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Teaching with Visuals: Students Respond to Images

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

Dan Meyer knows that textbook-driven teaching hasn't served his students well. That's why they wind up taking remedial algebra with him in ninth grade. "They either need more time on content, or they've really been burned by traditional math instruction," says the teacher from San Lorenzo Valley High School, near Santa Cruz, California.

For Meyer, now in his fifth year of teaching, a lightbulb moment happened three years ago when he acquired a projector for his classroom. "That gave me a way to put up a full-screen image really fast," he explains. "I could toss up visuals cheaply and quickly." Meyer, who has a personal interest in graphic design and filmmaking, started looking for high-interest visuals that would promote classroom conversation about related math concepts.

"It was like a dam broke. Before that, I didn't think about finding visuals for the classroom," he says. "Now, I'm walking around daily, thinking about it. I walk around with a digital camera on my phone. As I become more acquainted with my subject matter and more enthusiastic about it, I see examples of it everywhere. And the examples are 100 percent of the time better than what my textbook would have me use to introduce a topic."

Apparently, plenty of teachers agree. Meyer writes a popular education blog called dy/dan. There, he has generated a robust online conversation about integrating visuals into lesson planning. He got things going by posting high-resolution close-ups of two license plates: one from Costa Rica, one from California. His post asked educators to answer the seemingly simple question "What can you do with this?"

Keep It Simple

In kicking off his challenge to colleagues, Meyer deliberately kept instructions to a bare minimum. He told readers only two things: (1) He would post their image or video without any elaboration. (2) He predicted their collaborative ideas for using the particular media would be "superior to the one I originally imagined."

Responses were dazzling in both their display of teacher creativity and the range of subjects addressed. Teachers came up with lesson ideas for teaching everything from permutations to air quality to social justice, all based on two snapshots of license plates. "We have educators with a lot of creativity that they need to express," Meyer notes. (For more on this sentiment, read the Edutopia.org article "The Eyes Have It: Potent Visuals Promote Academic Richness," which explores how teachers from California to New York are using an art curriculum to improve critical thinking, writing, and academic achievement.)

The very nature of blogs may encourage some of this innovation. Because readers can see all the other comments, they have to push beyond the most obvious suggestions to come up with an original idea. "It almost forces commenters to get into more distant lands," Meyer surmises. One reader even compared the wisdom-of-the-crowds activity with lesson study. In the end, the "What Can You Do With This?" brainstorming activity proved so successful that Meyer has made it an ongoing series on his blog.

Meanwhile, he continues to look for new images to share with his own students. "These are students who have had lecture-based mathematics for so long without success," he points out. "I have to innovate. I absolutely have to use visuals, use video clips, use the world around them as much as possible." The real challenge in developing more creative teaching methods isn't time, he suspects. Rather, he adds, "It's imagination. It's creativity. It's developing enthusiasm for your subject and then looking for it everywhere." (Read the Edutopia.org article "Cross Training: Arts and Academics Are Inseparable" to learn how a Boston school successfully melds art with core curriculum.)

On the Money

Recently, Meyer prepped his students for a homework assignment. Instead of assigning problems from the text, however, he showed them a short clip from the thriller film The Bone Collector. Their assignment: Analyze the last frame from the clip (which he had also printed as a handout). It showed a dollar bill next to a footprint. They brainstormed some ideas as a whole class about the mathematical significance of that image. Then he sent students home with an open-ended question: What could they make of it?

This was clearly a different kind of homework assignment than students expected. "Usually, they would get textbook pages and strict instructions," Meyer says. "Instead, they have a photo, a good sense of where they're going next, and the freedom to pursue different routes."

The next day, classroom conversation was lively -- and revealing. "A lot of kids who are used to getting pages out of a textbook didn't have the perseverance to take the problem all the way to its end," he admits. But those who dug in, he adds, "found a lot of value in the problem. They took the problem and made it their own." Meyer also posted the film clip on his blog, with this familiar question to fellow teachers: "What can you do with this?" (See the comments, and add your own.)

Cable in the Classroom recently recognized Meyer for his creative use of video to improve math instruction. In this podcast, he shares the thinking behind his innovative strategies.

How do you use visuals in your classroom? How do your students respond to interesting images? Please share your experiences.

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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Comments (73)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Patrick's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you that visuals help out a lot. I teach students with special needs and any method that you can use to help these students is wonderful. I would be very interested in any websites or places that I could get some visual aides with ease.

Michael Luteran's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The light bulb went off in my head about three years ago also when I started to use clips from popular (and not so popular) science fiction movies in my 8th grade science classes to not only introduce new material but to review it as well. The mental link kids develop between pictures and scientific content has been amazing.

Emily N.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you Linda about creating a larger community using technology. Kids these days connect and communicate mostly through technology....why not classroom to classroom via internet? I think it's a great idea, however, it could be limiting due to the legality of it and also the technology facility in each school.

Emily N.
Grade 2
St. Paul, MN

Kelli Bannen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

At my school they have TVs that have a slide show of pictures and videos of students doing different activities throughout the month. I think this was a great way to show parents what was going on in school and a greta way for students to be excited to watch what happened in other classes. I also use many different visual aids for class. It makes the lessons more authentic.

Jacquia Frink's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Using Visuals in the classroom creates an amazing learning experience for students. The first grade students in my classroom use manipulatives in math and a variety of visuals during the day in order to make a connection between school and life. The students have hands on experiences and are able to successfully provide effective explanations using visuals. Using visuals in the classroom also enhances the ability for the students to grasp the content.

Jacquia Frink
Lake Arbor Elementary

Ashley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I also teach special education. I agree with you 100% when you say that your students react better to visuals than to text on a page. If I give my students a worksheet with just a bunch of words or numbers on it, it seems as though their eyes glaze over and they shut down immediately. When I hand them something 3-D to work with, or use visual representations on my SMARTboard, the students become immediately involved, and I am able to keep their attention throughout the lesson. Don't get me wrong, we still do the "boring" reading passages to work on reading skills, but when balanced throughout the week with the "fun, hands on" activities, the students are much more willing to do the work.

Kendelle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

When I present material (I teach 6th grade math and science), I try to include a visual and a manipulative whenever possible. I also want to make a connection to a real-world situation. I love the idea of using movie clips, and I am going to start using my cell-phone camera more often.

Dennis Regus's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is great. I have never thought about integrating technology in my class in this way. Images will make great strater activities. I also love the idea of giving homework assignments based on these images periodically. They can be posted on my website and available for kids as extra work and so on.

Thank you so much for this innovation.

Adriana's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

When we moved into our new school, we had projectors in each classroom. This is a wonderful tool for me to use when teaching math and science lessons. While I'm teaching a lesson, students can play interactive learning games I bring up on the computer to teach a concept. It's a nice break from the typical paper/pencil atomosphere.

Marilyn Goodrich's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was happy to see this. I am always trying to add new things into my lessons. I want to be able to provide the teachers that I present to with new and edgier stuff for their classroom. One way is adding the wonderful visuals into the classroom learning experience.
I always add photographs. I use the set from www.teachersdiscovery.com they have many uses. I use them for think alouds, story starters, poems, and logical thinking activities.
There are so mnay great web sites also that provide free educational photographs that teachers can use.
Does anyone have any? We can create a great list!

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