Mathematics: Scientists Concerned About Reform

Some formulas are written in the corner of the board. Witnesses of a recent conversation between two mathematicians. However, if a hundred professors and researchers gathered on March 16, 2022, it was not just to talk about lying groups or supremum. Sitting in the wooden rows of the Henri Poincaré Institute amphitheater, this procession of mathematicians with thinning or bleached hair is worried. What future for your discipline? The French Mathematical Society (SMF) has just celebrated its 150th anniversary. On this occasion, he organized a round table on a topical issue: “Teaching Mathematics: Where Are We Going?”

(To see the full discussion board, go to 6:12 am)

“Our system is not benevolent”

Since high school reform, the teaching of math has shed a lot of ink. The abolition of general currents has greatly reduced the number of students still studying algebra or probability. In 2019, 86% of students did at least 3 hours of math, today this rate is 54%.

Mathematics suffers from an elitist image that sticks to its skin. Stéphane Mallat, head of data science at the Collège de France, took part in the round table, stressing: “In France the math community is amazing, but there is a downside. Our system is not benevolent, we don’t value students when they are not the best.” A fame that would have the reform of the baccalaureate damagedaccording to SMF vice-president Mélanie Guenais, in particular by the name “mathematical experts” of one of the options. “I don’t want to have this purely elitist view of the material”, laments in discussion. Added to this is a high level of student anxiety in this subject which Stéphane Mallat considers, along with Japan, the highest in the world.

A mathematical community concerned about its future

A provocative question might be, if few French people like math, why force them to do it? However, the lack of interest in this discipline is not without consequences. “We currently have a very active and creative math community. But I think we’re all looking forward to living on our past achievements.”, admits Stéphane Mallat. If France shone in the past with its medals (Fields), its teaching and its engineers, what will happen in the coming years? Between the level of decline and the shortage of students, this glorious past could have ended.

But above all, researchers and teachers agree on one point: studying mathematics opens up attractive and numerous opportunities. “You can do math to study business, economics, there are many opportunities that require math, not necessarily scientific studies in the strict sense of the term.”recalls Anne Boyé, president of the Association of Women and Mathematics, for Science and the future. Making a math choice in high school does not necessarily imply an orientation toward the basic sciences.

Extension of inequalities

He adds that students are not sufficiently informed about the offer of training cycles they have open after high school and, therefore, about the possibilities offered by the mathematics options. “Their choice will be greatly influenced by social and family stereotypes, and the lack of models and information.” Because this is the other dark side of reform: it has increased inequality within math classes. Students of modest background and girls choose less than others to take math classes.

“We have almost reached parity in the scientific sector,” describes with regret the sociologist Clémence Perronnet, invited by the SMF. Melanie Guenais confirms: “The proportion of girls has only increased to date”. According to the Benchmark and Statistics References report from the Department of Assessment, Forecasting and Performance (Depp), 81% of Terminale girls spent at least 3 hours studying math in 2019, only representing at the start of the school year. 55% of high school girls, according to information note no. 21.22 May 2021 by Depp. A much higher drop than among their male counterparts which fell from 93% to 89%, according to the same reports.

The government’s strategy, however, was the opposite. They wanted to “ensuring the number, diversity and excellence of students”describes Jean-Michel Blanquer in a letter aimed at inspectors, school principals and teachers. “The context of competition and competition is unfavorable for women”, explains Clémence Perronnet. Anne Boyé corroborates this analysis: “uA child, if in a supportive environment, is pushed more by his family than by a girl. ”

He stereotypes inherited from society and education have their share of responsibility. johistory has associated mathematics with male circles. “In France, the teaching of mathematics has been designed by men and for men. Unconsciously in people’s minds the idea has formed that mathematics is a masculine discipline.”, analyzes Anne Boyé. For Clémence Perronnet, blaming the problem of trust between girls only obscured the real cause: To speak of self-censorship is to minimize the problem, when the problem is society ”.

A reform “do it yourself”

Identified problems and challenges need to be addressed. On March 21, 2022, a report on the place of mathematics in the general course of the general and technological institute is presented to the Minister of National Education. The teaching of mathematics will undergo a new reform: it is a question of restoring 1h30 of mathematics in the common core in the year 2023 and of rethinking the program, directing it towards the concrete one.

A small change of direction that is difficult to convince. Its very short term raises questions: “One month to submit a program has never been done. It usually takes a year”comment by Science and the future a mathematics inspector. Calling this report to “do it yourself” by Anne Boye.

In a statement, learned societies and scientific associations expressed dissatisfaction. They point with their fingers “the training offer that remains insufficiently diversified to meet the needs of students”. The great oversight of this reform: diversity in the classroom. The President of Women and Mathematics is sorry: “They suggest there’s some kind of incentive from teachers and principals to convince – we don’t know how – four more girls in high school to come to math experts. It’s so amazing. We think they’re people. They’ve never stepped on it. a school ”.

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