'Pierre, stop being intellectually timorous'

30th July 2010 at 01:00
A drive to foster creativity in France will encourage pupils to make mistakes

Late in the 19th century, while investigating chicken cholera, Louis Pasteur infected some birds with bacteria that he believed would kill them. He was wrong: not only did the chickens survive; they were completely immune. Pasteur had made a mistake. But in doing so, the "father of modern medicine" had also found a vaccine.

In the 21st century, however, according to a growing number of intellectuals and education specialists, France is no longer quite so ready to see the benefits of getting things wrong. They claim the school system is leaving children bereft of creativity, flexibility of thought and - crucially - confidence in their own mental abilities.

In an attempt to counter this culture of "intellectual timorousness", a group of academics from the country's elite institutions hosted a "festival of errors" in Paris last week, with a rather unusual mission: its participants were encouraged to make as many mistakes as possible.

"A large part of the French school system is based on the idee recue that errors are negative, when in fact it is by this very process of learning that you make progress," said Maelle Lenoir, of the Association Paris Montagne. "It was Einstein himself who said that `the only sure way to avoid making mistakes is to have no new ideas'."

Observers of the French school system claim it is highly top-down and results-driven, prizing the right answer rather than the thought process by which a pupil might explore the question being asked.

"My six-year-old's teacher told me, `he's a nice kid, but he asks too many questions,'" said Francois Taddei, the author of an education report published last year for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

One teacher who has attempted to rebel against the national model is Girolamo Ramunni, a lecturer at the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts in Paris, a higher education establishment specialising in science and industry.

Ramunni, an Italian who left school at the age of 14, says he tries to encourage his students to reject the pressure always to be right by, for example, giving them problems to solve "which could not be solved".

He comments: "Once they've accepted that getting things wrong is not the end of the world, yes, they may come up with some crazy ideas, but they will have some good ones too."

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