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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

Jacqueline Nalls's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is great that Dan Meyer was able to come up with to teach math using visuals. Math is a weak area in my school system and we are looking for ways to improve. We also want to push students to a higher level of thinking.

I am looking for a way to use visuals in my language class. Could someone give me some ideas for language?

Brandon Q's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Primarily, I use visuals in my classroom on PowerPoint presentations. I teach history, so I show pictures of people, places, and things that are being discussed in class. I also place posters on the walls. During the school year, I have students create drawings and maps over key items and I place them up on the wall. Ultimately, I use visuals as references.

When my students view interesting images, they become intrigued and talkative. They want to share the meaning of the image, or its relevance.

I showed students images of Hoovervilles. My students were amazed that people in the U.S. lived in such poor conditions. I then showed images of homes of people living in third world countries. My students were shocked when they discovered that many people live in horrific conditions around the world.

Ginger's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Jacqueline,
I use visuals in my classroom all the time; it's a good way to reach all of your students, especially those that are visual learners.
I don't know what grade level you teach, but here is a suggestion that has helped with me before and it might just get your mind thinking in the right direction for your class.
Once for a journal entry, I simply put a picture on the board. This was something I took out of an old calendar and was a mountain setting. I had the students write a few sentences about the picture. I did not give them any instructions, just to write what you think and feel about what they see. The entries were wonderful and we shared them with the class. Students wrote describing what they saw in the picture, another wrote about the lighting in the picture, there were a few entries about what they would do if they were there at the spot of the picture, and so on. It gets there minds racing, promotes deeper and higher level thinking, uses their visual skills, creative writing abilities, and use of descriptive adjectives.
Try this for another fun Friday afternoon acitivity....Pictionary Junior...the kids will love it, but it promotes creative thought through the use of pictures that the kids draw themselves.
Good Luck!

Brandon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Will you give me an example of what you are doing in your language class? What is the age range? What do you wanting your students to learn?

I would be glad to provide you with some advice.

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