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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

Rob's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I also like to use visuals as I teach. I also need it as well to better understand things. When I put things together, I need a diagram to better understand it as opposed to just words.
At times, I will read a book without showing the students any of the pictures and have draw what they are imaging or visualizing. I don't know if this would benfit a kindergartner, but the older kids seem to like it. i then have them share their pictures.

Terri's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm so amazed at how many of you have the technology to do so many wonderful things in your classrooms. I would love to use more technology in my room but honestly my district just doesn't have the money. I do have a projector and my own laptop...where to I start?

Melanie Lake's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Ginger,
I loved your idea of using the pictures/photographs for journal writing! I love the way it inspires the students, as a first grade teacher with beginning writers it is often so difficult for the students to come up with ideas and this sounds like it will really help. Come to think of it, when I do creative writing using pictures I really get much more content from my students. Pictionary sounds like fun too. Thanks!

Sherri Beshears-McNeely's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

On the topic of visuals, I love to use images to force metaphor making among students and adults. Posting a picture (art, photograph, sign, whatever) and asking students to make the connections between how what we are learning and the image posted causes delicious dialogue and meaning making. Likewise, I have stacks of postcards that I often have learners sort through to find an image that captures the essense of what we're learning. It's interesting how often the mind knows what it is looking for, even though the person sometimes doesn't. Once the image is selected, listening in to the ways people connect thought to image is simply fascinating...one of my favorite things to do with students of all ages.

Karen Waters's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Our district has provided our schools with 21st century technology carts that have truly helped our students to engage. I teach kindergarten and was unsure of how adept my students would be at utilizing the new technologies. They learned much more easily than I and some of my colleagues did. They can explore math concepts with manipulatives and are able to watch their work on the big screen. Other children consider their work in the meantime and may come and correct or enhance it when they are consulted. Educational flipcharts or other computer programs can be put on the screen to be easily seen by all for great visual stimulation while the promthean slate is carried to indivudual students by the teacher so they can manipulate the content of the flipcharts to interact with it. Their writing can be more eaily displayed for sharing with their peers who can see it so much more easily to respond with comments and questions. Students are much more engaged and excited to be participating. They are pretty proud of what they can accomplish using technology.

Jane Crim's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I recently read an article by Dr. Pat Wolfe, called "Brain Research and Education: Fad or Foundation?" Dr. Wolfe talks about the two types of memory which involve different brain structures. One type, called Declarative Memory, is our everyday memory, and it serves its purpose by helping us recall information. Dr. Wolfe says that "...elaborative rehearsal strategies are more effective for declarative." The visuals that we use with our students, along with writing, simulating, devising mnemonics, etc. are so effective in helping students learn. I am so encouraged to read about so many of my fellow teachers using techniques other than textbooks and worksheets!

Julie S.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach fourth grade. Visuals in the classroom are definitely instrumental in getting students interested and helping them to better understand foreign ideas. As the cliche goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. I use all types of visuals including photos, student work, graphic organizers, charts, graphs, and more. Learners need to be able to see what they are learning about. I love Dan Meyer's idea of using the pictures as a creative homework assignment in Math and using pictures to engage the students and strike conversation and debate during class. One idea that I had for using visuals is to help students learn the reading skill of visualizing stories in their minds. You can use pictures and have the students describe which aspects of the picture appeal to their five senses. Once they have come up with describing words, you can explain to them that this is the same way that books they are reading are describing to them the pictures that they should be seeing in their minds. You can also remind students that this is a good way to improve their writing to help their readers better understand the image they wanted them to see.

Lisa Berger's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a second grade teacher and I know from experience that I am a very visual learner. Knowing this I always try and incorporate visuals whenever explaning anything I teach. I was talking about llamas earlier today and most kids didn't know what it was and no matter how much I explained it I could see that there was no picture really in their minds. So, I went online and found some pictures and information about them and it turned into a mini lesson. Later that day one of my students just so happened to be reading a book and there was a llama in it. She was so excited to make the connection. I believe that using technology and visuals is so important to give students a concrete image in order to apply it to their lives.

Michel Barrios's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that at all levels the use of visuals produces very interesting results; it definitely enhances motivation as one of the main outcomes. I teach science to juniors at a High School where the student's learning style is mainly the visual learning style so I try to incorporate as many visuals in my lesson planning as possible, from demonstrations to You Tube videos with the use of a projector. In some way this is also a way to keep our teaching updated.

Cindy Perucco's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with this post - visuals often are the difference between the lightbulb going off or not in my classroom. As a fourth grade teacher, I find that I am constantly searching for ways to visualize things for my kids. I think that this has changed over the years in education, as children have become more and more visual due to a changing society.

Currently, I use an online global community website that is geared toward classrooms. My students are able to blog and email with students from around the world. There is such a huge difference from learning about ocean life from a textbook to getting first-hand photographs sent to us from a collaborating school. The students love posting to the blogs, where a small flag icon representing your country of origin shows up next to each post. They can scroll down and see where all the students that they are having a discussion with are from. It is such a great way for them to visualize the global community that they are involved in.

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