The power of sequential art in education

By Trev Wood and Stephanie Luo, Monash Education Innovation

Most of us think of comics as something we outgrew. It’s the medium of BAM POW men with their underwear on the outside and cats who hate Mondays, however with their ability to dynamically distill narratives and engage readers, comics (or sequential art if you don’t like comics’ pop cultural associations) are a great tool to have in your teaching toolbox.

Here are just two ways comics can promote learning.

Cognitive connections

Comics are a series of images combined to create a sequence or narrative. At their root they are fig. 1 and fig. 2 in a process diagram. Take a look at the sequence below. Each panel captures a single idea, concept, or movement. In between the panels are what we call the gutters. It’s the full stop, a place to process the first image before the next. It’s also the place where a reader's mind can create connections between the concepts of each panel. Independently the panels are ambiguous, a scream combining with shattered glass and an ominous splatter.

In learning this would be a cognitive leap and is important for relational knowledge, a hallmark of deeper learning.

It is however important to consider exactly how much information is needed to provide the appropriate amount of context to clearly communicate. By adding a panel we change and clarify the connection between our panels into something far less terrifying (unless you're a wine lover).

Check out Scott McCloud’s brilliant Carl in 52 as an example about how many panels you actually need to tell the story of “don’t drink and drive”.

Iconography

Like any artistic medium that isn’t photography/video there is always a level of simplification and stylisation in comics that can be used to great effect in teaching. Just as panels boil down a narrative down to key moments, iconography refines an image to key elements. Airlines use this to great effect, stripping out unimportant information to get you to focus on what IS important.

This simplification helps clarify as well as create a universality. Art Spiegelman uses this effectively with his Pulitzer prize winning graphic novel Maus which uses the iconography of mice and cats to depict Jews and Nazis in the concentration camps of World War 2.

Like any evolving artform, comics have developed a rich visual language which can show movement and the passage of time in a static image, a language that can work across cultural divides and tell rich and meaningful stories. It’s time to embrace this artform in your teaching.

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