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Teaching with Visuals: Students Respond to Images

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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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

Brandon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I like your use of visuals in the clasroom. I had an instructor when I was in high school that did something similar. I think this can also help you Jacqueline. My teacher started the lesson discussing the saying "pictures are worth a thousand words." She showed us an image of a woman who looked like a witch. We had to create a story about this woman using at least one thousand words. This is one project I do remember from this instructors class.

Donna Hargrove's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have recently begun to use visuals in the form of video clips in my 8th grade mathematics class. I use video clips from web sites like http://www.thefutureschannel.com as prompts for the topic of the day, or I use them to provide closure for a concept or standard. My students enjoy watching these clips, which last between two and six minutes. It provides them with the opportunity to see mathematics in action in ways they might not have considered.

I use PowerPoint for review activities as well as displaying examples and notes for the day. Not only does PowerPoint allow me to provide a more visually pleasing presentation for my students, but also it enables me to communicate with them face-to-face.

I really like the idea of presenting my student with a striking visual and asking them, as Dan Meyer asked his students, "What can you make of it?", especially in relation to what we have been discussing in class. However, I do not believe that I would limit their thinking by making any connections for them. I think (and I hope) that I would be pleasantly surprised by several of their responses and their efforts to connect it to the math on which we have been working. This is an idea that I plan to implement in my mathematics classes very soon.

Megan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a Pre-K teacher, so using visuals is often the base of my instruction. My first example is using visuals along with print to begin the process of word recognition. My classroom is covered with labels along with a picture to go with them. Because the children can't read yet, my focus is for them to associate the picture with the word. I also use visuals in most of my lessons. I have many picture cards that begin discussions. For example, last week I was doing a lesson on families, and I started by presenting a picture of a family and asked the children to tell me what they saw. This began a discussion on the different members of a family. I feel that using visuals in a Pre-K classroom is second nature, but I give the rest of you a lot of credit for being so creative and using them in the upper grades!

Jennifer Scheer-Tussing's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Ginger-
I also use visuals in my classs. I teach first grade and use lots of pictures for all subject areas including journal writing. Another example, is the use of maps. If I am reading a story that takes place in another country or state I show them where it is located on the map. I have found visuals to be very effective especially for my visual learners.

Caprice Richardson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I loved using visuals in my classroom. I found that my students were more engaged in learning, and that all my students mastered concepts faster. This was especially true for my reluctant, attention deficit, delayed learners. I used primarily powerpoint to introduce a concept and especially as a review tool for benchmarks in all subjects. My students really enjoyed it for math. You know that it works when the students themselves come in to class and ask if we are using powerpoint today. A Great Testament!!

Simone's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I also teach History and I incorporate the use of visuals as often as possible. I am very fortunate and lucky to have the resources available at my school site to enhance the learning experience of students. My classroom is equipped with a teacher computer, TV, DVD player, LCD projector, large screen, overhead projector, and a Smartboard.
Through and with the use of resources available, I use visuals to teach new information or to have students practice learned information through their own visual interpretations. The types of visuals I incorporate are video clips, PowerPoint presentations, photographs, collages, brainstorms, and storyboards to name some.
In addition to using visuals to teach about a new historical event, I also use them as a means for students to practice and process the information learned. For instance, after learning about the 1920s and the spread of advertisement, students apply their understanding by creating their own visual ad for a product.

Simone's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Visuals are great in enhancing the learning experience of all students.
As a history teacher, I attempt to incorporate visuals as often as possible - whether to teach new information or have students practice acquired information.

The types of visuals I use in my classroom range from PowerPoint presentations, to the use of photographs, or the use of art (especially when teaching about the Harlem Renaissance or the Renaissance), video clips, storyboards, and cartoons.

Whichever chosen method is incorporated in my lesson, I have observed that visuals as a way of assessing student understanding has also been helpful. For instance, after learning about Absolute Monarchs such as King Louis XIV, students could be assigned to draw a cartoon of their understanding of what life was like in France during such period.

brandon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Jennifer Scheer,

Where do you find your maps? I am a high school social studies teacher, and I often look for maps on the web. Finding maps on the web can be problematic. Often, the maps I am trying to find are not current or they do not fit the time period I am discussing in class. Do you have any helpful sites to offer?

Andrea's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Teaching kindergarten I can see where you are coming from. While reading this blog I was thinking about how unique these ideas that everyone came up with were. I teach an inclusion class with many ELL students so I use visuals each day to correspond with my lessons and help build background vocabulary. I also use the pictures to help get my students writing. Many times I will show them a picture, we will quickly discuss what we see and I will say now go write me a story about it. Coming up with these unique ideas in high school math classes is such a great idea. I wish my math teachers thought of this!

Nichole Tierinni's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would have to agree in that visual aids are touching all types of learners. We want our children to be exposed to many different types of experiences but if they have no idea what we are talking about a picture can activate their schemas.
I use visuals with almost every subject I teach. Pictures create a thousand words. I believe that using visual aids in the classroom is necessary in promoting student success.

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