Photo romance

Authors : Jean-michel Rolando(plus d'infos)
Summary :
Participants have a set of images, not in order, provided by the trainer. They illustrate different moments of an investigation approach actually carried out in a classroom and provide a sufficiently comprehensive account of it. The instruction, given to participants, is to reconstruct the chronology of the sequence while justifying the choices made. The objective is to initiate a reflection on the different stages of an investigation approach which is then analysed more precisely in the light of theoretical references and official documents.
Publication : 13 September 2012
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We propose an activity called "photo romance". It consists of a series of images comprising photographs of pupils working and excerpts of digitized books. This "photo romance" sums up the main steps of a scientific activity which was actually carried out in the classroom. But the images given are in random order. The participants have to put them in order, justifying their choice of a particular order rather than another one. The underlying objective is for them to take ownership of the overall framework of an investigation approach, which is subsequently explained by a few theoretical references and official documents (e.g. a document of syllabus implementation).



Unfolding of training activities: general framework



The trainer makes folders in which the 8 printed pages are arranged in random order, they are not numbered.

1st stage

The trainer presents the problem of measuring the height of a building with enough details so that participants do not have trouble understanding the scientific problem. He then indicates that this topic was treated with a cycle 3 class and that the goal of this training activity is thinking about its practical set up.

2nd stage

In groups of 3 or 4, teachers are given a folder and have to reconstruct the sequence in an order that seems logical and that they will justify. Beyond putting the 'photo romance" in order, participants list all the questions that they have about the investigation of measuring the height of a building and about any investigation in general.

During this stage, the groups should be relatively autonomous and the trainer less called upon and, if so, only to explain details that are not understood (reformulation of instructions, details of a photograph, etc.). Some usually try to seek the trainer’s validation, either by proposing a sequence that seems satisfactory, or in the case of a disagreement between members of the group. In the latter case, the trainer tries to explain the reasons of the disagreement which should be again discussed during the pooling time. Some groups may not succeed in using all the pages.  This is often because participants have missed one stage in approach.  The trainer urges them to arrange only the pages that suit them, without necessarily using all of them. Again, difficulties will be discussed collectively.
To sum up, the trainer does not provide answers to fundamental questions. He jots down notes for them to be discussed during the synthesis.

3rd stage

One group comes forward and proposes a sequence.  They explain the reasons for their choice, state their doubts and questions.  It is not necessary for each group to present their sequence but they will react to the first one and complete the list of doubts or questions to examine.

During this stage, the trainer recalls areas of agreement and disagreement while highlighting the arguments of every one. From experience, we can sum up the areas which, generally, give rise to the following discussion:
-Some teachers believe that it is difficult to start an approach with an open-ended question. They believe that some elements on the current issue should be given to pupils before trying to solve a practical problem. A debate can be initiated with those who, on the contrary, strongly believe in an approach in which the problem situation is first stated and then progressively solved. In the latter approach the issue is only a prelude; it is addressed because it is necessary to solve the problem.
-Teachers may have already heard about the "investigation approach" or "problem" situation" but do not believe in it and skimp the exercise. It does not prevent them from defending their point of view and this discussion about ideas is the most interesting. Some even gladly admit that the approach starting with a problem situation is interesting. But they see many practical difficulties in it: "pupils will not think about this..."; "how can they get that?... "; "it could work with some classes, but not with my pupils...", etc.

4th stage

The trainer distributes one or two texts aimed at throwing light on the proposed approaches.  The duration of the training action influence the choice of text. 

Participants should acquaint themselves with the texts and put them in perspective with the proposed sequences, identify those that are compatible with academic knowledge and official instructions.
It is important to compare reference texts. Many teachers have not read syllabus documents yet. This is the right occasion to do it. These documents provide prescriptions that are interesting to be confronted with knowledge from university research. This is why we propose, if the time schedule allows it, the reading of an excerpt from a book of didactics. Ideally, teachers start realising that the official requests are in line with what is known of the conditions for efficient learning.

