English Lessons for the French courtesy of French Government

Ici on parle franglaisXavier Darcos, France’s Education Minister announced the giving of free [correction] English lessons over the summer months (starting next year) to willing students. What a shift in direction for the French who tend to promote francophonie. See here for the BBC News article.

When you hear the number of Anglicisms that have encroached into daily French conversation–either for effect (“c’est ok?”), affect (“la bottom line, mes amis”), or because the word does not exist in French (“accountabilité“)–you can understand the pragmatism behind this action.

Here’s an article written (in approx 2005) by Dr Christopher Rollason on Anglicisms in French and Spanish. As Dr Rollason says, Yves Laroche-Claire and Bernard Pivot, who published in 2004 an anti-anglicisms dictionary “Évitez le franglais, parlez français“, may “have their work cut out for them.”

Since President Sarkozy once said to a crowd of British investors that they were welcome to invest in “Frence”… he himself could do with a tune up.

Are you for or against such an offer?

The Good, the Bad & the Ugly Educational Systems

Great or Worst Teachers NYCThe Good, The Bad & The Ugly Teachers – How to get rid of the bad apples?

As much as I would love to continue praising the great teachers in my life, it occurs to me that many countries feel that their educational systems are in dire straits. With my Franco – Anglo – American educational upbringing, I want to look at each of the three systems I know best. Each has its strengths: US = positive reinforcement, extra-curriculars & universities; UK = all rounded academics & sports; FR = academics. However, they each have serious failings and somewhat similar challenges. These can be resumed as: low motivation and accountability among the teachers (no merit pay and no punishment for underperformance), staffing issues (over-staffed in France, under- in the US), and an increasingly stretched family situation.

Accountability Issues.

For starters, I return to the story of being able to judge and bring true accountability to teachers. In France, note2be [see prior post en français], a sensible student-grades-teacher site, was closed down despite the very widely known failings of the French educational system. In the US, similar sites have been in existence with great success (e.g. Rate my professors), but that hasn’t cured the US of its huge educational challenges. Per this banner [upper left] at Times Square in NYC, the Teachers’ Union in the States is so strong that the worst teachers can’t get fired. You can, meanwhile, vote for your worst teachers at TeachersUnionExposed. In a novel competition, the 10 worst teachers will be paid $10,000 to “get out.” The site explains how difficult it is to unload bad teachers:

“In 2003, one Los Angeles union representative said: ‘If I’m representing them, it’s impossible to get them out. It’s impossible. Unless they commit a lewd act.’ Between 1995 and 2005, only 112 Los Angeles tenured teachers faced termination — eleven per year — out of 43,000. And that’s in a school district whose 2003 graduation rate was just 51 percent.”

In the UK, the situation is similar in some regards. Referring to a May 5, 2008 The Daily Telegraph article, entitled ‘Bad teachers letting down children’, the General Teaching Council of England issued a report at the beginning of May saying that as many as “24,000 poor teachers may work in the state system” as school heads essentially relocate underperforming teachers to other schools rather than “dealing” with the problem. Since 2000, the report details that just 46 out of 500,000 teachers have been reported for incompetence.

Merit Pay & Staffing Issues.

On the one hand, the lack of accountability and appropriate measures being taken is an absolute shame. Schools, like governments and even hospitals, can do with a healthy measure of good business practices. On the other hand, these “social” necessities [health, school] continue to struggle with adequate finances. Teachers and nurses both provide enormously important functions in our society. And both require substantial training and education. The lack of “good” pay is certainly not motivating. However, this is not an excuse not to find ways to measure performance and hold them accountable. Unlike nurses (where it is difficult to find statistical measurements), teachers can be graded by the objective evaluations of their students. But, just like bad teachers should be dealt with, good teachers should be recognized — given their just due. And merit pay should be encouraged. However, merit pay is systematically rejected by the Unions.

The state of teaching today in the US–with its low pay, lack of accountability and “hyper” Gen Y student body–leads, not surprisingly, to a lack of teachers–much less, good teachers–coming into the profession. From Teachers Union Fact, “[a]ccording to NEA researchers, 41 states [in the US] are currently experiencing a shortage of math teachers. Forty-three have shortages of science and special education teachers.”

Who is Responsible?

For England, newly elected mayor of London, Boris Johnson met with NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg (Daily Telegraph article) and Boris is apparently considering taking direct control of Education (getting rid of the Board of Education). He will have his work cut out for him. But, I am afraid that the US (or NYC) has no solid answers (see comparative report against OECD countries). Certainly, the numbers in the US are not encouraging, with the perilously high dropout rates–if one can get a reliable figure [see here from the National Bureau of Economic Resources how the range of US high school graduates ranges from 66-88%]. The illiteracy and, in general, low levels of Maths and English are an embarrassment for the US. Surely, education is one of the biggest structural problems facing the US — one that involves the ability to accommodate the influx of immigrants as well as the less fortunate neighbourhoods. While the US boasts a good number of “top students,” I would have to believe that a large number of those students are children of immigrants from countries where academics are valued (i.e. China, Korea, India…); and that Middle America and below are seriously underperforming. For the US to maintain its position in the world, it will absolutely need both a high flying top end and a better-than-average average.

