Educational innovations explore the school system

Pauline Schmidt really does not see how she could have made her students work without going through an alternative pedagogy. In her elementary school located in a disadvantaged district of Perpignan, this director welcomes 140 children, the majority from a sedentary gypsy community. When she landed in the establishment as a teacher, five years ago, the students “did not sit for more than ten minutes and absenteeism reached record rates, up to 50% at certain times of the year”. She only had twelve CE1s, “but they could return the class to me”. She quickly realized the obvious: for these students, traditional lessons do not work. No way to give up and find yourself “coloring all day”. Pauline wants these children “know how to read in CE2 so that they have a decent life”.

With the director at the time, she then turned to Freinet pedagogy (active participation of the child in his learning) and the flexible class (better layout of the class for the good of the pupils). Today, the whole school benefits from it. No more aligned tables and classes facing the blackboard, children can sit where they want, on chairs or on the floor, slippers on their feet. Each class is equipped with a quiet corner, with soft toys, hourglasses and small lights so that they regulate their emotions, which are often difficult to contain. “No longer being in the permanent discipline as before makes it possible to increase the time of presence in knowledge”, continues Pauline. And it works. Very quickly, absenteeism dropped to 10%, there was almost no more violence and this year, the first cohort of CM2 students from the project went to sixth grade with “excellent results”, proudly points out the 39-year-old director.

“Destruction Project”

“In difficult environments, students resist more than others to the teaching they are given, so that forces teachers to imagine new formulas. As in light bulbs, resistance is what resists the passage of current but it is also what illuminates, observes Philippe Meirieu, pedagogue and honorary professor in the sciences of education. Innovations make you want to go to school, it’s one of the conditions for success.”

The executive, which seems to agree, announced at the end of August the creation of an educational innovation fund endowed with 500 million euros, supposed to reward initiatives going in this direction, and made Marseille a “laboratory” for its “schools of the future”. However, the approach bristles the hairs of many teachers. Especially since the Minister of National Education, Pap Ndiaye, announced that the projects would not be funded “blindly” and should lead to an improvement in the educational level. The ministry will base itself for this on the national evaluations which exist in CP, CE1, sixth and second and soon in CM1 and fourth.

“We don’t give more to those who are in difficulty but to those who know how to sell themselves, grinds Philippe Meirieu. Since the orientation law of 1989, the so-called Jospin law, all establishments are obliged to make a project. So it’s a bit like Macron asking doctors to make prescriptions! The researcher sees in this stranglehold of the State on innovative projects the risk of competition between schools. “Parents will shop in the most innovative establishments. It is a project of destruction of the public service.

Treasure hunt, Trivial Pursuit and outdoor class

The reform of the vocational high school also raises its share of questions and criticisms, because it plans to send students longer in business, and therefore less time in school. However, these establishments are often considered as innovation laboratories. An imperative when students, 57% from underprivileged backgrounds – against 29.9% in general and technological high school –, for the most part ended up there by default, for lack of sufficient school results to join the royal road. “Our students are broken by National Education. If they are there, it is generally that they have not succeeded in entering the mold that we tried to offer them in college, ” analysis Germain Filoche, professor of literature and history-geography at Bobigny (Seine-Saint-Denis).

Therefore, teachers have to find other ways of doing things. “The lectures with an evaluation at the end, if we do that in a vocational school, we are cooked. It is necessary to start from the pupils, from their experiences, to lead them towards a reflection, skills. They would have plenty of excuses not to come to class, not to follow, to fall asleep, so you have to be concrete,” says the teacher. He created a treasure hunt in Paris, for which his students must ask passers-by for clues, concocted a Trivial Pursuit or sometimes made class in the courtyard. “We have to rely on what surrounds us and suggest that students unblock their bodies to unblock their way of thinking. From there, they are much more involved and enthusiastic,” remarks Germain Filoche.

