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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Stéphane Bonnéry « L’élève en échec, par essence, n’existe pas »

by Marie-Noëlle Bertrand

Stéphane Bonnéry : “The failing pupil, in essence, does not exist.”

Translated Saturday 1 March 2008, by Gene Zbikowski

Education. Which is the right expression – “failing pupils” or “ailing school system?” That’s the question addressed by researcher Stéphane Bonnéry in his latest book.

Stéphane Bonnéry is an academic researcher in educational sciences. He works with the ESSI-Escol team at the Paris-VIII Saint-Denis university. He has just published “Comprendre l’échec scolaire...” (Understanding School Failure) [1], a book that looks into the mechanisms of school problems. For two years, Bonnéry followed a dozen pupils having problems in learning, first in the fifth grade, and then in the sixth grade. The transition from grade school to junior high school, like all the other transitions, is a moment when pre-existing problems are revealed, he explains. The transition places in question the whole system, which has been shaped according to the self-evident truths of the socially-dominant classes, builds – despite teachers’ attempts to counter it – socio-cognitive [2] misunderstanding that little by little locks the children into a spiral of failure.

The pupils that Bonnéry studied are not exceptional cases and, although they face multiple problems, these problems are not particular to them. In the final analysis, “the failing pupil, in essence, does not exist,” Bonnéry states. It is rather the institution which, impelled by the policies that have been adopted and confronted with problems, little by little abandons the ambition of transmitting a complex culture to each and every pupil.

You decided to deal both with pupils with problems and with school inequalities. What link do you see between the two?

Stéphane Bonnéry: The pupils that I studied do not form a separate species. Like 15% of the pupils who graduate to the sixth grade with very low grades every year, they face multiple problems but these problems are not particular to them.

They are the problems that a majority of children from poor and working-class families have to overcome, children who have not acquired what is called “the school culture” at home. When the school institution and society talk about a pupil “in” a situation of failure or a pupil “with” problems, they proceed as if these children were natural carriers of these problems. One may, on the other hand, consider that, if they cause us problems, it is because the learning structures are not the right ones. In the end, pupils who pose a problem at school pose the problem of school and its project.

You say that school contributes to pupils’ problems — to what extent?

Stéphane Bonnéry: To the extent that the pedagogic structures presuppose that all children possess the required prerequisites for success at school, and do not teach them those prerequisites. It’s not a question of blaming the teachers, but of opening up political and professional perspectives. One example: When the teacher asks the class a question, the goal isn’t simply to get an answer. It’s to set the pupils to work intellectually. Some children understand that – in truth, the teacher knows that they don’t know the answer, but he’s asking them to think about it. The school system takes that as self-evident. But lots of children don’t share that view. They believe that those who answer already knew the answer. A little bit like what happens on a popular TV quiz program.

The institution presupposes that the children know that they’re in school to learn...

Stéphane Bonnéry: That’s right. The same way that it presupposes that they’ve understood that behind every activity is hidden a piece of knowledge for them to learn. Often, pupils are set to a task with vague instructions that do not sufficiently channel their intellectual activity. Some of them go rushing down the wrong path and miss the piece of knowledge. That’s the case of Amidou – he succeeds in coloring a geographical map, but without understanding anything of the color code governing the representation of relief. He confuses coloring a map according to levels of altitude and just plain coloring. What happens on the day of the test? He is given a new map and feels he is being confronted with a problem for which he has not been prepared.

That’s not the moment when he’s going to realize that he has missed the boat. Except that it’s a test (read accompanying article – editor’s note). This is also Bassekou’s misunderstanding: he thinks he’s “got it right.” He even manages to make his teacher think so...

Stéphane Bonnéry: He doesn’t make her think so – for that, he would have to be aware of it. The misunderstanding arises precisely when each person thinks they’re talking about the same thing. When the child thinks that if he’s being asked to answer a question, the goal is just to answer that question. And when the teacher takes it as self-evident that a pupil who answers correctly is doing what he needs to do. But it isn’t because a pupil has done a task correctly that he has grasped a piece of knowledge. The school system requires that each exercise be linked to “abstract” pieces of knowledge. But it doesn’t reveal that “self-evident” piece of information. The model that is implicit in pedagogical structures fits children who share the “insider knowledge” of the school culture, because their family upbringing is immersed in the logic of going to school, because their parents went to university. The truth is that this kind of student, who is considered to be “normal” by today’s school system, is in the minority: 54% of junior high pupils have an employed or unemployed worker as their model of reference. If you forget that, you negate the necessity of making deep changes in the school system. This is what the present policies do by focusing on only the serious cases, as if they were lost in advance. It sticks a label on them, it tracks them into separate structures.