5th stage

The trainer presents a synthesis while explaining the objectives he was aiming at through this whole work.


Example of "photo romance": the notion of horizontal in cycle 3



The teacher proposes to his pupils to imagine that they are at the top of a building and that they have to determine, without moving, if another building that can be seen from afar is at a higher, lower or identical height as the one on which they find themselves. To illustrate it, he simulates it in the school yard or in the classroom. A mark is made with chalk on a  stand situated practically at pupils' eye level. It represents the top of the first building. A second mark is made some meters from the the first one. It represents the top of the second building. The teacher makes sure that the two marks are almost at about the same height for pupils not to give their opinion by naked eye. He insists that it is impossible to move from one building to the other, but that on the other hand, it is possible to use materials.

Laurent RULLIER, Sciences cycle 3, 64 enquêtes pour comprendre le monde, Page 10 © Editions Magnard, 2003

To solve the problem proposed to them, pupils should use a device enabling them to view the second mark horizontally from the first one (see the examples of the photo romance):


Sequence of the Scientific Activity and presentation of the photographs of the photo romance

1. The problem is presented to pupils who, in small groups, imagine a method and describe it in their notebook. Excerpts are presented:

2. Pupils construct their device and implement it. They lock on the first mark and aim for the second one. At this stage, they have not thought of maintaining the horizontal level of their device yet.  The various groups will get contradictory results. Photographs of pupils aiming:

They can spot the piece of piece of paper which is fixed on the pole in the yard. This is the mark which represents the top of the first building. The second mark, invisible on these images, is on a distant wall. They notice that some pupils aim too high or too low.

3. The teacher supervises a discussion to help understand the noticed discrepancies. Pupils realise that they should aim neither too high nor too low. The teacher then sums up the discussion and introduces the term "horizontal" if it had not emerged yet in the discussion. The problem is then reformulated. Excerpts from notebooks:

4. Pupils, in groups, look for devices enabling a horizontal sighting. In doing that, they are helped by the stock of material that the teacher brought and which comprises particularly of cylinders made of cardboard and bottles. We get a device which solves the problem posed by tying a 3/4 full bottle to the hollow cylinder. Pupils once more use the device to compare the heights of the two marks.

5. The device is closely studied in such a way that pupils understand and formulate the conditions under which it should be used: for the sighting to be horizontal, the tube should be parallel to water surface Photographs snapped during this synthesis moment:

6. The drawing of the device is done on the notebook. Alongside it is an explanatory text:
Excepts of notebooks:

7. The device is compared to a tool generally known by pupils: a spirit level

Photographs show pupils using the spirit levels and comparing them to devices they previously made.
8. Pupils resume their sighting, replacing their device with the spirit level.
Some photographs:


Notes on the sequence

This sequence, in conformity with official instructions, starts with an initial situation which adapts to a truly professional activity (surveyor's work) but made simple. Pupils are in an investigation situation. The sequence contributes to the construction of new knowledge, the notion of horizontal. It does not constitute a model: we can decry the absence of written conclusions indicating that the horizontal is identified through the free surface of a calm liquid. One can certainly find improvements or pertinent variants.



Word from the trainer

There may be among participants in the training session, teachers who have already carried out with their class approaches involving pupils in investigation situations, in science or in any other subject. They can then take over from the trainer in an interesting manner. All teachers are in effect sensitive to testimonial of their peers and generally grant them true credit, higher than that of a trainer...Depending on the duration of the training we can plan a formal time for some participants to present a specific work before their colleagues. It is conceivable that it can be in a non-science subject because it is always interesting to realise the cross-discipline nature of pedagogic approaches.
Making the teacher reflect is a necessary condition for them to learn from the training, but not sufficient. It is still necessary that at the end of it that they leave with a clear and organised aspect that the trainer wanted to illustrate with concrete perspectives. We summarise here what can be acquired from this activity and complement the debriefing done by the trainer. The point is not to introduce everything, except maybe what concerns the steps of an investigation approach, given that it is the main goal, but to choose, among the elements that we offer, those that illustrate the discussions and problems raised.



