The contemporary science of human development has revealed the major universal laws which govern how humans learn and develop harmoniously. In particular, these laws indicate that children must be allowed to learn autonomously in a secure and stimulating environment with children of different ages and with individual warm and supportive guidance.
Céline Alvarez, a linguist by training, set out to test the effectiveness of a scientific approach to education, i.e. an approach based on the natural laws of child development. In 2009, she took the public examination to become a state school teacher and, having passed, she sought a meeting with an adviser at the Ministry of Education, which she was granted. She was also granted the conditions which she asked for: a school in a disadvantaged neighbourhood, a mixed-age class, rigorous annual tests to measure pupil progress, and carte blanche to teach how she wished in the classroom. The experiment took place between 2011 and 2014 in Gennevilliers, a northern suburb of Paris which the French government has designated as a zone of falling education standards and violence in schools.
In order to carry out her experiment, Céline Alvarez drew on and developed the work of Dr Maria Montessori, who had first paved the way for a scientific approach of this kind back in 1907. She fleshed it out with the latest scientific findings, in particular in cognitive behavioural psychology, in cognitive, affective and social neuroscience and in French linguistics.
This approach mainly focused on the development of executive skills, nowadays widely acknowledged to be the biological foundations of learning and personal development. These skills develop rapidly between the ages of 3 and 5, and nurturing them effectively was therefore a major priority in the classroom. Language activities were also reworked, simplified and adapted to the specific characteristics of the French language. And because current affective and social neuroscience research has revealed the extent to which social bonding is essential to full physical, cognitive and social development, great importance was attached to communal activities as a way of acquiring the fundamentals. A large number of other activities were excluded so that the two adults present could focus their attentions on social bonding – the presentation of activities was interactive, lively and supportive, rather than rigid and 'teacherly'. Everything was designed so that the children could genuinely interact, laugh, chat, express themselves, help each other and get along together. This bonding acted as a true catalyst for development and learning. Incorporating these factors is only the beginning.
Our approach is adaptable and open-ended – it should not be seen as a set method. In the coming years, we will be continuing our investigations and developing further parameters that research suggests are essential – such as the range of different age groups within a single space and connecting with nature – as well as broadening the spectrum of activities, especially in terms of free play. The Gennevilliers experiment is therefore only the starting point of a long process of research directed towards creating educational environments which are ‘physiological’ and fully adapted to how the human mind works and to the needs of young children who are undergoing rapid development.
We would like to stress that this experiment differs from what is known as the Montessori method. We are not advocating that method, nor are we claiming it as our own. Dr Montessori's work provided an excellent starting point for this scientific conception of education. However, in Gennevilliers we moved beyond this starting point by incorporating the findings of present-day research, which is just as Dr Montessori would have wished. She encouraged future generations to “follow their own path” and to complement her work with contemporary data, just as she did herself in drawing on the work of Dr Itard and Dr Séguin. The experiment at Gennevilliers therefore formed part of a venerable tradition of approaching education from a scientific angle.
From the very first months, the results were hugely positive. They confirmed that an approach based on a knowledge of human development is extremely apposite.
After the first year, the tests were already indicating that all the children were making faster progress than was the norm – indeed, they were distinctly above the norm in terms of phonological awareness, comprehension of number and hand-eye coordination, and they had spectacularly extended their short-term memory. Children in their second year of nursery school were all at least one (if not two) years ahead in terms of their reading level. Reading, writing and understanding the key concepts of mathematics were skills which were acquired rapidly and enjoyably.
After the second year, the test reports concluded: 'What has emerged is that in the two essential areas of school learning, reading and arithmetic, the children in this class display skills which often exceed their stage of schooling. (...) It must be acknowledged that all the children are at least one year ahead of what is expected of them.'
In addition, the mix of ages (3, 4 and 5 years old) is highly conducive to collaboration, mentoring and the children spontaneously helping each other. This rich social environment has acted as a catalyst for all the children to develop significant moral and social capacities. Families have noticed that their children are better able to concentrate, are much more autonomous, interact more harmoniously with others, have better self-discipline and have an overwhelming urge to go to school, even when they are sick! Watch their video testimonies here.
Céline Alvarez was very keen to continue her research within the national education system. However, in July 2014, the Ministry of Education decreed that the teaching materials be withdrawn and that the class be discontinued, without giving clear official reasons for their decision. Forced to put an end to her experiment within the school, Céline Alvarez resigned her post in order to continue with it elsewhere. But before doing so, she devoted her time to sharing, for free, all the tools which had enabled to have such a positive impact on the children's education. In August 2015, over 200 teachers took part in a two-day conference devoted to sharing the fundamental scientific theories. You can view the full two days here. In response to the strong interest shown by teachers and parents, Matthieu Varagnat and Fabien Akunda, two engineers both driven by big ideals, joined forces with Céline to help her to disseminate her expertise more widely. In July 2016, the team held a three-day conference attended by over 700 teachers from all four corners of France and beyond, including Cambodia, Vietnam, Canada, Australia, Morocco, Spain, Portugal, China, Switzerland, Belgium and the United Arab Emirates. Watch the videos of this conference.
View below the introduction to our first conference.
Some of the teachers present talk about their initial reactions and the first results. Our thanks to them.