High school: overcoming clichés on the professional path


The latest reform of the professional path was presented on Thursday May 4, 2023 by President Macron. The press kit that accompanies these announcements highlights the need to make the sector attractive and to make it a path to success and excellence. Implicitly, it paints the portrait of a student in lack of success 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 revalorization of the professional sector, implemented for more than 50 years.

No wonder here that in we find the usual commonplaces , making the vocational high school (LP) a place that welcomes above all students who have broken with school, or with certain disciplines such as mathematics.

But do the young people enrolled in this sector have such a different relationship to knowledge from that displayed by their comrades preparing for a general baccalaureate?

A practical relationship to knowledge?

Perceived as an important factor in the school failure of these pupils, the question of the meaning they give to the fact of going to school and learning new things there is central in the reflections on the implementation of trainings. Strengthened by the social context in which they evolve and their school past, vocational high school students have essentially developed a practical relationship to knowledge . That is to say that they measure in a way the interest in the proposed activities 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 foundation in institutional reports ( CNESCO , IGEN ) or research relating in particular to the implementation of mathematics teaching.

For educational actors, the case is heard, so to speak. And it is mainly to reconnect these students to 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 for studies.

The representation that the educational actors have of the pupils is decisive in the definition of the teaching methods of the general subjects in the vocational stream. 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, if these results are massive, they are not absolute. First of all, the vocational sector is by no means monolithic and is available in multiple specialities, interacting with job pools, all of which have their particularities and take local recruitment conditions into account. Then, if the form of relationship to knowledge indicated above is in the majority among students in this path, it is “neither unilateral, nor fixed in time” .

A popular and then devalued professional path

Beyond this necessary caution, it is the very image of the vocational high school student mobilized in the speeches that is to be questioned . Both a “tool” discipline and a disinterested subject, often a justice 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 pupils “in difficulty” and even “incapable of abstraction”, “who cannot learn”, “breaking with mathematics” and school in general, “the less gifted”, ” cripples of the system of classical education”, who are only interested in the profession, “visual”, textbooks more than intellectuals, difficult students, who need to restore a positive image of themselves, and who must to 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, there are in truth 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 the pupils who integrate it, it is mainly in full, in their qualities, in what they have more than the pupils of the other sectors that the educational actors evoke them. They oppose the taste for action and the materiality of things of this future professional, prepared for the modern world and able to work at the baccalaureate, mathematician or Latinist, inclined to intellectual speculation, but who does not know how to do anything. On the strength of these specificities, the teaching of mathematics is then thought out with a view to the complete training of “man, worker and citizen”, associating 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 pupil 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, thus 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 the pupils associate as emotion, feeling, lived 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 stream.

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