In the UK, the Education Secretary Michael Gove has used the work of Daniel Willingham, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Virginia, work that included laboratory findings about the way people learn into a book, 'Why Don't Children Like School?'. Gove describes Willingham's ideas as "quite brilliant" and has picked out a central argument in his work, where he says that it is pointless to teach children concepts such as critical thinking and analysis until they have sufficient grasp of the basic facts of a subject, something best achieved by repeated rote teaching and learning. Willingham, however, warned that there was a danger in relying too heavily on evaluations, testing and ultimately on examinations.
That all seems too familiar, it is the French system described beautifully in a nutshell. It is what I experienced before children were allowed to think in the UK in the 1960s when I left school. In my time I saw people follow me to university who were far more able to think than I had been. I had the advantage of an eidetic memory, perfectly suited to rote learning and exam passing, therefore spent my three years as an undergraduate learning to think which I needed for postgraduate work. Later students came along who were superb to teach because of how they discussed things with an analytical and critical mind. Now that is to be stolen from them again in England and Wales! However, it appears always to have been that way in France and now it is costing the country dearly in terms of the type of intellectual mind that is innovative and enterprising in the contemporary world.
For our children it certainly narrows choices. Large parts of the USA has already gone back to rote learning, large parts of the UK are about to do so, several other European countries are too much dependent on it, so it is not a question of where we send our children if France does not meet the standards we prefer for them. The stress and strain of examinations year in, year out will be predominant and sadly the generation coming into exam age is going to be driven into the exam only corner. 'Why Don't Children Like School?' also looks at children who are easily bored by rote learning and arguments for less rather than more testing, evaluating and examining. Hollande has promised to look at French education. Will his government grasp the issue and do something to inject more creativity and incentive to excel into schools so that the best of the best emerge naturally rather than being picked out by their results? Perhaps I expect too much, but hope remains for all of that.