Eve and Laurel Zuckerman question journalist Peter Gumbel about his new essay On Achève Bien Les Ecoliers, a fascinating analysis of the impact of French classroom practices that has attracted major media interest in France and abroad.

The interview was recorded in French (which Peter Gumbel speaks fluently) and English in a café on rue de Rivoli just before the book came out. It is divided into two parts. The first part, published in English below, is based on my questions for Paris Writers News. The second part, which will appear in French early next month, was based on questions from lycéenne Eve Zuckerman for the French high school newspaper, L’Inébranlable.

I hope to publish a third part separately, in which we discuss in detail the possible solutions.

Peter_gumbel On Achève Bien Les Ecoliers (They Shoot Schoolchildren, Don't They?)

From the Publisher’s blurb:

71 % of French students regularly suffer from « l’irritability».

63 % suffer from nervousness.

One out of four has stomach pains or headaches every week.

40 % complain of frequent insomnia.

Why is France the only country in the world to discourage children in the name of what they are not, instead of encouraging them for what they are?

In this exceptionally convincing and well-argued analysis of the French education system based on a close reading of international studies as well as interviews and research, acclaimed journalist Peter Gumbel explores the culture of failure, of humiliation, and of harsh--even cruel--practices which perpetuate and accentuate inequalities in France.

Gumbel demonstrates, to an extent that will surprise even the system’s critics, how French teaching methods shortchange not only the less able students, but the most gifted students as well.

Full disclosure: Having explored French teacher training in Sorbonne Confidential, I believe that On Achève Bien Les Ecoliers should be required reading for all parents, teachers, and students in France and beyond.

Laurel Zuckerman: The launch of On Achève Bien les Ecoliers is a phenomenal success. Could you talk about how your publisher achieved this?

Peter Gumbel: It started with the proposal itself. I pitched this to my publisher and he took it to his comité de lecture (which decides whether to publish). He called me up afterward and said: I had a pretty strange afternoon. Half the people thought you were completely right, and half thought you were completely wrong and they spent the whole afternoon arguing. If that’s going to be the reaction in France you’re on to something.

He was very smart about trying to find a national magazine that would be interested in having it. So they went to all the magazines in June July. Nouvel Obs was interested but wanted to have an exclusive. The negotiation was done with the editor in chief. We said, you can have exclusive rights but you need to put it on the cover.

That kicked it off and then the British press picked up on it

LZ The Guardian ran a terrific piece.

PG Yes, and all this before the book came out. The pre-publication buzz has been fantastic. Whether it now translates into people running out to buy the book, I don’t know.

LZ What do you have lined up on TV and radio?

PG Well, it’s been wall to wall really, France inter, Humeur Vagabonde, early morning segments, phone ins, France 24, JDD and the most terrifying this of all, I was invited to do a debate with the bête noir of the education establishment, Jean Pierre Brighelliwho’s a flaming reactionary. He’s a very aggressive debater and I did a face off with him which will run on France 5. I had to really prepare well. He’s a formidable character. I fundamentally disagree with him. In his book he describes the methods of humiliation I completely disagree with. He even mentioned that one of his students committed suicide and said these things happen.

LZ How long have you been working with your French publisher Grasset?

PG They published a previous essay of mine in 2006 called French Vertigo about the French economy where I took an opposite view of what everyone else was saying. I saidFrance was reforming itself and let me show you how. Interesting enough, I see that French Vertigo has been given a new lease of life by this new book.

LZ Is On Achève Bien Les Ecoliers going to come out in English and if so will you keep the title (They Shoot Schoolchildren, Don’t They? )

PG I wrote this for the French. If I were to do a book in English I would need to rewrite it because I’m so focusing on things the French will know.

LZ In your book you go into the causes in detail. What solutions do you propose?

PG I outline key steps that I believe are needed to reform the system. They are, briefly,

- 1) a massive overhaul of teacher training to introduce international, proven "best practices" into French classrooms, as well as some basic psychological training (ie the importance of motivation and positive feedback) and a lot of practical experience and classroom simulations. New teachers shouldn't be allowed to set foot in a classroom until they feel comfortable they know how to handle a variety of situations. I also think teacher training needs to be a continuous career-long undertaking, with regular refresher courses etc.

- 2) There needs to be a much clearer national debate and consensus around what school is for and what it should be like for kids. That's hard, but my hope in writing this book is that it might stir the pot a bit.

- And 3) I advocate international exchanges of teachers, allowing French ones to get out of the country for a few weeks or months to see how others do it (and vice versa). That could open some eyes.

LZ Based on what you found out writing this book, do you see any lessons for the British, who are facing serious problems with their school system?

PG What I learned is that almost no one has a school system that is really good. Every country has its own problems. And in Britain there is the chronic decline in standards. Foreign languages are no longer obligatory. And that’s not very clever. What’s good inFrance is that they insist on a high level of general culture

LZ Do you think that it’s possible—not utopian—to maintain a high level without brutalizing the children?

PG Yes, brutalization doesn’t work. All the research out there shows that effective teaching is personalized teaching in the classroom with different students learning at different speeds. A good teacher can deal with this. It’s very difficult to do. Countries that have done that have success and countries that have not don’t.

I think the key is teacher training. Very intensive, very smart teacher training.

For more information, see The Guardian, Time and Le Monde.

On Achève Bien Les Ecoliers is available at all French bookstores and on amazon, fnac and other sites.


For more interviews and articles see Laurel Zuckerman's Paris Weblog

E-mail me when people leave their comments –

You need to be a member of New York in French to add comments!

Join New York in French

Visit our bookstore

Visit our store

Learn French