High school: overcoming clichés on the professional path


The reform of the vocational high school is one of the key topics for the start of the 2023 school year . The content was presented Thursday, May 4 by President Macron. The press kit which accompanied these announcements highlighted the need to make the sector attractive and make it a path to success and excellence. Implicitly, the portrait of a student with a lack of success was sketched, undergoing a default orientation and prone to dropping out.

These speeches and these proposals and measures are part of a long tradition of actions in favor of the upgrading of the professional sector, implemented for more than 50 years.

It is not surprising here that we find the usual commonplaces , making the vocational high school (LP) a place welcoming above all students who have broken away from school, or from certain disciplines such as mathematics.

But do the young people enrolled in this sector have a relationship with knowledge that is so different from that displayed by their peers preparing for a general baccalaureate?

A practical relationship to knowledge?

Perceived as an important factor in the academic failure of these students, the question of the meaning they give to going to school and learning new things is central in reflections on the implementation of trainings. Drawing on the social context in which they evolve and their educational background, vocational high school students have essentially developed a practical relationship with knowledge . That is to say, they measure, as it were, interest in the activities offered and the legitimacy of the knowledge taught in terms of their usefulness and practicality.

They would thus strongly value empirical learning and professional knowledge allowing direct action on reality, while they would reject theory and decontextualized knowledge. This sociological entry draws an image of the public taken up as a reflexive basis in institutional reports ( CNESCO , IGEN ) or research relating in particular to the implementation of mathematics teaching.

For educational stakeholders, the matter is concluded, so to speak. And it is mainly to get these students back into school that the latest reforms have highlighted the practical purposes of training through project pedagogy or devices such as the masterpiece or co-teaching . Stated objective: to help them rediscover the meaning and taste of studying.

The representation that educational actors have of students is decisive in defining the methods of teaching general disciplines in the professional sector. However, this focus on the social facet of students raises questions. To construct their course, do teachers try to detach themselves from it? Or is this social facet considered in some way as an indisputable character of this public, “being bad at mathematics” being part of the nature of the students?

Indeed, although these results are massive, they are not absolute. First of all, the professional sector is not monolithic and is divided into multiple specialties, interacting with employment pools all having their particularities and taking into account local recruitment conditions. Then, if the form of relationship to knowledge indicated above is the majority among students in this path, it is “neither unilateral nor fixed in time” .

A popular career path then devalued

Beyond this necessary caution, it is the very image of the professional high school student mobilized in the speeches which must be questioned . Both a “tool” discipline and a disinterested subject, often a judge of the peace in orientation decisions, the teaching of mathematics is an interesting prism for questioning these representations.

What mathematics teaching should be carried out for students who are “in difficulty” and even “incapable of abstraction”, “who cannot learn”, “at odds with mathematics” and school in general, “the less gifted”, “ cripples of the classical education system”, who are only interested in the profession, “visuals”, manuals more than intellectuals, difficult students, who need to restore a positive image of themselves, and who must be reconciled with school?

The terms used here aggregate a set of remarks made by educational actors (inspectors, teachers, etc.) since 1945, the date of the creation of the schooled vocational stream and show that this question is not new. But under the apparent similarity of the terms, in truth hide multiple shifts in the way students are apprehended .

In the post-war period, marked by a shortage of manpower, the vocational stream was a desired path. If some teachers highlight the difficulties in mathematics of students who join it, it is mainly in their qualities, in what they have more than students in other sectors that educational actors mention them. They contrast the taste for action and the materiality of things of this future professional, prepared for the modern world and able to work, to the bachelor, mathematician or Latin scholar, inclined to intellectual speculation, but who knows how to do nothing. Building on these specificities, the teaching of mathematics is then thought of in a perspective of complete training of “Man, the worker and the citizen”, combining learning of know-how,

At the end of the 1960s, a process of devaluation of the vocational path began, towards which students who did not have sufficient results to continue in the general stream were directed. The reform of modern mathematics that took place at that time throughout the education system placed theory at the heart of learning. The student of the professional is now thought of as hollow. A student like the others who stands out for what he doesn’t have, an ability to learn abstract mathematics.

To “reconcile” with the general disciplines?

Very quickly, this image of a disciplinary subject in difficulty will be substituted during the 1980s, that of a school subject apprehended under its social facet, breaking with discipline, even with school. This second shift in meaning contributes to emptying of its substance the pedagogical discourse put in place at the time of the reform of modern mathematics. The challenge is less to help students overcome their difficulties in mathematics than to reconcile them with the discipline, and more generally, general education or the school with which they seem to be at odds.

It is a question of breaking with the methods of the college by highlighting in particular interdisciplinary projects, by limiting the evaluations, by emphasizing the utilitarian facet of teaching, then reducing the call for reflection. This raises the question of the abandonment of a didactic vigilance on the contents in favor of the maintenance of a certain school peace and the reduction of teaching requirements .

But these representations contrast with what students associate as emotion, feeling, experience with the teaching of mathematics. In fact, in general, what structures their disciplinary experience , positive or negative, is less an opposition between practical or theoretical aspects of teaching than their participation in the realization of a personal or professional project that is close to their heart. In this they do not really differ from their comrades in the general sector.

Author Bio: Xavier Sido is a Lecturer in education and training sciences at the University of Lille