Posted by: lyonenglishnetwork | July 5, 2011

What are the French like?

Last week, during a lesson on the phone, I mentioned what a couple of people have said to me recently, namely that the French are, for want of a better word, communist. The discussion continued, and we got talking about how, on the other hand the Americans were largely capitalistic. I’m generalising here, but I’ve got a tendancy to do that!

I know someone (I’m not going to mention their name) who is a teacher in a school here in France. They teach English. I mentioned to them that they really ought to make use of the internet as a way of improving their student’s English. I mean, it’s a great way of doing it. Why not send the students homework via e-mail that they could do on the web. There are loads of free websites that would be appropriate for that kind of thing. The answer I got was, I would say, in the least, surprising. Not ALL the students have got the internet at home. Probably most of them do, we’re probably talking about perhaps 3 or 4 out of a class of 30 who do not, and others could go to the library if necessary. No, it would not be fair to send the students homework by e-mail because some of them don’t have the web. My reaction to this was: why not ? You’re penalising the majority for the sake of the few. It’s a loss for the overall society in failing to educate the many, for the sake of supposed equality.

Another example: I was mentioning in my class today that in England, we have sets in schools. This means that after the age of about 13, you are broken up into sets. At my school, we had about 6 sets for about 180 students. This meant that the best students in any given subject, say maths, went into the top set, the next best 30 into the second set, and so on, until the last set. This idea was put to my 2 adult esl (English as a Second Language Students) today. With both of them being French, one of them said it was perfectly normal to have this system, that it allowed the teachers to adapt the pace of their teaching to the students, but the other said it was not really fair and that the students deserved to all have the same teaching. It’s true that with this system you end up with some hard-working students but less bright students in the bottom set with a lot of other people messing around. On the other hand, the top set students are free to forge ahead and go at their pace.

My point is, is this indicative of French society in general ? Are the French often so concened with “fairness” and “equality” to the detriment of innovation and flexibility ?



  1. Penalising the majority for the sake of the few?!

    Let’s think about it the opposite way…

    Why should I penalise the few students who don’t have the internet because their parents can’t afford having a computer when I can do without the internet? What is the Internet adding into the process of giving homework when I see them a few hours a week all together and can give them homework directly?
    If my students actually need the internet for a real purpose- other than some gadgety use supposed to sex up homework- I make sure I can take them to the computer room available in the school; The library computers Paul? What time do they finish lessons? 6pm. What time does the school library close? 6pm..
    . Why should I deliberately deprive them of a tool they can use to work just because their family don’t have as much money as the others?

    I think it isn’t a political question Paul, it is a philosophical and pedagogical question:

    What do we want to teach them? Some middle ages values stating that the poor deserve their state and therefore are a burden for society and can never improve their status? Do you want me to send them to some special workhouse school where they can have a second class education? What a great idea! I won’t have to take them into account any more!

    But at the same time, let’s teach the rich -and strangely enough they’re the brightest as well! what a coincidence!- some “éducation civique” lessons, so that they become good citizens, respectful of each other…

    Why not show them in class, that they can teach each other (and many a study has demonstrated that it is the student that explains something to the other that benefits most from the interaction), share ideas, debate, learn to respect and listen other people’s opinion, end up a debate with more questions than at the beginning, overcome their difficulties together, change their point of view and prejudices regardless of their social level?
    Yes, I believe that school is a place where we can still dream that the students can be presented with the same opportunities, ie the same quality of education and access the same tools to study and do their homework.

    By the way Paul, I don’t give homework to my students, all the work is done at school, otherwise, I never know who’s really done it: their engineer mum or dad? Their big sister? Acadomia? Or themselves, without the appropriate tools or even their own room to study in?
    As for the sets, you must have a vague idea of my opinion about them!

    Comment by Marie

  2. Well… I have to say, I wasn’t expecting such a direct reply.

    But anyway…. we’ll have to leave it at that.

    I have to say, first, I value different opinions and that’s the beauty of having a blog. Everybody is welcome to comment and with my post I was just trying to get to the heart of what I see as a French “problem”. But I’ll come back to that later.