Finally, there is the family situation.

Split families. Dual-working parents. Too much television and/or internet. New “illnesses” such as ADD. Differing notions of discipline. SMS lingo and emoticons. There is, in all these challenges, an evolving dispensing of responsibility by the family. “It’s not my job to teach my children,” one can sometimes hear. And, truth be told, when parents are called upon to oversee 2 to 3 hours of homework per night for 10 year olds, that is a sign of system overload and just not feasible for full-time working parents. Parents are not necessarily perfect pedagogues–especially because of the emotional nature of parent-child relations. And, if a parent’s time is split between hard work and hard homework, where is the time for the “other stuff?” Parents must learn to work better with the schools. Parents need to get aligned with the school’s teachers. And, if possible, they ought to be involved with the school. But, sadly, the complicity is too often missing.

The solutions?

Teaching is a magnificent profession when it is fully embraced. And, while the pay can surely improve, apparently, a teacher (at a day school) will be actually teaching students less than half the number of days in a year. The potential quality of life is virtually unique. However, motivation remains terribly low on balance. My feeling is that the educational systems need to have the best elements of a private enterprise (meritocracy…); but, these must be subscribed within a long-term view that a government must impose. Part of the challenge of changing an educational system is the precarious nature of swinging wildly from one curriculum to another or from one practice to another, in the process destabilizing the teachers AND distancing the parents from the ability to participate (when they do) in the complementary education. Parents have a substantial role to play which for many, in today’s economically stressed times, is difficult to fulfill. Yet, having chosen to be a parent, they must take responsibility for their choice.

And What To Do As A Parent?

Despite the invasive presence of computers and televisions, as I heard Luc Ferry (contemporary French philosopher) recently say, give love to your children and stress the value of the great classics (books, movies…whichever classics you may choose with passion). These are timeless values that give grounding and learnings for life. For, education to be “successful,” it must be a complete concept. It needs to cover the academics, but also needs to have sentimental value. Both parents and schools have their responsibility. Stop the blame game and work together.

International Mix.

If I had an educational cocktail to suggest, it would be the academic intensity of the Asian culture, the extra-curriculars of the American system, the rigour of the French academics and the playing fields of English schools. Unfortunately I don’t know enough about the German system to comment although I hear many good things. If you know of positive elements of other educational systems, don’t hesitate to chime in!

Background reading/viewing for this post:

* Two Million Minutes – a film comparing the education of 6 students in China, India & US (trailer on YouTube – where I picked up this comment from kesjalyn: “i go to the #1 high school in america (as ranked by US News and World Report)and i’m really lazy, i never work more than two or three hours a night, and i still get good grades. so our schools definitely do not expect enough of students.” [note that US NWR got the capital treatment!)
* Nature.com, Making the Grade, May 2008
* Christian Science Monitor – World’s schools teach U.S. a lesson
* Education Watch international – Validation of Rate My Professors

Cars Going Green — Ecomotivation and Eco-Taglines

Green Lights Go GreenCars going on Green? Don’t you find it odd that, in today’s eco-sensitive world, a traffic light has a green light to “go?” Meanwhile, the automotive industry carries the stigma of being one of the most visible causes for global warming. Notwithstanding this notion, there is no doubt that the automotive industry has woken up to the eco-cause. Of course, if I take the French situation, it is perhaps the annual tax of up to 2,600 euros that may have helped “encourage” the interest. Since I am not in the market to buy a car (I already have a diesel Audi A3), I have not been paying particular Tiguan 4x4 Ecoinstantattention. Only recently, I have noticed that automotive advertisements in France are consistently focused on the “green” cause. Of course, at times, it also sounds like they might be trying to appeal to the BoBo’s (Bohemian Bourgeois if you still have not heard of the sociological profile). I highlight two sets of ads stemming from the same company (someone is clearly “sharing best practices” inside BMW!):

BMW Hydrogen 7. The tagline? “L’eau, une solutionBMW Hydrogen7 CleanEnergy aujourd’hui claire pour l’avenir.” [“Water, a solution today that is clearly for tomorrow.”] The ad discusses “responsible pleasure” and introduces a concept of “durable mobility” which is new to me. The “CleanEnergy” technology enables the car to function equally well with hydrogen as with kerosene. Continuing the text, however, the ad goes on to say that the BMW Hydrogen 7 has not beBMW CleanEnergy Hydrogen7en commercialized. Something akin to a virtual launch it seems to me. (See here for a full review from AutoBlogGreen). Considering BMW’s –albeit eco-friendly German–reputation, the green pitch seems like quite a tall order. But, you can see the BMW is putting in a serious effort — and one that should recruit future clients. It has a special CleanEnergy website, that is called BMW Education for 12+ year olds and their teachers…

