Debate: Can pedagogy overturn sociology?


The terrorist acts hitting teachers lead us to confront, among other things, the question of the functions and powers of the school. Against barbaric fanaticism, what can pedagogy really do? Teachers are expected to be a bulwark against obscurantism. But is this realistic, when schools seem incapable of fulfilling their primary mission of transmitting knowledge and ensuring the success of all students?

The Minister of Education, who wishes to remedy this drop in student level through a “shock of knowledge”, recently stated, in an interview with the newspaper Le Monde, that “ pedagogy can overturn sociology” . Would school education therefore have the power to counteract the play of the social determinants of success , the power of which numerous studies nevertheless show? Is the minister’s hope founded?

Social factors that weigh on academic success

The sociology of education shows that the socio-economic origin of students appears to largely condition their educational destinies. Two major lessons can, in this regard, be learned from the PISA surveys (“Program for International Student Assessment”, or, in French, “International Program for the Monitoring of Student Acquiredness”), carried out every three years, since the year 2000, under the aegis of the OECD.

First of all, despite the alarming headlines in the press, there is no significant collapse in levels in France. France is an average student (mediocre?), whose results, apart from a relative break in 2006, are practically stable, this is what we can see for example in reading comprehension since 2009 .

If, sometimes, France falls in the rankings – but we must take into account the “increase in the number of survey countries” effect, from 32 countries in 2000, to 85 countries in 2023 – the scores do not drop significantly . But they are not increasing either.

However, and this is the second major lesson, the weight of social inequalities is not decreasing. There is even a trend towards increasing performance gaps between “good” and “bad” students. In 2012 , 22.5% of students’ results in mathematics are attributable to socio-economic origins, compared to 15% on average for the OECD. In 2015 , the socio-economic environment still explains more than 20% of performance. And 118 points separate the results, depending on the “environment” variable (favored vs disadvantaged).

In 2018 , among high-performing students, 20% belonged to advantaged families, compared to 2% to disadvantaged families. Undeniably, inequalities in educational success are strongly marked socially. But does this mean that pedagogy is powerless?

Postulate the educability of all

If students from disadvantaged categories have (statistically) more difficulty than others in succeeding, sociology does not demonstrate that they would, however, suffer from an insurmountable handicap. As if they were affected by a substantial “less educability”! We must recognize on this subject, as the work of Guy Avanzini and Philippe Meirieu has clearly shown, that the educability of all students (their ability to develop and succeed), is not the order of the experimental result, but of the postulate.

Now this postulate is a condition of possibility of the educational act. As Avanzini forcefully established, “belief in educability” is an act of faith, a bet, or a challenge. It expresses an ethical requirement; but, even more, logical. Because it would be absurd to try to educate someone who we assume is uneducable! “Undertaking the education of someone without making them educable would be contradictory.”

Here then, the hope, the desire, the wish, expressed by the slightest educational action, have more weight than the findings of sociology. We are not in the order of facts relating to proof, but in the order, prior and above it, of “that without which” an action has no meaning. From this point of view, as it is based on the postulate of educability, pedagogy prevails over sociology.

What model for thinking about educational pathways?

But it is not enough to believe in its possibility to be sure of producing effective action. The obstacles could be too numerous, even insurmountable. Among these obstacles, we can include the number and weight of extracurricular factors of success, which must be taken into account in the construction of an explanatory model of academic success and failure.

Now, on the one hand these factors are clearly very numerous; and, on the other hand, are situated, for the most part, in the economic and social field. Indeed, we can evoke, with Bourdieu and Passeron (1970) , the weight of habitus (generating and unifying principle of behavior and opinions forged in early childhood by inculcation of cultural arbitrariness); mastery of language, first oral, then written, socially conditioned; the family environment, more or less receptive to school requirements; the possibility (or not) of “enrichment” expenses (private lessons, trips, summer camps); etc.

In this regard, the over-success of the children of teachers, these “darlings” of the school , whose parents have significantly significant “time capital” and “cultural capital” is very significant; have particular mastery of school codes; and can establish a continuity of practices and values ​​between the family sphere and the school sphere.

More than the identification of success factors, which is part of a static analysis of reality, the use of a dynamic model of the school career is then necessary. We can propose the “vortex spiral” model. Everyone is engaged in a spiral whose “aspiration factors” are numerous: linguistic capital, cultural capital, personal energy, desire to succeed, self-confidence, relationship to school work, skills and knowledge already built, etc. Without neglecting this essential factor which is previous academic success.

Past success becomes (and increasingly so) a factor of future success. Thus a dynamic is established such that some remain until the end at the center of the whirlwind, which will deposit them at the École Normale Supérieure rue d’Ulm, or in front of the École Polytechnique. While the least armed will have been, along the way, expelled from the whirlwind at this or that stage of their journey.

Can we break the spiral of inequality?

But can’t we break the game of a negative spiral? Because, the assertion that “the social elevator no longer works”, on the one hand, is based on the retrospective illusion that it once worked correctly, which is far from being established. And, on the other hand, shows a lack of understanding of reality. Arnaud Lacheret’s recent work on the successes of the second generation of North African immigrants tends to show that a look too focused on failures and discrimination (which remain no less real!) leaves in the overshadows the “ordinary successes” (just as real!) of all those who were able to integrate.

Ultimately, success is not reserved for a few, and forbidden to others. If, obviously, some have more luck than others in their game, many others have been able to participate in a positive spiral. Thanks, in particular, to the meeting with a teacher who knew how to identify and trigger the development potential of a student in whose educability he had believed. Numerous testimonies attest to this. It doesn’t take much to turn a negative spiral into a positive one. Meeting a teacher who knows how to hook them may be enough…

It is in this sense that pedagogy can overturn sociology. We must therefore not think of pedagogy against sociology; but, more broadly, the hope of being useful, against fatalistic defeatism. Pedagogy cannot be the source of all the successes in the world. But it can, and must, take its share.

Author Bio: Charles Hadji is an Honorary Professor (Educational Sciences) at Grenoble Alpes University (UGA)