    Why should you penalise the few students who don’t have the internet ?

    Well, I suppose that is the other point of view but that’s the point; there is no way we’re ever going to get to a world where there is absolute equality; relative equality is what we should be aiming for.

    What is the internet adding into the process of giving homework ? The internet is an incredible resource and ought to be neglected at your peril. Technology has come so far over the last couple of million years and if it can help instead of hinder, it ought to be used. The language learning process doesn’t need to be done in the classroom and in fact, the few hours a week you are given are not really enough to be good enough. Undoubtedly, the best way to learn a language is through acquiring it. Tools like google translate may be no good at translating but they can be an incredibly useful tool for learning a language. You can even listen to how the word should be said and everything. So, if you neglect that, you are reducing the potential of your students, unless you are able to send them abroad for some time or they are able to use other tools to listen for example. And besides that, it’s a very easy way to learn a language: apps on i-phones these days are the best way to learn a language because they are the easiest way to learn a language. And human beings (hominids) have always, regrettably or not, liked what is easiest. After all, why else did we pick up a stone and try to use it as a knife ?

    And yes, it’s a political and a philosophical question. A political question because better English, ultimately is going to help people in the world of work and thus help the economy, growth and jobs.

    A philosophical question, I’m not quite sure why but some of the reasons are 2 paragraphs above; another reason comes from the philosopher Adam Smith who, in my opinion correctly stated that all people, including French people are in some way selfish that is to say that for example if something is more expensive they are less likely to buy it relative to the same thing for a cheaper price. It is the law of supply and demand.

    A pedagogical question, I’m not quite sure but are you teaching them values or English ? I don’t think the poor deserve their state but I do think everybody should be given the necessary resources to get off their own butts and fend for themselves; it’s not fair to expect some people not to work where others are working. O.K., in practice that will be the case but in the long run (the definition of the long run can be as long as you like!) the government and society is always able to provide sufficient training to help everybody (and catch the drop outs, so to speak). I don’t understand why we’ve got a situation where there are still some homeless people for example on the streets. I know it’s complicated but I think better solutions should be provided. In the same vein, that’s part of the reason why Lyon Lingua does kiva: to get to a world where relative equality can be achieved but not absolute equality!

    You seem to be suggesting that you just forget about the brightest ?

    Yes, pedagogically, I agree with you that explaining something to other people is a very good way to help people to understand; and I’m not sure that sets are actually the best system. But it was just an example and I was just trying to understand whether it was part of French culture, so-to-speak, that this kind of “fairness” had to be maintained.

    Coming back to the French “problem” I mentioned earlier, there is a distinct lack of flexibility in the labour market meaning it’s extremely hard to employ people; I know, I’ve tried. And frankly, it took up a whole lot of my time too, reading through the union agreement that has been put in place in my sector of the economy. If you want to employ someone in a language school, you have to pay people extra days for travelling time, and no end of other things just to be able to employ them; it’s the law imposed by a union agreement; I never asked the union to do that, neither did my potential employees, we might quite easily have been able to strike up an agreement but no! Some guy I don’t even know has agreed something for me. These union agreements are hard enough for HR people to understand, let alone small business owners.

    O.K., it’s changing. In recent years, we’ve had the advent of the auto-entrepreneur for example, but it’s still very hard in my situation in a small company (micro-entreprise) to employ anyone. The tax is much higher than in England; in England, if you pay someone £10, it costs roughly £15 to employ them including national insurance contributions. In France, 10€ actually costs you 20€ because of what you pay to the government.

    Strict labour laws means it’s less easy to get rid of people; the intention is fine but the economic consequence is that employers are more reluctant to employ people. You also have to employ people based largely on their qualifications, not on their skills in larger corporations so that’s unflexible too meaning less employment.

    I’m sorry to go on but one more thing just to finish; there’s something called the trickle-down effect; I think the best and most vivid illustration of this is Bill Gates at microsoft; it means what it says: the advantages from the top will trickle down to the least fortunate.