On the other side of the BMW company, there is Volkswagen. And, I am keen to see how an SUV gets into the green game. With the ad for its VW Tiguan 4×4, the tagline is: “Pour les accros de la ville,” [roughly translated “For the stubborn cityslicker.”] The DPS image juxtaposes the SUV (with a Neuilly license plate) in the middle of some Amazonian type rain forest, replete with parrots (see right hand page of the DPS up above). The combination of Neuilly and the Amazon smacks of BoBo land, does it not? The sub tagline highlights that the injection engine uses a particulate filter (a.k.a. FAP). Nothing else is said on the matter. VW has also another ad running these days running the tagline: “eco(instants)” (only through Feb 23, you we missed the boat if you are still interested). For each car (there are three offers on promotion in this crammed one page ad, see right image), they highlight the grams of CO² per km. And there is an ‘eco bonus’ (of 700E) for two of the cars.

What strikes me about these ads is that we have moved away from performance (burning rubber!) to look toward the ecological criteria as the first point of entry. However, the consumer is still negative on the automotive industry as a whole. I think the automotive industry should do some thinking as to how to promote the overall industry and gain some traction on the most valid criteria before too many marketers debase the field and banalize the claims. Ecomotivation BMW Alphabet

Even the car rental business is getting in on the action. Here is an ad from alphabet.com, a car leasing company, talking about ecomotivation, suggesting that leasing a car is not just about economical leasing rates, but also saving on the planet. (see Ad to the right). Rather consistent to find a BMW in this alphabet ad.

Meanwhile, it is Nissan and Smart that are pulling out the consumer approval within the industry. Of course, Toyota is a pioneer in this domain too.

And the tyre industry is also getting in on the act with their own eco-rating. Michelin, which sells 570 million “green tyres” per year, has been communicating on its tyre which delivers 4g less of CO² per kilometre, uses 0.2 litres of petrol less over 100 kilometres. The Michelin Man (Bibendum) even looks slimmer in certain photos.

A survey by Landor Associates, entitled “ImagePower Survey” p
laced the automotive industry as 4th behind grocery, appliance and body care in terms of brand power. By having specific taxation on CO² emission, there is clearly a reorientation – at least in France – to the way cars are being marketed and sold.

Since I live in France, I am not up to speed on the advertising on cars in other countries. Anyone else report on the approaches in other countries? Would be be happy to hear that the other side of the hill is greener still.

Great Teachers in my Life

Great TeachersI remember the great teachers in my life as if it were yesterday that I was sitting in their classroom and reveling in the learning. I have been blessed to have had six standout teachers whom I will honour today in the post below. The real take away for any reader of this post is what are the defining characteristics of a great teacher? And, secondly, it is the questions: what have you done to say thanks to those teachers? For the most part, teaching is a often a thankless and low-paying job and there is little way to understand the long-term benefits and/or realisations (ROI) brought about by a great teacher. My call to action for you? Call him or her; write a letter; make a special visit…now before it is too late. And if you need a special motivation, read Mitch Albom’sTuesday’s with Morrie.” You might find the urge.

So, who were my inspiring teachers?

I will start with John Peake (or JSBP). Nominally, John was my housemaster, history beak (teacher) and sports coach at Eton College. But, he was also the man responsible for cultivating my passion to learn, who showed me how to teach and live with zeal, humour and sensitivity. I shall always remember the day he led our class outside onto a muddy field to re-enact the falling of the British Square [first time in its history] to the Zulus in the Boer War. And, in the annual athletics competition, our house always excelled. This was in large part because John knew how to motivate every single boy to participate. He also had a habit of attracting some of the better talent, if I say so myself. In so doing, I credit John with laying the foundation for always wanting to be the best I could be. JSBP REMEMBERED

Secondly, I think back to how lucky I was to have known Patrick Jordan (aka PJFJ), the headmaster at my [now defunct] prep school, The Old Malthouse (OMH), down in sunny Dorset. After all these years, I have to thank Patrick for my passion for rugby and athletics (including throwing the javelin). He also was passionate about his Triumph cars which he delighted in sharing with us. Patrick went on to become a highly successful headmaster at Packwood Haugh.

Thirdly, I cite the theatrical Michael Kidson (MGMK), my history teacher for many divisions (classes) at Eton. His theatrics–sometimes hystrionics–always kept us at attention, if not on edge. Michael laid into us with vigour, I shall always remember his criticism of my “woolly” English. Flying wood blocks notwithstanding, he was as generous and kind a man as you will ever find.