Let’s go back to the misunderstandings. Isn’t there any pedagogical structure that makes it possible to avoid them?

Stéphane Bonnéry: Some of them can be avoided, but it isn’t illogical when a child, who hasn’t been raised as “a normal pupil according to the school definition,” begins by mobilizing an activity other than the one that is expected. This isn’t a pupil who is having problems: if the instructions are to color the map, why should he pay attention to explanations which do not immediately help him to accomplish the task that he’s working on?

The “common knowledge base” that French schools are supposed to teach each child is accompanied by a system of evaluation. Can it help to spot these misunderstandings?

Stéphane Bonnéry: On the contrary, I think that it will crystallize the problems. Evaluation does not solve the problem of understanding how we teach. Above all, the logic of “competences” is very close to the ideology of talents – you evaluate what the pupil is supposed to mobilize alone and spontaneously. This common knowledge base is even marked by a double knowledge, with, on the one hand, fuzzy goals that are subject to interpretation and hence to different applications. And on the other hand, a subdivision of the pupil’s activity that is copied from the good old methods. In the past, a geography lesson on relief consisted in memorizing a map by heart. Pupils were given a fifteen-line text on “Brittany is edged with long, steep-banked creeks...” with the idea that maybe the best pupils would understand the principles of relief and would win a scholarship. In short, Amidou would probably have been a good pupil under the Third Republic (1871-1940). But the present objective is to develop in all pupils the mental state needed to go on studying for a long time. The worker and citizen of tomorrow has to be better trained and has to have more complex knowledge and analytical capabilities. Short of officially saying that we’re giving up on that, the old methods very obviously are not adapted to the new challenges.

You also note the limits of pedagogical innovation...

Stéphane Bonnéry: The rhetoric of local innovation, without drawing lessons from the effect that is produced, and without helping the teachers, is something that I find worrying; For a long time, the school system overwhelmingly supported learning by rote. Now the pendulum has swung to the other side, and we’ve fallen into the opposite tendency – we expect students to understand. So long as that is the case, we won’t be allowing them to identify the piece of knowledge they have to grasp. The school system sets a concept of comprehension, which is supposed to be brilliant, against a concept of formalization and systematization, which is supposedly for pen pushers and drudges. It’s a red herring. It’s making believe that you can learn without any technique. From that moment on, the school system operates like a lampshade. It expects pupils to be brilliant and to channel their lights, as if the job of the school system wasn’t precisely to turn that light on – in every child.

Why is it that the problems show up so suddenly when pupils go to junior high?

Stéphane Bonnéry: The misunderstandings on learning are connected to the opacity of school expectations. For example, weak pupils are often persuaded that every piece of work deserves to be rewarded – if you make an effort, you deserve a good grade. But that’s not the way the school system functions. Of course it rewards effort. But the efforts have to lead to learning. Encouraging children is not a bad thing. But, on the other hand, it is a bad thing never to tell them that just trying is not enough. That creates incomprehension on their part. They don’t clearly identify school as a place with a culture that is foreign to them. And it is a place with a culture that is foreign to pupils from poor and working class backgrounds. In primary school, with benevolent intent, this foreignness is attenuated, with the risk of shifting from a logic of fighting against inequality to a logic of charitable action. Rather than fighting to create the conditions so that all pupils can learn, poor and working class pupils are looked down upon, and you tell yourself that, in the end, the goal is to make them happy for a little while longer, and to favor “living together...” But this is a kind of school at two speeds within the very classroom. And they pay the bill when they enter the sixth grade, when relationships become colder, more formal, and the tests become more demanding.

Junior high is also the place where a feeling of victimization grows among some pupils.

Stéphane Bonnéry: Yes. This develops when the child doesn’t understand what is expected of him. You tell him: “You’ve got to work to succeed.” So he works, he makes an effort. But he still doesn’t succeed. Why was the test on a different geography map from the one that was studied in class? And above all, why did my friends from the housing project meet with the same surprise as me, whereas the “clowns” in the front row passed the exam? If the school system doesn’t give him a clear explanation, he mobilizes others – some pupils know, so the teacher must have tipped them off, so he has his teacher’s pets... And, strangely, lots of pupils have told me that the teacher’s pets are the other ones – “How odd ... it’s only the blacks and Arabs that do the year over.”

Do they wind up concluding that the teachers are racist?

Stéphane Bonnéry: Pupils whose parents are immigrants often do interpret this in terms of racism. The white pupils will say that the teacher is mean, or that he doesn’t like pupils who come from this or that neighborhood. The school establishment tends to think that these “affirmations of [racial or cultural] identity” are invading the classrooms. But the school system contributes to this – the less it gives pupils keys to understanding, the more the pupils look for explanations outside of school. And racism and relegation exist in society.