The investigation  approach

It can be summarised through the syllabus statement: " questioning knowledge through "investigation" and is sufficiently described by the official documents shared during the training action so that it is necessary further develop this general framework here. It is in the sequence that details are often necessary. It is what we propose below, starting with explanations about questioning.



The nature of questioning and the meaning of learning

Giving meaning to the learning of concepts is a formula, popular but also overused. It seems to us that many teachers mistake that to the fact that pupils formulate their own questions to be answered and find the answers themselves. That is a misinterpretation in the manner of understanding this formula. Lessons are meaningful when beyond the concept addressed (that of horizontal for instance), beyond the property studied (the free surface of water is flat and horizontal), it leads to a better understanding of an aspect of the world in which we live (for instance an approach to surveyors' work). Giving meaning to a lesson is thus to construct the intellectual tools (the concepts, ways of reasoning, properties...) not in a casual manner but in such a way that pupils perceive the value and the relevance of what they have just learned.
It can consists of, depending on the case, a better understanding


    • of one's body:
    • of the natural environment;
    • of a professional or a domestic practice;
    • of those different aspects in a current or historic perspective.


Returning to our example, seeking to introduce the notion of horizontal through the observation of the free surface of a liquid at rest is not a meaningful activity in the sense that pupils do not see the context in which the results are of interest. Conversely, in the scientific activity described here, it is the transposition of surveyors' work that provides the context in which the notion of horizontal and its identification derives meaning from. Of course, we could imagine other contexts equally likely to provide meaning to the same notion.



Introducing questioning

should question this generous idea, that is very difficult to accomplish and cannot be generalized.  Pupils' questions are rarely directly productive* and the teacher needs to be competent in detecting, through the child’s questions, which ones will lead to interesting activities within the framework of a given subject. In addition mastery of pedagogy is needed to enable children's questions to emerge, make the questions suitable to them and reformulate them to be productive, even if the idea is unrealistic. It is difficult to imagine that it can be generalized when the aim is to convince teachers who are not very familiar with sciences, who also should follow a syllabus defined beforehand. Finally, there seems to be a risk, to lead the class around questions from a few pupils, often the same pupils, while we develop the questioning aptitudes in all pupils.
The  cycle 3 science syllabus is very clear on this point.
"Questions from pupils cannot be the only possible starting point for a scientific activity. On the one hand, pupils will not imagine pertinent questions provided by official instructions. On the other hand, the teacher's plan cannot be permanently disrupted by such problem mentioned by pupils.
On the other hand, it is important to pay attention to the following aspects:
- Once a question is accepted, whether coming from a student or from the teacher, the teacher should put in place the strategy or the necessary material for the whole class to appropriate it.
Pose a problem, give pupils time to think about it individually and then in small groups, confront hypotheses, highlight disagreements and create class dynamics. The problem then becomes that of pupils. Disagreements are sources of motivation.
- Once the class is involved in a problem, all the questions that emerge in line with the treated subject are important to note and deserve to be treated as mentioned above. "     


Far from making the teachers' task complex, this alternative seems more realistic in satisfying the obligation to comply with the syllabus and on the other hand, to lead pupils' reflection. It does not overshadow their questions, but does not consider them as a starting point. In fact, the aptitude to question in a pertinent manner on a given topic, essentially depends on the basis of knowledge that we have about it. In other words, the more we know, the more we have new questions, the more they are pertinent and the more we figure the depth of what we do not know yet... Leading pupils to ask  questions themselves in a productive way is not impossible, it is even the goal to achieve. But it is a conquest! It is the sign of  successful pedagogy, and not a prelude.
Making teachers understand that, is in our opinion, reassure them and get them closer to the moment when they will place their pupils into investigative approaches.