Fourth, I cite Colonel Ozzie Ostock, my history teacher from the Old Malthouse. With his authentic Colonel’s handlebar moustache, Mr Ostock brought history to life with his anecdotes. He would tell us vivid tales of WWII and was responsible for having at least one war hero (that I can remember) come present to us in the Gym. Managing to corral the zany energy of a roomful of 8-9 year old boys, he started me on my journey of twelve years of studying history–and a lifetime since. He is responsible for my love the film “The Dambusters”, the story of an eccentric scientist’s invention that devastated three German dams in the Ruhr Valley (Ruhr and Eder rivers). Here is a “fan site” out of England: Dambusters.co.uk.

Anil Gaba - Great TeacherThe most valiant award, however, goes to my statistics teacher, Professor Anil Gaba, at INSEAD. If you knew me, you would know that this could not have been my favourite topic. But, through wit, real case examples and a great deal of patience, he systematically, and single-handedly, made statistics stick. Also, Anil created a favourable environment for social interaction. A soulful individual. Anil is now Dean of Faculty at INSEAD (Singapore campus).

Finally, I would like to remember Professor Terry Des Pres, holocaust scholar and my freshman English teacher at Colgate University. While his classes borderlined on Dead Poet’s Society material, wearing every day the same outfit, Terry excelled in the ‘happenings’ in his own home. Reminiscent of a Salon environment, we would stay endless hours debating and sharing stories, especially on one occasion with his great friend John Irving. Here is the NY Times article covering his premature death in 1987, and a nice writeup in the Colgate Scene on-line.

Voilà, my list of top six Great Teachers is complete. There were, however, other great “moments” Great Teacher - Mark Rosekindin teaching that I would also like to remember, including Professor Mark Rosekind, an FSR*, at Yale University, teaching us about sleep (and dreams). And, on this one occasion, on my suggestion, we decided to hold an entire class outside (on a beautiful spring day). Since the class had somewhere over 100 students, that was a trickier enterprise than might be imagined to do spontaneously. I set up my amplifier and microphone outside our dorm room window and all the students sprawled out on the grass in Silliman College square. And it was the surprise of my sleeping roommate that gave me this priceless memory: There Bert was, sleeping in mid-afternoon and, in the midst of his dreams, he heard through his window a mellifluous Californian accent speaking about sleep and dreams. Professor Rosekind was also great at keeping our full attention by hatching spontaneous studies of his students who dozed off in his class. See here for Mark’s site at the National Sleep Foundation. And here, no less, a blog about Dr Rosekind with one of his podasts. (*Famous Sleep Researcher).

I should also thank my English teacher and sports therapist “Uncle” (aka Unkie) at The Hotchkiss School for giving me another memory of a lifetime. As he walked in this one spring day, the whole class spontaneously broke out singing the Grateful Dead’s “Loose Lucy” in a capella from beginning to end. And his priceless answer at the end: “why me?”

So, why these teachers? The attributes that blare out like a coach’s megaphone on crisp winter morning are: being passionate, being real, being interactive. As Todd Whitaker says in his book “What Great Teachers Do Differently,” great teachers focus on expectations, while the mundane teachers focus on the rules. And, in every case, they were also great listeners and always available for discussion after hours. As you can see, I did the rounds when it came to schools. But, no matter where, there always was at least one teacher that stood out a cut above. Make sure you remember the one(s) that stood out for you!

For further reading on the topic, if you got inspired, here are a selection of other sites and articles about Great Teachers:

TIME magazine feature on How to Make Great Teachers (i.e. how to overcome the low pay de-motivation)
Great Schools website features the Great Teachers’ qualities
Oprah did a show on Great Teachers featuring Mr Clark’s essential “rules” for Children

Graduation Ceremonies in France

Graduation CeremoniesI saw the other day (Dec 1, 2007) in Le Figaro about an opinion poll saying that 81% of (4,470) French people interviewed via internet were in favor of having an (American style) graduation ceremony to mark the end of a university (equivalent) degree in France.

I think this is marvellous. The celebration of education through the graduation ceremony is a lovely tradition which I discovered at the end of my (only) year at The Hotchkiss School (Lakeville, Ct). Compared to my almost stealthy departure from Eton in England at the end of five years, I very much enjoyed the festive–emotional–ceremony at the end of my year at Hotchkiss. Of course, there is still a long way to go before the concept of alumni relations travels across the Atlantic.

The state of education is a concern in many countries. I see it as a “top of mind” concern in both France and the United States, in any event. Both systems have positives, but both suffer from a degradation in the standards, as well as a challenge to valorize (give value to) the role of the teachers.

In any event, we should acknowledge the importance of education, celebrate the achievements and also not forget to recognize the teachers that have had an impact on our lives (beyond academics, on the transmission of values).