Is the spiral of failure also the spiral of violence at school?

Stéphane Bonnéry: I haven’t studied the phenomenon of violence at school. On the other hand, a found that a good number of students who are seriously failing rebel. They feel humiliated by their results, by the fact that they work without succeeding and that they don’t understand the judgments made by adults. So they rebel. Quite logically, for their part, adults don’t accept impertinence from a pupil. That’s the beginning of a conflictual escalation. Here again, the school system runs into this problem from the moment that it doesn’t fulfill its mission of transmitting knowledge to all.

Should we return to greater humility with regard to our ambitions for school?

Stéphane Bonnéry: I don’t think it is necessary to lower our demands. But we cannot content ourselves with proclaiming objectives without creating the conditions needed to attain them. The Socialists conducted a policy aimed at maintaining our ambitions, but they left the teachers to work out the problems all by themselves. There was no real plan – nor means – nor training. Orientations have changed as a function of economic needs. The right recognizes the need for 50% of young people to reach the level of a bachelor’s degree. It hasn’t abandoned the level demanded, but it has abandoned the ambition of a common culture. How have they done that? They take those who cannot keep up off of the teacher’s hands. The status quo cannot be defended. But you can propose a new phase of democratization in school, one that doesn’t limit itself to announcements but which gives teachers, parents and families a handle on the real situation.

You speak of a persistent gap between the school system and children from poor and working class backgrounds. Is the school system part of the class struggle?

Stéphane Bonnéry: Yes, and you deprive teachers of the power to act if you try to hide this from them. They are torn between two contradictory functions. On the one hand, they are the agents of a national public education service which guarantees the transmission of a body of common knowledge to all the members of a given generation. But they are also the agents of social sorting within the school system. Moreover, the exploited workers are precisely the ones who didn’t get a chance to go on to college. As a consequence, it is logical that their children are the ones who suffer from a deficit of “school culture.” You can see that in a defeatist, negative way – that’s the theory of the socio-cultural handicap, which says that the “school abnormality” is the child’s doing. Or, on the contrary, you can consider that the school system’s mission is to transmit that culture to all, and that the school system has to be changed to make that possible.

For that to happen, it really is necessary to recognize that the school system exists in a society that is structured by social classes. Otherwise, what is to be done? Teach popular culture to the kids from poor and working class backgrounds and a learned culture to the others? A culture that is not bourgeois, but which the bourgeoisie has claimed for its own.

In the final analysis, pedagogical choices are very much political choices. Who is to make these choices, the teachers or society?

Stéphane Bonnéry: There are technical choices, for example, regarding the way to put together a sequence of teaching. Those technical choices need to be explained to the parents, but they are the domain of the teacher’s professional knowledge. On the other hand, the finality of teaching belongs to everyone. What guides the pedagogic act? Permitting everyone to accede to complex pieces of knowledge? We have got to politicize this aspect of the problem if we want teachers to be comfortable in their profession. Otherwise, they are likely to lose interest in the finality or to feel guilty if they do not succeed in achieving it. So it’s essential to have a political project, on condition that you don’t limit it to vague values. Even the most dedicated teachers are torn between what they would like to do and what they do. Education minister Robien told them: it’s a technical problem, here’s the right method. Before him, education minister Jack Lang told them: you’re great, you’ll find the solution all by yourselves. Imposing a method, or letting them extricate themselves alone are two sides of the same political coin: the institution gives up. Giving them a handle on things is something different. It is, for example, changing the normal schools (IUFM) without eliminating them. It is maintaining the corps of pedagogical counselors, developing the time and space for team work, favoring continuing education [of teachers] and comparing and contrasting their work with pedagogical research. That’s what is meant by giving teachers political meaning and a handle on reality. It’s saying how and for whom you’re working.

[1Comprendre l’échec scolaire. Élèves en difficulté et dispositifs pédagogiques, by Stéphane Bonnéry. La Dispute, 215 pages, 20 euros.

[2A concept developed by Elisabeth Bautier and Jean-Yves Rochex, of the ESSI-ESCOL laboratory at the Paris-VIII Saint-Denis university in Apprendre, des malentendus qui font la différence, (Learning : the misunderstandings make the difference) (1997). Republished in Sociologues, l’école et la transmission des savoirs, (Sociologists, the school system, and the transmission of knowledge) by Jean-Pierre Terrail and Jérôme Deauvieau. La Dispute, 2006.

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