Vive la difference?;Research Focus

10th April 1998 at 01:00
There is little Anglo-French convergence in the classroom. David Budge reports

England and France may now be linked by the Channel Tunnel but in many respects their education systems remain a world apart.

Researchers have found that nine to 11-year-olds in the two countries spend almost exactly the same proportion of school time on language and maths. But nearly every other aspect of classroom life is markedly different.

The net result is that English children are encouraged to think for themselves; the more routinised approach of the French results in different benefits.

Researchers at Bristol University and Canterbury Christ Church College who conducted the three-year QUEST (Quality of Experience in Schooling Trans-nationally) study have previously revealed that French children are more highly motivated than English pupils and much less worried about being labelled "swots". They like their teachers more, and they are more nationalistic.

The final phase of the study has provided information on children's performance in maths and language tests that included items culled from English and French papers. It has also painted a detailed picture of classroom life in both countries.

Unsurprisingly, pupils' maths and language performance was often dependent on their degree of familiarity with test items. "English pupils had access to a wider range of skills but often at a lower level," the researchers say. "However, they w00ere more prepared than French children to tackle unfamiliar problems in maths and to take risks in learning - characteristics of lifelong learners.

"The area which gave the most concern was the under-performance of English pupils at computation. There was evidence that many pupils had not grasped the concepts of multiplication or division."

This disappointing finding was counter-balanced by some positive language-test results. Not only were English pupils better at creative writing, they outscored the French in two areas where the British are often said to be very weak: spelling and punctuation.

"Fly-on-the-wall" observations of children in eight schools in Pas-de Calais and Bouches-du-Rhone and eight schools in Avon and Kent revealed that 43 per cent of classroom time was devoted to language in both countries. The English spent 28 per cent of their time on maths, compared with 32 per cent in France.

The French were also slightly more likely to be "on task" (68 per cent against 57 per cent in England). And the research team believes that two factors are responsible: the dominance of the teacher in the French classroom, and the greater emphasis on whole-class teaching (62 per cent compared with 39 per cent in England).

Formal instruction was also more common in France (33:20 per cent). "This perhaps reflects the ubiquitous use of the traditional French lecon, which involves teacher exposition followed by individual practice and a final whole-class evaluation and feedback session," the researchers say.

The observation findings were confirmed by a questionnaire survey of 400 pupils in each country. Far more English pupils spent time working with a friend than the French did (52:17 per cent). They also felt more free to move around the classroom than the French (61:34 per cent).

But the researchers comment that the nature and content of teacher-pupil interaction was probably more important than these statistics. The French teacher's goal is that pupils should master the material being taught - whereas the English teacher promotes understanding and knowledge through problem-solving.

The French pupils spent only 1.5 per cent of their time on writing stories, diaries, poems and plays but the English devoted 18.7 per cent of the observed time to such activities. Conversely, although the French reserved 15.9 per cent of lesson time for grammar the researchers did not observe any grammar at all being taught in English classes.

"Our findings clearly demonstrate the complex interaction between national culture, educational traditions and learning outcomes and hence, the need for such perspectives to be taken into account in policy-making," the researchers conclude.

The QUEST team members are Professor Patricia Broadfoot, Dr Marilyn Osborn, Dr Keith Sharpe, Claire Planel and Brigitte Ward. The research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. Copies of the full report can be obtained from Dr Osborn, The Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol, 35 Berkeley Square, Bristol BS8 1JA

* MATHS

English children were better at: Investigation; averages; handling data; probability; fractions; visual questions ; geometric language; area and perimeter; using and applying maths.

French children were better at: Computation; geometric drawing skills; decimals.

Too close to call: Shape; space; measure.

Language English children were better at: Inferential reading questions; spelling; punctuation; creative-writing skills.

French children were better at: Use of the alphabet; reading comprehension (where questions involved quoting from given text).

* TYPICAL ENGLISH JUNIOR SCHOOL MATHS LESSON

Not so much a lesson as direction of tasks for children to do.

They work on their own.

"You can talk to each other to help each other."

Children swap books to mark first exercise - so some ensuing discussion.

Teacher moves around helping individuals.

Gives encouragement and feedback.

Maths work on area and angles. Children measure different angles then move to teachers' instruction on angles.

Change from individual work and teacher helping individuals to teacher instruction; some children not listening but continuing with own work.

Class lesson follows on, moving a boy with his arms out in front - turning him round 90-180 degrees etc. Children volunteer to move him.

Children put up hands if agreedisagree. * TYPICAL FRENCHMATHS LESSON

Without explanation or contextualisation teacher launches into the process of multiplying decimals by 1000.

The usual procedure is employed - they have to listen (raising their arms) to the talk eg 3.3 x 1000; then the teacher thumps the table.

Pupils write the answer. Teacher thumps again and they have to hold up their answers.

(a little later) One child is sent to the board to write "le titre de la lecon" - proportionality.

Teacher refers to four situations involving proportionality in earlier lessons.

Teacher questions pupils on how much they remember; a lot of this is inviting pupils to join in orally, for example "On multipli par le meme nombre".

This sequence refers to p158 of the maths textbook.

All attention is then directed to p159.

One child reads aloud and the rest follow.

Teacher questions in order to ensure pupils understand what is required.

"Allez, on se met au travail." Class descends into silent concentration.

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