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Windows on the world

Gerald Haigh explains how to make the best of photographs in class

Just as you can't teach geography without taking children out of the classroom, so you can't teach it - or almost any humanities subject - without access to good pictures. Kathryn Banbury, geography subject leader at Barford St Peter's Primary in Warwickshire has a constant need for them - so much so that she emailed The TES appealing for us to print more.

(Though she does use our free posters and has them neatly filed and cross-referenced.) "Children live in such a visual age," she says. "I could spend all of my subject budget on pictures and videos. After all, I'm stuck in rural Warwickshire and I'm supposed to do stuff on coasts."

She is also concerned to address the key stage 2 Qualifications and Curriculum Authority unit, "What's in the News", as well as media issues in citizenship.

Kathryn looks through daily and Sunday papers every week and, surprisingly, finds Hello! magazine to be a good source. As she says, though, the media's agenda isn't the same as hers. "I want pictures suitable for children aged 5 to 11, that are child-centred and colourful, that don't minimise the effects of incidents, but aren't horrific. They're hard to find."

Then, she says, the print media's need to find the arresting image means it's also difficult to find straightforward illustrations of events. "I couldn't find a single suitable picture of the state opening of parliament," she says. "The news photographs were all of details or individuals."

As well as using pictures in class, Kathryn also has a news board in the corridor, with up-to-date pictures and cuttings, and space for children to respond. News of the successful London Olympic bid, for example, prompted children to write to say how old they would be and which event they would like to take part in. There's also a map to show where venues are.

When it's possible, there are direct links to the curriculum - the Boxing Day Tsunami pictures were up at the time classes were covering an RE unit on suffering, and material on the G8 summit links to classroom work on the Make Poverty History campaign. The St Peter's news board is a simple idea, simply executed, because that's the best way to keep it topical. "When I started it I typed things up and mounted them nicely, but all of that takes time," she says. "What we have now is a low key thing, a drip-feed."

In a way, she feels, a news board like this is a small rural school's window on the world. "We can become inward looking," she says. "We're a small community, and even our towns in Warwickshire are small."

Interpreting pictures

One of Kathryn's reasons for using pictures both in class and on the news board is to help children see that pictures aren't neutral, but always show a particular view, both literally and metaphorically. It's a point that's central to the work on visual resources done by organisations such as Oxfam, and by teams of teachers at Tide (Teachers in Development Education) in Birmingham. Tide's director, Scott Sinclair, believes that using images in class can't be seen as an easy option.

"We receive so much of our information in images," he says, "And it's a basic social skill to be able to use photographs, to question and to recognise that what we're seeing is not a simple truth, and that the camera is pointed at something."

One starting point, he suggests, is to show children the limitations of images in their own experience. "Even with young children you can illustrate this by discussing with them which three photographs you might choose to represent your own life."

He reels off lots of techniques for using photographs, all of them helping children look closely, go beyond assumptions and come up with questions.

The challenge for the teacher in using photographs is that the work is open-ended - there are lots of questions, but few straight answers. Even when there's good information about the where and who of a photograph, there are ambiguities over relationships and motives, as well as about what happened before and after the instant that's recorded.


Use photos to generate open-ended questions.

Who are they? What's going on? What are they sayingthinking? Who took it? Why was it taken? Is anything missing?

Mount a photo in the centre of a large sheet of paper and write questions on the sheet.

Ask children to write speech bubbles for the photos.

Working in groups with lots of photos, ask children to choose ones which seem to have common themes.

Working in pairs, ask a child to describe a photo for a partner to draw.

Then discuss what the difference is.

Don't forget holiday photos. They can easily be blown up digitally or with a colour copier, and the presence of a familiar figure brings the picture to life for children.

Be aware that photos may help release a child's own experiences and feelings. A child might say something like, "I think that girl is feeling really lonely". However, respect the distance that discussing the photo creates and avoid asking questions such as, "Which of these people would you like to be?"

Digital photography opens up endless possibilities in conjunction with whiteboards, projectors and computers.

Remember: A young child may not take in the whole photograph. The middle ground is often missed, for example.

* Children may pick up on what seem to be familiar features, and use them to interpret the picture, even when other content contradicts their ideas.

* They may assume the presence of features which aren't there, but which fit their assumptions about what's happening.

* They may not even see features that are unfamiliar.

* Children often assume that a black-and-white photo shows an earlier period than a colour one, regardless of the content.

The Development Compass Rose

Tide suggests using its Development Compass Rose (NSEW) as a starting point for generating questions on any resource - picture, story or product.

It's a way of classifying four kinds of question: N - "natural", about the environment, built as well as natural.

S - "social", about people, relationships, culture, gender, race, class.

E - "economic", about trade, money, buying and selling.

W - "who decides?" about power, who's in charge, who makes decisions, who wins and who loses.

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