Another Dimension

Powerful ways to integrate visual storytelling in the classroom.

GUEST COLUMN | by Livia Mihai

credit-cypher-learning-neoThe first pop-up children’s book I ever touched was Little Red Riding Hood. I was a high school senior, and I had thought I was over the fairy tales phase. However, I was immediately impressed with this pop-up book.

The story was the same. However, the pop-ups made it different; they added another dimension to it. I envied the kids who had discovered Little Red Riding Hood through that book. I had discovered the story through a book with no pictures. Instead, I had to imagine everything. That wasn’t too hard, but the beautiful, dimensional images that appeared each time you turned a page made me imagine the story more vividly than ever, even as a high schooler.

How would you consider integrating visual storytelling in your instruction?

That’s the power of visual storytelling.

Sight is probably the most important sense involved in the learning process — no matter the age of the learner, nor the subject learned. The right visual cues in a course can spark greater interest and improve retention rates.

Combine this with storytelling, with its characters and plot, and this is what makes people want to know more about what will happen. When learners can visualize and identify themselves with the main character in a story, the engagement rates are always high. Do you know any teacher who wouldn’t want their students to be more engaged with the learning materials and better remember what they learn? I seriously doubt it.

So what can teachers do to integrate visual storytelling in their instructions? Here are the best options.

Visual storytelling through gamification

Kids of all ages love to play games. Even when games are about fractions, sorting mountains based on their height, or putting on an imaginary crown and reenacting historical battles, students love to be engaged.

Furthermore, games that allow students to gather points can make them want to progress more and more. Getting on the leaderboard makes them compete against others and challenge themselves. Showing off their badges and trophies, or unlocking extra levels, makes them feel proud of their results. But the best part of learning games is that the activity never seems mundane. A game — as simple as it may be — will always seem more exciting than any scientific paper with small text, ugly and hard-to-understand graphics, and lots of footnotes. Simply put, the colors and interactive elements are the superstars of learning.

How to apply visual storytelling in games

Most instructional games fall into two categories: Candy-Crush-like games and Mario-like games.

Candy-Crush-like games are all about repetition. Learning basic math — such as adding, dividing, fractions — could be wrapped in a space rocket passing by “math” stars, getting bigger with every right answer, and smaller with every wrong answer from the student. Repeat, repeat, learn.

Mario-like games let you take a step further and include storytelling. Mario follows a path, and he gathers gold coins while trying to avoid deadly obstacles to save a princess held captive by a dragon. You can take any element of this simple storyline and adapt it to your educational game and your subject.

For example, if you’re a geography teacher, you can create a game where a student needs to find the best soil to plant a special species of an orchid. He or she can try the Canadian tundra, the watery soils of Bangladesh, the Sahara desert, or the Amazonian jungle. The student becomes the main character, and he or she must think, practice, and adapt to the different specifications of each type of soil until they find the right one and plant the flower.

Integrating visual storytelling through gamification may not be possible for all courses, subjects or all types of games. But when it is, students will have fun while learning, and, even if they don’t realize it, they’ll appreciate it.

Let students be visual storytellers

If scientific studies have small text, ugly and hard-to-understand graphics, and lots of footnotes, then homework can be dreadful. I think plenty of students can agree with me on this. And as if spending most of their day in school isn’t enough, students have to spend another couple of hours at home doing homework.

One second-grade teacher from Texas is famously experimenting with a no homework policy. I can’t wait to hear about the results at the end of the school year. If a no-homework policy is not an option for your class, you can at least make homework interesting from time to time with storytelling.

How to get started

Whenever you take your class to a local museum or art gallery, encourage students to pay attention to the exhibits they see and take as many pictures as possible — when it’s allowed. Then, as homework, you can ask them to do a visual story about their trip and what they learned.

A website like UtellStory can come in handy. Anyone can create an account, upload pictures, and record their voice telling a story.

If you’re a history teacher, another great idea would be to ask your students to work in groups and to create an interactive poster or board about a historical event, such as the Boston Tea Party. They must use the characters they’ve learned about in class and explain how one action led to another, and how everything came together to become the historical event. Glogster, Padlet, and similar websites or apps can assist with this. They’re all easy to use.

Dreadful homework? Not anymore. Your students probably won’t even realize that they are spending more time than usual to do this kind of homework. How would you consider integrating visual storytelling in your instruction? What other examples can you think of? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

Livia Mihai is the Content Manager at CYPHER LEARNING, a company that specializes in providing e-learning platforms for organizations around the world.

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