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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

Mike F's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I also teach history and agree one hundred percent that visuals in history stimulate thinking. When you are talking about hundreds or even thousands of years ago, it helps to be able to "paint a picture" of what they are learning about. I frequently have them draw out what they learn as well.

Mike's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach 7th grade world history and if I didn't try to stimulate the student's thinking with visuals I don't know what I would do. It is very difficult to get kids interested in current events, let alone things that happened hundreds and thousands of years ago. The students seem to show a genuine interest and love for history when they can make connections through visual aids. When we talk about the Roman empire I give them pictures of the emperors. They also use a program called Comiclife to create their own comic strips. They also like to watch video clips from united streaming to gain a better understanding. When we covered the Great Wall it was difficult to put into words the massiveness of this structure. By showing them a video clip, I was able to graner the ooh's and ah's that it deserves.

Renee Gregory's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach kindergarten and always try to incorporate a lot of visuals into my lessons. Whether its maps, graphs, pictures, etc. anything to give them a visual. I have noticed that students are more engaged and can remember more if I read a story with pictures than one without pictures.

Angey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Brain Research strategies are becoming more prominent in today's classrooms. Some of the strategies that are implemented into the classroom are very effective, while others fail. One such research I am familiar with is the use of different scents for different content areas. For instance, I may use a lemon scent while teaching Language Arts but use peppermint for math. I am interested in learning more about any strategies you have implemented yourself and whether or not they were successful.

Jennifer 2nd grade's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love using visuals as story starters too. We especially like to focus on the faces to work on understanding how the character might be feeling and infer what might be happening. Kids love to just tell a story about their picture before writing about it. This is a great way to help them organize their thoughts. It is also much less intimidating for the hesitant writer. Then once they've told you a story about the picture, it's easier to get them to write it down.

Lisa Bloom's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I have just recently learned about thefutureschannel.com. I would love to hear even more specifically how you have used the clips with your 8th grade math students if you have time to share.

I was impressed with Dan Meyer's ideas as well. It has given me some things to think about. I am really trying to focus on "hooking" students with relevance this year.

Alena Byers's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I totally agree with you Megan! I teach Kinder so I usually start with a big book to introduce a lesson or pictures to start a discussion and transition it to a lesson. Kids are drawn to visuals and can automatically respond to those with an experience. Many students know the McDonald's arches before they even see the food place! Visuals are excellent for associating learning through pictures. I use the same method you do for attaching word labels to items, colors, etc. in my classroom. it definitely generates the kids' knowledge that words do have meaning to many things we see.

Shannon Riley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I just moved to a new district that has projectors in the classroom and I am loving it. I have come up with so many different ways to present materials and lessons. I started making a vocab book using Inspiration. I let the kids come and pick out pictures that will help them remember the meaning of the words. They love being able to choose pictures and it has turned into a very engaging lesson each week. The use of visuals has helped them remember the content of what I am teaching.

Lisa Currey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Visual aides are a great idea! I try and use picture books with many of my math lessons because it seems to grab students attention more and make a connection for many of them. It gives them the chance to see get a picture of what the lesson might be about. After the story is read, I then try to use manipulatives where possible so the children can grasp the concepts even more with a hands on experience. Megan, I also like your idea of using words all over so that children will associate the words with the pictures. I run a daycare/preschool and was thinking about doing that same thing. Thanks to all of you for your great ideas.

Mary M.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Visuals are a great tool and they absolutely provide yet one more avenue from which to help students learn. I teach 6th grade math/science and I use visuals as often as I can. Currently my classroom has pictures of volcanoes, earthquakes, and other natural hazards/disasters in different stages of "blowing up". Some are pictures I printed, others are photographs, and others are actual pictures my students drew. They are amazing. We make them bigger up, use them on the overhead, and some of my students taught during a class period and actually used their own drawings on overheads to explain different types of volcanoes, such as dormant, extinct, and how they function. It was great.
I also use visuals during math whether it is a word problem, brain teaser, math maze, or simply a picture of the Taj Mahal to illustrate perfect symmetry. We also created a word water fall as a class on one of my bulletin boards. The students generated a list of math words, typed them up, and then they illustrated them. They used all sorts of different pictures and objects to "show" what a decimal is, or to explain place value, variables, exponents, etc. Again, they have fun and we learn something along the way. I would have to say that this is a "win win" situation.

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