Every study that has been carried out by the French Ministry of National Education and by international organizations has shown that the level of mathematics among French students has been steadily declining for at least twenty years. Moreover, though the rate of the decline has slowed down, it has, however, continued to fall. For example, French middle school students perform the worst, among students in OECD member states, in mastering fractions. Additionally, even in the supposedly excellent “Scientific” track for students in their final year of high school, France is the European country with the largest drop in maths since 1995, displaying a narrowing gap but one that has not disappeared between girls and boys. And if we are still one of the best nations in the world in mathematical research, we will soon no longer be, if we continue on this downward spiral. This decline will cause tragic consequences on the level of our engineers, researchers and companies.
The causes are well known: the disastrous attempt in the 1970s to teach topology and axiomatics at the primary school level and onwards, and to define all objects with concepts; a method that also wreaked havoc in spelling and grammar. Moreover, the recruitment of school teachers, mainly from students from literary fields, who had no appetite for teaching what had put them off during their own studies.
All of this is repairable, and we are working on it, with the hope of succeeding, particularly, recently, by drawing inspiration from the methods used in Singapore, (a country that has just dethroned Finland at the top of the OECD ranking): the four arithmetic operations are introduced as early as the first year of primary school, using only small numbers, clearly distinguishing between a concrete phase and an imaginary phase, before shifting to abstraction. And by recruiting and otherwise training primary school teachers.
Last but not least, and perhaps most importantly, by understanding that learning mathematics requires a series of qualities that are no longer in fashion: focus, stubbornness, repetition, memorization, the ability to recognize one’s weaknesses and seek to improve it, group work whereby things are explained by one’s peers on what they have understood. A whole series of qualities that I will define as the ability to make a “mental investment.” Modernity discredits such mental investment. Rather, it glorifies furtive pleasures, effortless and random success. Illusion, both individual and collective.
Every type of ranking related to nations or companies or individuals, however, show that long-term interest is the key to success; because of the motivation it generates, the methods it brings and the efforts it legitimizes. And nations, families, social groups, and individuals who figure out or can best prioritize this mental investment are the ones who are the most successful in achieving their goals and realizing their dreams—this is also true for things they once believe were inaccessible.
During this period of the French Great Debate, and through which we are looking for keys to a better, fairer and more sustainable society, to create the conditions for more happiness, more growth and a better environment for all, we should understand that the answer is not only in fiscal or institutional reforms, but also in the teaching and enhancements, at any age, of mental investments. There are people, among the most privileged, that already do so in France. Every effort should be made, however, to make this accessible to all. This would be the real revolution.