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To Be And To Have (Etre et Avoir) in Education Movie Reviews

by Don Berg, Founder
Attitutor Services

In this episode of Education Movie Reviews Don Berg talks about To Be And To Have (Etre et Avoir), a delightful documentary that exposes how standardized curriculum can distract teachers and students from what's important in education.

To Be And To Have

on Rotten Tomatoes

at Netflix


To Be and to Have
(Etre Et Avoir) on DVD

Further resources:Translation of the Official Bulletin of French National Education special edition no. 3 of June 19th, 2008 (pdf)(French-American School of Silicon Valley)

International Review of Curriculum and Assessment Frameworks Internet Archive


Today's movie is To Be and To Have, a French documentary with English subtitles from Director Nicolas Philibert. The subjects of the film are Georges Lopez and his 13 pupils. Monsieur Lopez is a 30-year veteran teacher in the French countryside who presides over a one room schoolhouse and his students range in age from 4 to 11 years old. To Be and To Have provides a rare glimpse into how the relationships between one teacher and his beloved students are shaped by a school system designed to deliver standardized content.

This film is a testament to Monsieur Lopez skill at delivering standardized content. The French national curriculum is famous for requiring all students to study the same content at the same time. According to a translation of the Official Bulletin of French National Education, “It is by offering students a structured and clearly defined teaching program, oriented towards the acquisition of core knowledge, and by offering them systematic training in reading, writing, in the mastery of the French language and Mathematics, as well as solid cultural references, that we prepare them for success.”

The French curriculum assumes that children lack basic capabilities and must acquire them in school. According to them children are incapable of integrating into their society except for what they will learn in school. Our school-speak term for this absurd assumption is “readiness to learn.” This mistaken assumption focuses on what children lack, and distracts from nurturing and expanding on the array of knowledge, skills, and abilities they already have.

Monsieur Lopez is a skillful manager of children's behavior. He clearly brings compassion and grace to his position of power over them. But as skillful as Monsieur Lopez is, his delivery of standardized content requires a level of control that destroys student initiative for self-direction and self-control. Watch as little Jojo struggles to obey:

It is painful for me to watch Monsieur Lopez make Jojo struggle to finish a coloring page because I recognize it as a strategy for long term obedience. The problem with this scenario is not the observed behavior, it is that Monsieur Lopez and Jojo have no choice in the matter but to figure out how to conform to the requirements that distract them from more important things. Both are doing the best they can with what they've got, which is wonderful as far as it goes. But education, properly implemented, avoids forcing teachers to become experts at finding motivational leverage in order to make little boys do arbitrary tasks that are meaningless to them.

The school system would be better off requiring Jojo and Monsieur Lopez to invest their attentional resources in figuring out more interesting things for Jojo to focus on. Inspiring Jojo to engage with the world on his own terms would have much greater payoffs for both Jojo and society. Monsieur Lopez has all the compassion and creativity necessary to engage Jojo in exploration and discovery of the world, if only he wasn't distracted by extraneous obedience lessons.

In these next excerpts notice that, based on how the children behave, Monsieur Lopez seems to have the sole authority in matters of conflict. These children trust Monsieur Lopez to be fair and benevolent, but the real lesson is that when power is vested in one person then power is personal. They are learning that whoever spins the story can manipulate the responses of the adult in power. Take a look:

And once again the system has put Monsieur Lopez and the children in a situation that emphasizes the power of the teacher and the powerlessness of students. A more just and equitable system would expect everyone to take initiative for resolving conflicts with the support of the whole community.

The standardization of content delivery reduces teachers to petty dictators responsible for forcing mandated content into little boy's and girl's heads on a timetable. To Be and To Have is delightful because Monsieur Lopez wields his authority with impressive compassion and grace while the children are delightfully enthusiastic.

Thanks for watching.