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French ‘festival of errors' teaches how to think

Lizzy Davies

Late in the 19th century, while investigating chicken cholera, Louis Pasteur infected some birds with bacteria that he confidently believed would kill them. He was wrong: not only did the chickens survive; they were completely immune. Pasteur had made a mistake. But in doing so he had also found a vaccine.

Fast forward to the 21st century and France, the country that gave the world the father of modern medicine, is no longer quite so ready to see the benefits of getting things wrong, according to a growing number of intellectuals and education specialists.

They claim the French school system is leaving children bereft of creativity, flexibility of thought and — crucially — confidence in their own mental abilities.

Intellectual timorousness

In an attempt to counter this culture of “intellectual timorousness”, a group of academics from the country's elite institutions is hosting a festival in Paris this week with a rather unusual mission: its participants are being encouraged to make as many mistakes as possible.

“A large part of the French school system is based on the idée reçue that errors are negative, when in fact it is by this very process of learning ... that you make progress,” said Maelle Lenoir, of the Association Paris Montagne.

“The French system is founded on a strict learning of knowledge, rather than on creativity or innovation. And yet it was Einstein himself who said that ‘the only sure way to avoid making mistakes is to have no new ideas'.” Observers of the French school system, while praising certain key successes, have repeatedly highlighted the shortcomings of an educational process which is highly “top down” and results-driven, and which, they say, puts far more emphasis on having the right answer than the thought process by which a pupil might explore the question being asked.

“I'm a scientist. I had nothing to do with education. But then my six-year-old boy went to school and his teacher told me, ‘He's a nice kid, but he asks too many questions,'” said Francois Taddei, the author of an education report published last year for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

“This is the problem of the French system,” he added. “You are supposed to know the right answer. You are not supposed to express your own opinions or ask questions.”

One teacher who has attempted to rebel against the national model is Girolamo Ramunni, a lecturer at the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts in Paris, a higher education establishment specialising in science and industry. Mr. Ramunni, an Italian who left school himself at the age of 14, says he tries to encourage his students to reject the pressure to always be right by, for example, giving them problems to solve “which could not be solved”.

“At the beginning they don't want to take risks,” he said. “But after a while you notice that they are becoming more creative.

“Once they've accepted that getting things wrong is not the end of the world, yes, they may come up with some crazy ideas, but they will have some good ones too.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

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