In Ploërmel (Morbihan), it has been five years since Fabrice Tanguy had his pro agricultural baccalaureate students reproduce paintings, staging their own bodies. This socio-cultural education teacher introduces them to classics – by Botticelli, Manet, Caravaggio… –, leads them to imagine what could have happened just before and just after the scene, invites them to dress up and reproduce the gestures , all captured by a professional photographer. Its goal : “demystifying art and access to culture” for students who retort that “Caravaggio is for intellectuals”. “We can attract their attention through play but, quickly, we must not forget to make them aware of the notion of effort. You don’t have to make everything fun, it’s a complete trap. It would amount to just occupying them,” alert Fabrice Tanguy. “It’s a bit degrading to say that we always need a different pedagogy with students in difficulty, adds Ghislain Leroy, lecturer in education science at Rennes-II University. You don’t have to be dogmatic. Not everything can go through roundabout methods, that would be a pitfall. Arousing students’ interest with projects, creating cooperation, that’s good, but that doesn’t exclude having moments of systematization where you learn lists of words, conjugation. We can draw from the different innovative and traditional traditions.”

Welding teachers and parents

Germain Filoche quickly realized that the traditional method alone was not enough. When he started, as a contractor, he tumbled in front of his first students without preparation or knowledge of the programs. “At the beginning, we try to reproduce the methods of the teachers we had. We don’t realize the type of students we have in front of us: talkative, restless, who sometimes seek conflict. We quickly understand that we can no longer do as before, that we are obliged to innovate. For those who do not, in general, it does not go very well.

Jérémie Fontanieu, professor of economics and social sciences at the Lycée Eugène-Delacroix, in Drancy (Seine-Saint-Denis), precisely wanted things to go better with his students who were difficult to hold. “How to motivate seniors who have given up “because they are in an unfair and violent school system”?, he wondered when he arrived in this establishment then classified as a priority education zone (ZEP) – before high schools were no longer entitled to this label. In popular neighborhoods, young people have little good will with school because they do not have the cultural background that allows them to get there without making too much effort. This tenacious 34-year-old teacher finally found the key in his “Reconciliations” project, in which he fully involves parents “because they have an authority that we do not have”. With them, he forms a close-knit team, which communicates all the time and does not let go of the young people, who have an interest in keeping their heads down.

“Innovations in popular settings work when they involve families, explains Yves Reuter, professor emeritus at the University of Lille (1). If we manage to establish them as allies, it is important, because these families feel helpless in relation to school, which seems to them to be an opaque place, which despises them. This is where traditional methods show their limits. Grouped into complementary pairs “to pull yourself up”, Jérémie Fontanieu’s students have to work hard all year round and be ultra-punctual. Result: the seniors who have followed this strong and innovative method have obtained 100% success in the baccalaureate for five years.


“Pedagogical innovation has often taken place out of necessity to deal with difficult audiences, so there has been a kind of heritage around pedagogical practices in priority education, which should serve as an example for teaching even outside of priority education”, observes Aziz Jellab, sociologist and university professor associated with the University of Paris-Lumières. This is precisely the case of the “Reconciliations” project by Jérémie Fontanieu, which has been adopted by 130 other teachers who do not necessarily work with students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Innovation is also born in the face of handicapped pupils, such as at the Regional Establishment for Adapted Education in Montgeron, in Essonne. Laura Navarro, a 41-year-old Spanish teacher, realized that“with them, traditional courses do not work because they show their difficulties”. His goal : “Getting the students to cooperate to show them that unity is strength and that they are finally on the winning side to be proud of themselves.” His students are dyspraxic, they have trouble writing, but are very comfortable with screens. So Laura Navarro signed them up on a platform to create magazines in Spanish with other students from different European countries who don’t have a disability. They also built a virtual island, in the form of an interactive slideshow, in which they add a school, a park, characters. A game that makes them practice Spanish in a fun way. “It is their difficulties that fuel my creativity, remarks the teacher. Every year, the students force me to take on new challenges.”

(1) Author of Understand the different practices and pedagogies, Berger-Levrault editions, 176 pp., “The essentials”.

Educational innovations explore the school system