*: We adopt the definition proposed in the document of implementation of Cycle 3 Science and Technology syllabus (p.6). Productive questions fulfil two criteria: "They end up with experiences, achievements or observations without concrete danger, not raising ethical objections, can be carried out with local means [...] ; they lead to  [...] a new understanding, included in the objective of the syllabus, easily assimilated by pupils, and in connection with existing knowledge. »



Efficiency of learning

The involvement of pupils in the activity proposed to them is an important condition for learning to take place, but it is not sufficient. They must still clearly locate the object of that learning. It is the role of the stage repeated in the "photo romance" on pages E and F. Depending on the audience participating to the training action, it can be interesting to to compare it to a large number of similar cases that teachers face in all cycles. At the nursery school, for instance, the role of effective student activity is paramount and justifies all kinds of teaching methods for it to be fulfilled (projects, games ...). But researchers have shown that one of the causes of failure in this age group is that some pupils do not see that beyond the game, beyond the project, there is something to understand, to learn, to remember. We can say the same thing about scientific challenges whether they are motivating for pupils. It is only through challenging the pupils interest, that there is a learning object and that this object is identified by them. There are strong Implications on the role of the teacher, he is the one to organise the sequence so that at a certain instance the class focusses on the learning object.

The synthesis of this paragraph and the previous one lead to this important idea: the teacher must provide both a meaningful context and a precise identification of the object to be learnt.
In addition, nothing prevents the use of the knowledge in other contexts. It will be sounder and more efficient if pupils realise that the same lesson is of interest in a large number of situations. The study of the same notion in different contexts may well not be done in the same year.  It could be the topic of a whole one-cycle sequence illustrating the study of this notion throughout different situations.



Difficulties of pedagogic implementation

When teachers face a situation such as that used for this training, they rightfully wonder if they could possibly propose it to the classroom. From experience, we believe that one of the most important restraints is that they doubt the abilities of their pupils to devise appropriate solutions to the problem situation posed. They are not necessarily wrong because what we wrote above about questioning is probably true for finding a solution: the ability to imagine solutions to a scientific or technical problem depends greatly on the training in this mode of work and available knowledge base. Pupils who may never have been placed in a research situation and may have never studied sciences or who studied very little would indeed stand little chance even to start visualizing a solution. They will usually give up and the teacher gest discouraged "vowing that they will not do it again...», so seems essential at the same time tooffer this training activity to provide practical solutions to this pedagogic difficulty which, if not resolved, will be a barrier to teachers' progress. The general idea is to provide pupils with "guides" that allow them to foresee in which direction to search, leaving them part of the construction of the solution. In this example, the class teacher has at his disposal two guides that he could use at two different moments.


    • The first of them seeks to guard against the case where at the beginning of the activity, no pupil would think of an aiming device. The guide appears here in the form of questions on the job of the men who make this type of measurement, not to compare the height of the two buildings but rather that of hills and mountains. This is in principle sufficient for pupils to think about surveyors and, immediately, about their aiming telescope. Even if they do not know what it is made of and how it is used, it provides enough opportunities for them to engage in the research.


    • The second one is useful during the second stage of the research, when pupils understand that it is not enough to make an aiming device but that it must be horizontal. To help groups who do not glimpse any solution the teacher had provided "induction material." It is a reserve of material, "in bulk", shown to the pupils with a deliberately vague indication: "go and take a look, it may be useful to you". What to prepare as induction material? The answer depends on the teacher's knowledge of his class. With pupils used to sciences and to investigation situations, he will provide a very broad and heterogeneous material with useful objects (pipes, empty bottles) and useless objects (pins, hooks, chalk ...). He will only show it to groups that are lagging behind. Conversely, with learners unaccustomed to research, prepare more inductive material (pipes, bottles of water three quarter full, or spirit levels. Choosing between a set of very inductive material and a set of little inductive value cannot be determined by the trainer, but by the teacher himself. We can add that it also depends on the risk taking that he is willing to assume. Beginning teachers often tend to minimize the unexpected and usually choose a high level of induction. Experienced teachers interested in the activity do not fear taking greater risks...


The form of the two guides is therefore different but their role is the same: providing support to pupils, without providing the solution to them. Further note that the idea of ​​ ​​inductive material can largely be extrapolated to many problem situations.