Mathematics: scientists are concerned about the reform

Some formulas are scrawled in the corner of the blackboard. Witnesses of a recent conversation between two mathematicians. However, if a hundred teachers and researchers met on March 16, 2022, it was not only to talk about Lie groups or the supremum. Sitting on the wooden rows of the amphitheater of the Henri Poincare Institute, this procession of mathematicians with thinning or graying hair is preoccupied. What is the future of their discipline? The French Mathematical Society (SMF) has just celebrated its 150th anniversary. On this occasion, a round table was organized on the topical topic: “Teaching mathematics: where are we going?”

(To view the entire panel discussion, go to 6:12 am.)

“Our system is not benevolent”

Since the undergraduate reform, the teaching of mathematics has received much criticism. The cancellation of general streams has greatly reduced the number of students continuing to study algebra or probability. In 2019, 86% of students studied mathematics for at least 3 hours, today this figure is 54%.

Mathematics suffers from an elitist image that sticks to their skin. Stéphane Malla, Chair of Data Science at the Collège de France, takes part in the roundtable, he emphasizes: “In France, the mathematical community is incredible, but there is also a downside. Our system is unfriendly, we don’t value students if they are not the best.” The reputation that undergraduate reform would have spoiledaccording to SMF vice-president Melanie Genet, specifically on the title “mathematics expert” of one of the options. “I don’t want such an exclusively elitist view of the material.”she regrets in the discussion. Added to this is the high level of student anxiety in this subject, which Stefan Mallat considers the highest in the world, along with Japan.

The math community is concerned about its future

You can ask a provocative question: if few French people love math, why force them to do it? However, the lack of interest in this discipline is not without consequences. “We currently have an extremely active and creative math community. But I think we’re all concerned about living off our past accomplishments”, – Stefan Malla admits. If in the past France shone with its medals (Fields), its education and its engineers, what will happen in the coming years? Due to declining levels and a shortage of students, this glorious past may come to an end.

But above all, researchers and educators agree on one thing: the study of mathematics opens up attractive and numerous opportunities. “You can do mathematics to study business, economics, there are many opportunities that require mathematics, not necessarily scientific research in the strict sense of the word”recalls Anne Boye, president of the Association of Women and Mathematicians. Science and the future. The choice of mathematics in high school does not necessarily imply an orientation towards the basic sciences.

Growing inequality

She adds that students are not sufficiently informed about the range of study courses open to them after completing their bachelor’s degree, and therefore about the opportunities that mathematics options offer them. “Their choices will be heavily influenced by social and family stereotypes, as well as a lack of role models and information.” Because this is the other dark side of the reform: it has increased inequality in math classes. Pupils from modest families and girls choose math lessons less than others.

“We have almost reached parity in the scientific sector”, describes with regret the sociologist Clemence Perronnet, invited by the SMF. Melanie Guene confirms: “The proportion of girls has only increased until today”. According to the Department of Evaluation, Prediction and Performance (Depp) Benchmarking and Statistical Report, 81% of girls in the Terminal spent at least 3 hours studying math in 2019, these only represented the beginning of the school year. 55% of high school girls, according to May 2021 Information Note #21.22 from Depp. According to the same reports, this is a much higher decline than among their male counterparts, who fell from 93% to 89%.

However, the government’s strategy was the opposite. They wanted “ensure the number, diversity and excellence of students”describes Jean-Michel Blanquer in a letter addressed to inspectors, principals and teachers. “The context of competition and rivalry is unfavorable for women”, explains Clemence Perronnet. Ann Boye confirms this analysis: “youA boy, if he is in a supportive environment, pushes his family more than a girl.”

That stereotypes inherited from society and education bear their share of responsibility. Ihistory has linked mathematics to men’s circles. “In France, the teaching of mathematics was designed by and for men. Unconsciously, the idea has formed in the minds of people that mathematics is a male discipline., analyzed by Ann Boye. According to Clemence Perronnet, accusing girls of self-doubt only obscures the real reason: Talking about self-censorship is downplaying the problem when society is the problem.”

Reform “do it yourself”

Issues and concerns have been identified and action needs to be taken. March 21, 2022 report about the place of mathematics in the general course of the general education and technological secondary school is submitted to the Minister of Public Education. The teaching of mathematics will undergo a new reform: by 2023, we are talking about restoring 1 hour 30 minutes of mathematics in the general core and rethinking the program, directing it to the specific.

A small change of course that struggles to convince. Its very short duration raises questions: “A month to submit the program, this has never been done. It usually takes a year.”comment for Science and the future math inspector. Name this report “do it yourself” Ann Boye.

In a statement, the learned societies and scientific associations express their dissatisfaction. They point fingers “a teaching offer that remains insufficiently diversified to meet the needs of students”. The big oversight of this reform: variety in the classroom. The President of the Organization of Women and Mathematics regrets: “They suggest that there is some push on the part of teachers and principals to convince – we don’t know how – four more girls in high school to go for expert math. It’s so overwhelming. It feels like these are people who have never set foot in school.”

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