taken together, develop a certain number of intellectual attitudes, or postures.
Let me take an example: The perfect knowledge of the four arithmetic operations and the rule of three makes possible the solution of problems and the exercise of the power of reason.
In general, then, all this develops in the child the spirit of method, the capacity for abstraction and a care for precision.
Another very important point: the progress of the students towards the mastery of the basic standards will be evaluated periodically; the levels will be defined.
The objectives for each level of school will be evaluated in the elementary school:
A first stage, at the end of Grade 2, corresponds mainly to the acquisition of fluent reading and writing.
A second step, at the end of “primary school” [end of grade 5], will test in particular the fundamental rules of grammar, of conjugation, of elementary computation and the four operations.
Finally, I want to make clear that every discipline will contribute to the acquisition of the basic standards, including education in the fine arts and including physical education and sports.
We find, for example, within the capacities needed for development of a scientific outlook, the mastery of the knowledge of Man:
* the organization and functioning of the human body;
* the human body and its possibilities.
Shall we believe that to this end the sciences of life and of the earth suffice, and that one has no need for physical education to attain this objective?
I could make the corresponding observation concerning “social and civic competence” and the bearing of experience in sports on the notion of rules, of arbitration, of law!
I should like now to pause a bit, and consider briefly each of the pillars in turn:
First of all, obviously, French! This is, if I may say, “the basis of the base”. Its learning is the condition for all the others!
To this end I must underline three very important points, which were most particularly emphasized by the HCE in its recommendations.
The first effort must be directed towards reading, which in every connection must be mastered by the end of Grade 1, or at the latest during Grade 2. It is out of the question to leave Grade 2 without knowing how to read! Everything must be done, absolutely everything, in respect of this imperative. This was the sense of the measures I took this year as regards method. [this refers to a decree prescribing phonics] In my view, no taboo, no prejudice shall be brought against this imperative! Without reading, equality of opportunity is nothing but a slogan.
The second point, very clear in the basic standard, it the learning of spelling and of grammar.
Spelling is a matter of respect for the language and of precision of thought. As to grammar, that is the very structure of thought.
For example: if one doesn’t thoroughly learn the coordinating conjunctions, if one doesn’t recognize their sense, their direction, it is a good bet that one will have serious trouble developing the most ordinary logical deductions. An incapacity in grammar thus has consequences in all intellectual activity, including mathematics.
For this reason the HCE insists on the use of the dictée for spelling. Its recommendation on this point is particularly clear: the teaching of grammar, and I quote, “must be conducted systematically, in the presumption that special lessons in the analysis of texts will be devoted to it, though avoiding the technical vocabulary of grammar, which should be left to more advanced education [than the primary].” In short, it is necessary to learn the rules in the course of lessons, to practice such exercises, devoting to them a “sequence” of their own.
Third point upon which I wish to emphasize, and which you will find in the basic standard: The enrichment of vocabulary.
This implies, and from Kindergarten on, the teaching of vocabulary to children. This must be done every day, in giving lists of words to learn and to use freely.
This is one of the keys not only in the learning of reading but to one’s access to understanding and to the enrichment of one’s thought.
2. PRINCIPAL ELEMENTS OF MATHEMATICS AND SCIENTIFIC CULTURE
Now I come to mathematics.
On this subject, several essential points.
First, the four operations must be mastered as early as possible, in the primary school.
It is next necessary to practice mental computation: this is simultaneously an intellectual capital for intellectual capacities and important for daily life.
There have been, at one time, those who thought all this to be unnecessary since we now have calculators! They were mistaken!
To know how to calculate is an important step in the development of intellectual capacities, but it is also – if you’ll forgive me the metaphor – a trump card for everyday life. And I add that calculations concerning the common units of measurement should be assigned regularly during the primary schooling. It is not conceivable that one should have to take out a calculator every time he needs to compute 8X9 or to figure out the proportional quantities needed to make a cake.!
The rule of three, ratios and proportions, the formulas for area and volume, the principal theorems of plane geometry, and equations of the first degree – these, too, are found in the basic standards.
In general, the objective of the standards for mathematics is to set out the basis for mathematical reasoning, leading to the ability to construct mathematical proofs. Such competencies necessarily rest on a methodical apprenticeship in calculation and in the solving of small problems, beginning with the very first years of primary school.
Linked with the pillar “mathematics”, it is appropriate to couple the transmission of a good basic scientific culture to our students. We have followed, on this subject, the advice of the Academy of Sciences, which has already inspired new scientific programs in the middle school.
One first word on the objective: We must begin by giving our children the rudiments of the way science sees physical reality, all the while developing the inductive and deductive capacities of their intelligence.
In addition, in a world dominated by the play of science and technology, the informed choices of a citizenry require an understanding, both elementary and solid, of the methods by which problems are solved.
The stake also includes the generation of scientific vocations. For this, our idea is that the best way to generate an interest in science is to give solid knowledge along with methods of solving problems. The spirits of our youngsters are avid for knowledge! A head cannot be complete without something inside!
Every student must know that the Universe has structure, and must understand its functioning, know that matter presents itself in a multitude of forms, and know the characteristics of life. He must also master the indispensable knowledge of Man, in particular to know the principles underlying the unity and the diversity of individuals.
[I will stop the translation here. The major headings that follow are
3. HUMANISTIC CULTURE
4. FOREIGN LANGUAGE
5. MASTERY OF TIC (technology and information sciences),
6. SOCIAL AND CIVIC COMPETENCE
7. AUTONOMY AND INITIATIVE
and all this is followed with some inspirational talk of a more general sort. This “discourse” of the Minister of Education was given to the press as introduction to the “socle” to follow, which is a lengthier document than this speech, listing things to be learned under each heading in a more particular way. While the Minister’s speech doesn’t sound like it came from within the Education establishment, the socle does, though by no means as badly as the average state standards of 2006. The mathematics part, in particular, offers no derogation of calculators, even in connection with baking a good cake, as the Minister did in his speech. In one place it asks that the student be able “to model”, with no further explanation. My own interpretation is that by “modeling” the socle means something like building a wooden hexagon, whereas the mathematical idea of “modeling” is the opposite, to build (e.g.) an equation or definition that captures some part of the behavior of some real situation or object. Only in a school or Department of education would it be considered unnecessary to explain “model” in the context of a socle for mathematics.
My friends in the GRIP are now (May 15, 2006) in the process of writing amendments to the socle, to submit to the HCE, since the document is still open to public comment before a final version is established.
 The “High Council of Education” is the recently created major advisory body to the Minister of Education, and it is the nine-member group to which Laurent Lafforgue, the distinguished mathematician, was appointed a year ago, only to be forced to resign when an intemperate letter of his to the Chairman of the Council was leaked to the press last summer. His replacement was not a mathematician, and the HCE has no mathematicians in it now, though it does contain two or more education professionals or former such..
 Grade 5 is the last grade of “primary school” in France. “Middle School” then runs from Grades 6 through 9, and the last three years are the “Lycee”, or high school. Level. Taken together, the last seven grades are called “Secondary School”.
 “dictation”: a schoolroom exercise in which the teacher reads aloud, slowly and distinctly, and the students copy. This exercise is particularly important in French, where the same sound may apply to several words, so that choosing the correct one is not just a matter of spelling but of recognizing all the grammatical and semantic implications of what is being heard. And many letters, such as a final “s” or “e” on an adjective, are not heard but must be written to signal agreement with the proper antecedent