How to change this classroom habit we’ve gotten wrong for years


Teaching | Thursday, September 18, 2014

How to change this classroom habit we’ve gotten wrong for years

How to change this classroom habit we've gotten wrong for years
How to change this classroom habit we've gotten wrong for years

We have fallen in love with the bulleted list and the texty PowerPoint presentation. But our brain doesn’t work that way. Try this instead. (Image via Open Clipart)

For a long time, I’ve called myself the “King of the Stick Figure” in my own classroom.

If we’re telling a story in my Spanish class or practicing with vocabulary terms, they’re usually all over the board. They’re what I’d call “modified stick figures” or even “glorified stick figures” with accessories: shoes, hair, a cane, a top hat, etc.

(As soon as I branch out beyond stick figures, I lose my crown and my king status!)

It turns out that this practice, which you could loosely call “art,” was actually a better idea than I had ever imagined.

This idea called the picture superiority effect states that even your worst images – including my stick figures – can have a much greater impact than your greatest text-based presentation slides.

It’s based on brain research on how we encode our ideas in memory. Basically, dual-coding theory suggests that our memories are stored either as pictures or verbally. Using images has an advantage – it encodes those new ideas using both the picture route and the verbal route. Using words only gets remembered verbally.

Think of all of the resources that teachers have created over the years that work directly against this idea! We have fallen in love with the bulleted list on PowerPoint. We’ve made it a habit of writing down every word we want to say to our audience instead of just saying it.

In reality, if we’re looking for impact, we might have been doing it wrong all along. If we want to inspire, a bulleted list probably won’t do it.

I’d imagine there are two common doubts about using more pictures into the classroom, and I’ve used both of them myself:

I’m not an artist, so this won’t work for me.

Honestly, I’m not much of an artist either. I still rely heavily on stick figures and have to explain what some of my drawings are. That’s the beauty of drawing, though – if you tell your audience what a certain blob you just drew is, they’ll know going forward what to imagine it as.

If you don’t want to create your own custom drawings, that’s fine, too. There are terabytes and terabytes of images out there on the web that you can display. Chances are that you can find a picture that will work if you take a little time to “go fishing” for the right one.

Using pictures isn’t legitimate academic work.

I’ve had this thought before, and I’m not sure if others have, too, but I’ll bet so. I’ve thought that writing and reading are what we should be doing in the classroom. Those are the hallmarks of great education, and that’s what we should focus our effort doing.

But why do we read? To get ideas into our brains, right? Literacy is of great importance in every class, but if our brains try to eventually encode ideas as pictures anyway, why not start there sometimes? Some students are going to struggle to make a mental picture of what we’re talking about. If we can help them do what their brain is trying to do anyway, we have a chance to help kids learn things they might not think they could otherwise.

So, how do we create these pictures?

There are lots of options:

  • Creative Commons image searches. There is a huge trove of pictures that are licensed for reuse out there that teachers can tap into without worrying about violating copyright law. (Just remember to attribute your source!)
  • Drawing apps. I’m a huge proponent of the Paper app for the iPad by FiftyThree. I really think it makes what I create much prettier than anything I could draw on regular paper. It’s free, and you can save your work as an image file to the camera roll for use in other places.
  • Learn how to draw. I recently read “The Sketchnote Handbook” by Mike Rohde, and he has great practical tips on how to turn your ideas into images very simply. He suggests drawing people by making a rectangle for their bodies, lines for arms and legs and a circle for their heads. With that start, it’s very easy to make them fancier with clothes and accessories. He also says that practically anything you want to draw can be made from basic shapes (triangle, circle, rectangle), lines and dots.
  • Video creation tools. Moving pictures can be memorable, too! Tools like Powtoon and WeVideo can help you create videos online to share your ideas with your students. Of course, your students can create them as well.

Can you see ways to incorporate images into what you do in the classroom? Do you have any doubts? Share your thoughts in a comment below!

Ready to take your tech skills -- and student learning -- to another level?
Sign up for Tech to Learn online course! Just $49
Love this? Don’t forget to share
  • Thanks so much for the info. I just created a 1-take video with my own drawings yesterday. My drawings were terrible and I was skeptical about publishing it; however, they may be effective, as you have stated. THanks

  • Anna Davis says:

    I don’t draw, but I doodle. My power points are littered with little random figures or arrows. Whenever we tell stories, I always have jobs for students as artists. Even if they only sketch the bare bones of the story, it’s great for kids who need the visual along with the oral. I think my Spanish co-workers have picture PPTs for their stories, and that’s nice. But I get much more flexibility by having ours drawn than being stuck with the images I chose the night or week before. 🙂 As a bonus, if my artist stops drawing I know something’s gone wrong with the class comprehension!

  • Rachel Hall says:

    I just changed my lesson plan for tomorrow’s vocabulary activity. You are right. Plus the kids have more fun drawing and laughing at my drawings. Thanks for the great insight! (did you know you are visiting my school on MLK day? Amanda and I are super excited!)

    • Matt Miller says:

      Woo hoo … changed lesson plans! I love it! And the kids laugh at my drawings too … I’ll draw a freakishly long arm on someone, pause, look at it and then make fun of what I just drew. It works! (And I did know I was visiting then … and I can’t wait! Should be a great time!) (I think I just broke the “1” key with the exclamation point on it writing this comment …)

  • […] based on it. Take a picture of something relevant to class and start a conversation about it. Pictures are powerful and connect to our brain differently than words. Harness that […]

  • Joy Kidd says:

    Besides, if teachers draw more, we can get sweet positive feedback from the kids. “Mrs. Kidd, your elephant looks a little like an elephant! You’re getting better!”

  • Holly says:

    I need to draw my comment! Here’s what I’d draw: stick girl confused face with squiggles in speech bubble. Vs. little girls with aha smiley face with drawing in speech bubble. #heckyeahdualcoding

  • >