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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

Comments (74)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Loretta Gordon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach Kindergarten in Macon, Ga. I am certain you have heard the saying, "A picture is worth a thousand words!" I have found it to be so true! My four and five year olds constantly use visual stimuli to enhance learning and they thrive from it. Color is everywhere and it paints remarkable pictures in the brain. My students seem to find visual tools interesting and exciting. When they can see, hear, or even touch what is being taught it opens doors to new and even more interesting things to learn. I have found that teaching with visuals prompts interest and helps students become more descriptive in conversation and writing. The use of computers, television, overhead projectors, books, magazines,art, crafts, and the list goes on and on, is imperative in my classroom! It has been my experience that teaching with visual aids is definitely a necessary learning tool, especially in Kindergarten. There is a lot that has not been seen, heard or experienced at such a young age. Using the sense of sight is quite helpful in promoting success in a new learning environment.

Debbie Snyder's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that giving students a visual of what you are trying to teach is vital. So many students are visual learners that using technology to let them make the connections aids in their learning. I think even students that are not visual learners benefit from using technology to see what they are learning about. You can tell someone all you want about a city for example but they get a much better feel if they can see real pictures of the city. Technology is a great way to expose students to so many new things.

Debbie Snyder's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think it is great that you are willing to integrate technology in your class when your school is not able to provide you with much technolgoy. I think a good place for you to start would be to learn Powerpoint. It is fairly easy to make powerpoint presentations that you can show on the projector. Students can follow along with what you are teaching. Using an many pictures as possible and not just a lot of words will make the powerpoint more interesting for the students. Also there are videos on the internet on almost any topic that you could maybe use in class. Good Luck.

Debbie Snyder's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What a great way to learn vocabulary. Students will really remember the words and their definitions be using pictures. Also, I am sure the students have fun with the project and see it more as a game than as learning. What a great learning opportunity.

Debbie Snyder's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I couldn't agree with you more. Visuals in the classroom keep the students more involved and interested. Students today (especially) in the upper grades are constantly exposed to videos, video games, television, etc. and they want to be "entertained" when they learn. The more we can make learning visual for them, the better they will do.

Ray's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Projectors a great way to incorporate visuals into a classroom. One of my favorite visuals concepts to use is pictogramming. This is when there are pictures or words based off of a topic you are discussing. Students have to try to determine what the answer is based on the pictures or words. For example, we were talking about John Locke, so I put up a picture of John McCain and in paranthesis minus McCain and a picture of a lock. The students got the name right away and it led into a discussion. Furthermore, my students love this concept and are always asking me to include it more within my lessons. Projections make this very easy for the students because the images are so large. They also like going up on the board and writing down the answers.

Ethel Wilkey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I just read your ideas on teaching with visual images. Wow, what an incredible idea for collecting post cards to enhance as you say, "delicious dialog". I have recently taught a mini-lesson on personification with my fifth grade class. We brainstormed winter/holiday nouns on one side of our white board, and human-like verbs on the other. After whole group practice writing our personification poems, my students began to work on their own collection of work, using the, now as I see it, boring regular brainstormed list. (Even though it was student generated.) The kids did great, but what a powerful opportunity I missed by not visually showing vivid images of our topic to bring to life with words.

If your ears are ringing next week, it's because as I finish and REVISE my writing lesson, my students and I will be talking about you.

Thanks for the great idea,
Ethel Wilkey
5th grade teacher
Mattawan, MI

Shaunda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I thought that this was a very good reading and the idea of taking the dollar bill and the footprint and applying it to math was awesome. I would also include an activity using some type of manipulative and create our own footprints and try to find a way to may up some type equation using the people in the class. This was really a good idea.

Rebecca Anstadt's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a teacher of special education. I have found that visual aids provide so much reinforcement for students. They are able see the pictures and make connections to the visuals, rather than to words. When I was teaching my students about adjectives, I used both visuals and physical objects for the students to describe. They were able to see and feel the object and making a connection to the object to describe them, rather then describing a word they have read.

Holly Hurd's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach special education, life skills support, at the middle school level. I use a lot of visual aides in the classroom. The students really respond to having this visual to relate to the material they are learning. One activity I do on a weekly basis is the News-2-You newspaper publication. This discusses a current event and has a news report on it. I am able to take the topic and create visuals so that my students are able to fully comprehend the material and apply it to their life which helps with retaining the information.

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