    To sum-up, I’ll simply say, all this is just my opinion. I’d still welcome more French people’s feedback on the “fairness” point. A blog is a blog; that’s what it’s there for; discussion.

    On the road again… (pour les adeptes de Pékin Express)


    Learn English the natural way

  3. 1. My son’s school in Martigues provides each pupil with his/her own laptop. Perhaps not every school has the financial resources to do this (?) , but it does deal with the question of ‘egalité’ at that particular school.

    2. Though my son can spend endless hours on his laptop playing computer games, more ‘useful’ activities (e.g. website research, correctly presenting a written article etc.) he has still not conquered

    3. A computer is only a tool. Learning to use it effectively is an added skill. Whilst not dismissing computer ‘fun time’, I think pupils should be trained to put the computer to more appropriate use . Some school do, I know, encouraging creation of websites and youtube clips etc to present pupil’s work. This is good – in my book anyway.

    4. Whilst the computer is a fantastic resource, I’m still not completely convinced that it beats books. A while ago a freshman student at Oxford University asked a professor about reading material and was shocked when told to read a book. (true story!) What is the world coming too?

    5. Computers can only enter into questions of social mobility if used educationally. This is a responsibility of schools, parents and students/pupils themselves. But libraries too have been available for centuries and so the same question has long time existed. Links between social mobility and education levels, I believe, are well-established. Oxbridge universities deny limiting access to their establishments on grounds of ‘wrong’ social background. Critics (eg. those citing Ruth Lawrence who ended up going to Yale, I think) disagree. Nevertheless this is a polemic being addressed.

    6. In England, criticism of the ‘set’ system led to the abolishment of the 11+ exam and the introduction of comprehensive schools. But the pendulum continues to swing. Tony Blair, remember, a supposed advocate of socialist principles, sent his kids to private school. Didn’t he?

    7. In moving to Martigues, my wife was first keen to find a ‘good school’ then find somewhere to live so that our son could attend that ‘good school’. The ‘catchment area principle’ – and we know that some areas of England/London/ other cities do have ‘inner city problems’, with ‘educationally challenged’ youngsters and that some of these issues arise from under-funding, multi-ethnicity, and various social pathologies. Ofsted, I believe, has been criticized for drawing attention to these schools by publishing exam results tables and hence further exacerbating the good school/bad school dichotomy. Fortunately, for some, some excellant headteachers have worked wonders with some of these schools. (too many ‘somes’ ?)

    Hence 8. Funding and charismatic educational leaders, which inspire students/pupils to learn and enjoy learning, and teachers to teach well and with enthusiasm, are as good as any computer. Incorporating social responsibility and awareness (as I think the French education system aims to do) is also a major part of educating the young and again, comes from good school leadership – AS WELL AS FROM PARENTS AND THE COMMUNITY AS A WHOLE.

  4. A computer is only a tool. Yes, it is but I’ve learnt a great deal with mine. Podcasts for me have been a revelation. is wonderful and there’s loads of stuff out there on the internet to learn. tbh, I can see a child being able to cultivate themselves on the internet now.

    Books are good too but I think the question is ACCESS. Libraries existed before but as Marie said they are not open 24/7 whereas the internet is. So, it is only a tool but imo it’s a damn good one.

  5. Learning by computers and access – the question can be too much information and then weeding out the good from the bad. Students don’t always know how to do that. There’s also the question of the ease of ‘copying and pasting’ to create essays, these days, leaning towards plagiarism. I’m not convinced that this computer learning process involves enough critical reflection on what is read. Yes, I’m a book-worm traditionalist and computer cynic.

    For higher level studies ‘google scholar’ is useful, but many of the articles that one might want to read can only be accessed by subscribing to academic journals. i.e. information of value still has to be paid for – unless one joins a library.

  6. I don’t want to comment on the way anyone else learns, but I’ll trust myself to weed out the good from the bad. I don’t think I need no teacher to do that for me!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: