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Virginie Ehrlacher, mathematics researcher: "When I left high school, I knew less than my father, but more than our baccalaureate graduates"

2023-12-07T12:48:20.039Z

Highlights: Virginie Ehrlacher is a researcher at the École des Ponts ParisTech in the Cermics laboratory. She was awarded the prestigious Irène Joliot-Curie Prize for "Young Woman Scientist" on 21 November by the Ministry of Higher Education and Research. France has recorded a "historic" drop in the mathematics level of its 15-year-old pupils, a greater decline than the other OECD countries. In maths, students from advantaged backgrounds score 113 points higher than disadvantaged students, compared to an average gap of 93 points in other countries.


Researcher Virginie Ehrlacher looks back at the unprecedented drop in the maths level of 15-year-old French students, highlighted by the Pisa report. Maintenance.


On Tuesday 5 December, there was a thunderclap for education: the level of mathematics of 15-year-old French pupils plummeted. And it is the long-awaited Pisa report (1), published on 5 December by the OECD, that says so. Even though France is the world's 7th largest economy, it ranks 26th in both mathematics and scientific culture.

Virginie Ehrlacher (2), a researcher at the École des Ponts ParisTech in the Cermics laboratory (Centre for Teaching and Research in Mathematics and Scientific Computing), was awarded the prestigious Irène Joliot-Curie Prize for "Young Woman Scientist" on 21 November by the Ministry of Higher Education and Research. For Madame Figaro, she analyses this unprecedented decline in the level of maths.

Madame Figaro.- France has recorded a "historic" drop in the mathematics level of its 15-year-old pupils, a greater decline than the other OECD countries. How can this phenomenon be explained?
Virginie Ehrlacher.- I would like to say that mathematics is like sport: the more you train, the stronger you are. And the younger you start, the better. In France, what we observe is that the teaching of mathematics has been increasingly delayed. If I compare the math concepts taught to my parents, the math I received and the math taught to my children, it gives the impression that there has been a spreading, a kind of dilution. For my part, I knew less at the end of high school than my father, but more than today's high school graduates. How can this be explained? Because math can seem a bit dry as it's taught today. The best thing would be to present them in a playful way, in the form of games, because we don't like to do things that put us off. And it's worth remembering: you're not born "good" at maths. It's by no means innate. If I continue to spin the metaphor about sport, there are certainly children who are more "cut out" for this or that discipline. But then, there's no secret, you have to work and have good coaches to get results. Mathematics is the same.

How can we make mathematics more attractive?
For many of us who have chosen math, it's the problem-solving and riddles that we enjoy. To encourage children from an early age, for example, you can turn to board games with a dice. This can allow them to learn numbers. We also need to make young people aware of the fact that math is very useful in everyday life, and that it is not an abstract concept. For example, withdrawing money from an ATM is not trivial. Behind it, there are ways of encrypting, very powerful coded algorithms... At the end of the day, our daily lives are based on math.

The report also notes that in maths, students from advantaged backgrounds score 113 points higher than disadvantaged students, compared to an average gap of 93 points in OECD countries.
Indeed, this is a fact that we note with sadness. At the moment, I teach in higher education, it is true that I do not observe a great diversity among the students, who often come from the same social categories. Their parents are, for the most part, teachers or managers. But that's not all, and fortunately! On the other hand, beyond social affiliation, we notice that interest in mathematics develops when there is support from parents and teachers among students. In my own career, this has been crucial. Encouragement is therefore essential, as is access to information. The aim is to show what are the opportunities behind mathematics, educational paths, the choice of studies to lead to careers as engineers or researchers, etc.

In the wake of these results, Gabriel Attal announced a series of measures: the recruitment of new teachers, an early baccalaureate exam "dedicated to mathematics and scientific culture", the creation of level groups, new curricula for primary school, etc. At the same time, the Minister of Education expressed his wish to draw inspiration from theso-called Singapore method. Can this change the trend?
Overall, these measures are a step in the right direction, but we need to see how they will be implemented and applied on the ground. The "Singapore method" (a teaching method based on three pillars: the concrete, the pictorial and the abstract, editor's note) is a good idea to allow children to learn mathematics in a more playful way. Recruiting more teachers and creating level groups are also good options. Especially since we know that it is easier to teach math to students at the same level. At least they're not ashamed to ask questions.

Among young girls, there is a lot of self-censorship

Virginie Ehrlacher

Since the reform of the lycée in 2019, implemented by Jean-Michel Blanquer, mathematics is no longer compulsory from the first grade. As a result, the number of girls enrolled in this discipline has drastically decreased. How can we explain this increase in inequalities between girls and boysin this subject?
I see that there is a lot of self-censorship among young girls. If they turn less to maths, it's not because they're not interested in it, but because they're afraid of failure, of not succeeding. Maths suffers from the prejudice that it is too difficult a subject, especially for girls. I heard it again recently from two middle school girls. Yet, math has nothing to do with a person's gender. And once again, it is the encouragement of loved ones and teachers that is essential.

However, prejudices about girls' alleged lack of math skills are still strong. Theywould settle in primary school, in CP. How can we attract more young girls to mathematics and science courses?
It is important to communicate with them. Tell them that it's possible, explain to them that math is useful for concrete problems and above all tell them that girls are as successful as boys. This month, I'm speaking in second grade classes to talk about my career. It may be a drop in the bucket, but the testimonies of women scientists are encouraging and reassuring. You need role models who show that you can balance a fulfilling career with your personal life.

(1) Pisa: Programme for International Student Assessment

(2) Virginie Ehrlacher is also Chief Engineer of Bridges, Water and Forests, Professor and Researcher of the MATHERIALS joint project team (École des Ponts ParisTech, Inria).

Source: lefigaro

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