by Andreas Schleicher
Director, Directorate for Education and Skills
At the OECD, we tend to look at French education through the lens of statistics. These show one of the largest gaps between the learning outcomes of children from poor and wealthy families. And the opportunity gap keeps widening.
And yet, local initiatives can win against all odds. I just saw one of the most amazing shows in the Maison de la Danse in Lyon, performed by amateurs from one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the city. Some of the actors, aged 4 to 92, had never before set foot in the place, and even fewer would have attended a classical music concert. And yet this past Sunday these artists danced to music from Mozart, which they interpreted from their own cultural perspectives. And they did so with a level of tolerance and recognition of the cultural identity and aesthetics of others that reveals what can be possible if we see the diversity of cultures, generations and social backgrounds not as the problem but as the potential of 21st-century societies. Finding a way to fuse hip-hop and breakdance with contemporary jazz dance may be nearly unimaginable for many young people, yet these performers tore down the cultural walls that keep people apart.
Given a history of poor participation in educational and cultural activities in this district of the city, the organisers had recruited 200 volunteer performers in the hopes of ending up with 100. But no one dropped out and an additional hundred showed up spontaneously after news of the project spread across the city. So the project had to be creative in accommodating 300 actors. Some of the young performers may have never received a passing grade in school or heard an encouraging word from their teachers, but that night they received an ovation from an audience of well over 1,000 people, none of whom remained untouched for very long.
The magic of this initiative is its simple formula for success, one that could and should inspire education everywhere. This formula is about using artistic expression to overcome rigidities in our identities and minds that keep people apart; uniting the best and most inspiring professionals with amateurs to show to those who may have the skills, but not yet the confidence, that they too can play a role; demanding rigour in practice and setting the highest aspirations for everyone involved to bring about artistic perfection; working with choreographers who don’t insist on their own ideas, but rather are capable of helping the participants to see and develop co-ordination and interaction that express their own ideas; and integrating all this into a grand design that instills a desire in everyone to work together for over a year until every detail fits perfectly together. The budget for all this seems so incredibly small compared with the result and its impact, and many times smaller when judged against the social cost of leaving people on the street without the hope and motivation such projects can generate.
What impressed me most when speaking with some of the actors, choreographers, social workers, teachers and school leaders involved was learning how this work is creating ripples in the wider community. Every participant I spoke with told me how much the work had helped them grow; and the words I heard most frequently were tolerance, identity, respect, fairness, social responsibility, integrity and self-awareness—precisely the kinds of things that school systems are now looking to cultivate in their students. A parent who said how reluctant he was to send his daughter to this social experiment explains how much his daughter developed because of it. Other parents worried that the time their children spent practicing the arts would cut into their school work, only to find that their child’s academic performance improved over the year. And a primary school teacher described how much her class was inspired and how much her own teaching was enriched by working with non-teaching professionals.
On my way back in the train to Paris, with the world and all its real problems passing by at breathtaking speed, I wondered how the French education system can and will respond to the mounting challenges it faces, and how open it will be to such innovative experiences. There are few other things that will be as important for the future of France – a future in which schools need to prepare their students to live and work in a world in which most people will need to collaborate with people of diverse cultural origins, and appreciate different ideas, perspectives and values; a world in which people will need to decide how to trust and collaborate across those differences; a world where what happens half a world away may affect their own lives. Of course, having certain key knowledge and skills will always remain the cornerstone of success in life, but these are no longer enough. The future will judge French schools on their capacity to help students develop autonomy and an identity that also recognises the reality of national and global pluralism, to equip them to join others in life, work and citizenship and to help them transition from situational values – “I will do anything the situation allows me to do” – to sustainable values.
Photo credit: © Christian Ganet