How to change this classroom habit we’ve gotten wrong for years

How to change this classroom habit we've gotten wrong for years

We have fallen in love with the bulleted list and the texty PowerPoint presentation. But our brain doesn’t work that way. Try this instead. (Image via Open Clipart)

For a long time, I’ve called myself the “King of the Stick Figure” in my own classroom.

If we’re telling a story in my Spanish class or practicing with vocabulary terms, they’re usually all over the board. They’re what I’d call “modified stick figures” or even “glorified stick figures” with accessories: shoes, hair, a cane, a top hat, etc.

(As soon as I branch out beyond stick figures, I lose my crown and my king status!)

It turns out that this practice, which you could loosely call “art,” was actually a better idea than I had ever imagined.

This idea called the picture superiority effect states that even your worst images – including my stick figures – can have a much greater impact than your greatest text-based presentation slides.

It’s based on brain research on how we encode our ideas in memory. Basically, dual-coding theory suggests that our memories are stored either as pictures or verbally. Using images has an advantage – it encodes those new ideas using both the picture route and the verbal route. Using words only gets remembered verbally.

Think of all of the resources that teachers have created over the years that work directly against this idea! We have fallen in love with the bulleted list on PowerPoint. We’ve made it a habit of writing down every word we want to say to our audience instead of just saying it.

In reality, if we’re looking for impact, we might have been doing it wrong all along. If we want to inspire, a bulleted list probably won’t do it.

I’d imagine there are two common doubts about using more pictures into the classroom, and I’ve used both of them myself:

I’m not an artist, so this won’t work for me.

Honestly, I’m not much of an artist either. I still rely heavily on stick figures and have to explain what some of my drawings are. That’s the beauty of drawing, though – if you tell your audience what a certain blob you just drew is, they’ll know going forward what to imagine it as.

If you don’t want to create your own custom drawings, that’s fine, too. There are terabytes and terabytes of images out there on the web that you can display. Chances are that you can find a picture that will work if you take a little time to “go fishing” for the right one.

Using pictures isn’t legitimate academic work.

I’ve had this thought before, and I’m not sure if others have, too, but I’ll bet so. I’ve thought that writing and reading are what we should be doing in the classroom. Those are the hallmarks of great education, and that’s what we should focus our effort doing.

But why do we read? To get ideas into our brains, right? Literacy is of great importance in every class, but if our brains try to eventually encode ideas as pictures anyway, why not start there sometimes? Some students are going to struggle to make a mental picture of what we’re talking about. If we can help them do what their brain is trying to do anyway, we have a chance to help kids learn things they might not think they could otherwise.

So, how do we create these pictures?

There are lots of options:

  • Creative Commons image searches. There is a huge trove of pictures that are licensed for reuse out there that teachers can tap into without worrying about violating copyright law. (Just remember to attribute your source!)
  • Drawing apps. I’m a huge proponent of the Paper app for the iPad by FiftyThree. I really think it makes what I create much prettier than anything I could draw on regular paper. It’s free, and you can save your work as an image file to the camera roll for use in other places.
  • Learn how to draw. I recently read “The Sketchnote Handbook” by Mike Rohde, and he has great practical tips on how to turn your ideas into images very simply. He suggests drawing people by making a rectangle for their bodies, lines for arms and legs and a circle for their heads. With that start, it’s very easy to make them fancier with clothes and accessories. He also says that practically anything you want to draw can be made from basic shapes (triangle, circle, rectangle), lines and dots.
  • Video creation tools. Moving pictures can be memorable, too! Tools like Powtoon and WeVideo can help you create videos online to share your ideas with your students. Of course, your students can create them as well.

Can you see ways to incorporate images into what you do in the classroom? Do you have any doubts? Share your thoughts in a comment below!

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