Visuals and the Classroom: A Winning Combination

4 Min Read  •  Classroom Setup

“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.”

Believe it or not, this is a quote from a ninth-grade remedial algebra teacher, Dan Meyer.  He was describing what happened when he was given a projector in 2005.  It inspired him to find pictures and videos that related to his math topics.

Visuals and the Classroom: An Epiphany

As educators, we all know that the learners before us all have their strengths and that using a visual modality increases the chances of engaging more students in the learning and ultimately come to a better understanding.  I have written about VTS (Visual Thinking Strategies) on its own and in conjunction with tableau.

Other Education Closet writers have suggested ways to use images in the classroom like Amanda Koonlaba suggesting illustrating vocabulary or Pat Klos explaining how to deepen understanding of math through visual art. These are all great approaches to using images in the classroom.

Dan Meyer made this use of image a mission when he was classroom teaching.  (He left teaching to earn a PhD in Education from Stanford.)  I was so enthralled that I dug a little deeper and discovered a TEDx talk, a quick education video containing some great examples of his approach and his keynote address at the CUE (Computer-Using Educators) Conference in 2014.  Definitely worth checking out!

What he said in these videos opened for me a whole new way of thinking about images and how they can be used, as he says, not to engage but to perplex.  His goal is to find and share perplexity in the world with his students so he can then give them the tools to resolve it.

Real World Problems

I often talk about bringing in real-world problems for our students to solve.  Meyer shows how he actually uses the textbook as a source of such real-world problems.  Then he alters them so that his students want to find the answer before he actually shows them how.

For example, Meyer liked a word problem about filling a tank with water that was in the textbook.  The problem, as he sees it, is that the book provides all the information the students need to solve the problem and then breaks the process down step-by-step, removing all the wonder and problem-solving!

To create a perplexing situation, you could take away some of that information and just provide the illustration with the question, “How long will it take for the tank to fill?”  The students would then have to talk about what information they would need to solve the problem and you are off and running.

But Meyer took it even a step further.  He found a tank that resembled that which was in the problem in the book and then actually took a video of filling it with a hose.  The process was taking so long he didn’t even need to pose the question.  It was his students who said, “How long is this going to take?”  And the pump was primed!

Shooting for the Stars

Myer took video of himself shooting baskets, modified the video to show the trajectory of the basketball toward the hoop and then stopped the video ½ way.  Of course, the students were dying to know whether the ball actually made it through the hoop.  So, Meyer had them make some predictions and then taught them how to use parabolas to find the answer without having to watch the rest of the video.

He used this same approach with the idea of paddling upstream.  Recorded himself walking UP an escalator, he had students predict how long it would take him.  He freed the students up from fear of being wrong by asking them to intentionally make wrong predictions – predictions that would be way too short a time period or way too long.  Now they had a window within which to work and their brains were already working at the problem.

Meyer’s approach is not so much about the image itself but the perplexity it offers.  Art-making, by its very nature, can also provide this type of perplexity. If we can use images, art and effective questioning to have students grapple with perplexity regardless of the subject throughout the school day, imagine what lively and rich places of learning our schools could become!