Comics in Education: An Unflattening View

Consider the wide adoption and success of Instagram – are we entering a new visual culture where people express themselves through graphics as much as through writing? How does this affect business and research communication? In this article we take a look at comic strips as a  way to tell a story, state an argument or explain processes for educational purposes. Consider the following two examples:

Nick Sousanis is an assistant professor of Humanities & Liberal Studies at San Francisco State University. He received his doctorate in education at Teachers College, Columbia University in 2014. Hewrote and drew his doctoral dissertation entirely in comic book form.  Entitled “Unflattening”, it argues for the importance of visual thinking in teaching and learning. Its innovative and accessible approach is reflected in the awards that it has received: the 2016 American Publishers Awards for Professional and Scholarly Excellence in Humanities, the Lynd Ward Prize for best Graphic Novel of 2015, and a nomination for an Eisner Award for Best Scholarly/Academic work. Other scholars have also started to use comics within approaches to teaching and learning.  European projects such as  Educomics provide tools and teaching material for students and instructors to critically use and disseminate. With over 4,000 Twitter followers (@Nsousanis), he has an active social media footprint, and you can follow his work on his personal blog Spin, Weave and Cut

In October 2017, Jamie Markham, Professor of Public Law and Government at the University of North Carolina published a comic book titled ‘In Prison: Serving a Felony Sentence in North Carolina‘. The comic follows an inmate from the moment the sentence is pronounced to the day post-release supervision is completed, explaining where and how the time will be served. The book’s audience are citizens who engage with the criminal justice system – as crime victims, defendants, or their family and friends.The illustrations help translate the complicated inner workings of a criminal judgment into a real-world explanation of where and for how long a person is likely to be incarcerated. Markham also uses other media to teach about sentencing corrections. He writes for the North Carolina Criminal Law Blog, hosts a YouTube channel (Sentencing Whiteboard), and has more than 4,000 followers on Twitter (@jamie_markham).

Why is visual language important in the digital era?

Visual literacies are important for several reasons.  First, visuals are the language of the 21st century, the language of the internet, in which ‘images talk about images’ and they are universally understood – seeing becomes synonymous with understanding (Boaler et al.2016). From marketing to data visualization, from business communication to digital humanities, and self-branding, all are based on some sort of visual representation either for educational purposes, dissemination of information or even depicting arguments as in the visual thesis of Nick Sousanis and his concept of unflattening: 

‘’Sousanis suggests that we expand our worldview by finding different perspectives, like Hermes flying into the sky on winged sandals. This metaphor works well and is expanded on by Sousanis throughout the book as he introduces Plato, Eratosthenes and Descartes, and their ways of interpreting the world around them. Leaving Plato’s cave and seeing the world beyond the shadows on the wall is akin to Hermes taking flight. I’m not sure if this is intentional but the title also alludes to the process of ‘flatting’ in comic books. This is the first stage of colouring a comic, the process of blocking out areas before tone, shade and nuance can be added. Sousanis’ book may be flat pages just like a book of text, but he uses visual metaphors to explain his ideas and add nuance’’ (Wilkins & Herd, 2015).

Web Comics

According to Educomics project and research the advent of web technology, web comic books is regarded as a promising, instructional medium. Web Comics is a plurimedia medium that combines text and imagery as well as hypermedia and streaming elements. Web comics can be interactive means for studying as well as for self-assessment. Students having read some pages of the web comic book, could be asked to respond to an online assessment test which could offer scaffolding to difficult scientific disciplines and concepts.  Examples of these tools are Web Comic Book Creator from ITisArtCoSy Comic Strip Creator and Make Beliefs Comix.

Promoting peace through Edu-Manga

The Kyoto-Seika University in Japan aims at aspiring to contribute to world peace through manga.   “Manga is a universal language,” says Keiko Takemiya, a leading manga artist and professor in the Comic Art Course.  She claims that expressing your thoughts and feelings through manga is similar to speaking a language and we will soon arrive at an era in which drawing manga becomes a global communication tool.  Manga are used to teach mathematics (Calculus and statistics), languages and sciences.

Comics and learning disabilities

Comics seems to help people with learning disabilities such as dyslexia. Dysbooks provides comics, manga and graphic novels for dyslexia readers and writers. They claim that graphic novels, comics, magazines and manga can be great mediums for dyslexics. First, the pictures help the reader keep track of the plot or subject. Having less words to read per page can make these mediums less stressful for dyslexics and allow them to finish much faster and easier than they would a standard book. In addition, dyslexics can struggle to remember the details of stories they are reading because of short term memory problems. Often dyslexics have difficulty in remembering names but not faces, for instance. Many dyslexics claim that their preferred thinking style primarily uses images. Books which use pictures as well as text are far more accessible to this type of dyslexic (though not all dyslexics experience this).

To sum up, research and praxis seems to agree that comics as a genre, if used effectively in education, could be a new communication tool that could promote engagement, understanding, self-expression and assessment. It could facilitate learning for those who experience learning obstacles and promote awareness of social issues. Educators may need to learn this language to implement it and trigger the attention of the students as the British council (UK) suggests.

References

Boaler, J, Chen, L, Williams, C, & Cordero, M, (2016). Seeing as Understanding: The Importance of Visual Mathematics for our Brain and Learning, Journal of Applied & Computational Mathematics, Retrieved from https://www.omicsonline.org/open-access/seeing-as-understanding-the-importance-of-visual-mathematics-for-our-brain-and-learning-2168-9679-1000325.php?aid=80807

Sousanis, N. (2015). Unflattening. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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