Understanding Narrative; Creating Narrative
To new viewers, much of my time will be spent talking about visual literacy – the use and understanding of images (photos, paintings, drawings, charts, equations, and schematics) – in developing a rich, diverse knowledge-base, and for stimulating critical and creative thinking. Developing the skills to “read” an image is as complex, and as necessary, as developing the skills to read a story, an historical account, a poem, an equation, or a scientific text. When it comes to visual literacy, a picture is worth a 1000 words!
This month I’ll focus on narrative-building skills. One of the primary ways the human mind organizes data and builds understanding is through the creation of narratives. Writing a story, poem, or song usually involves building a narrative. History is all about organizing data into a narrative, or a series of intertwined narratives. Unpacking an equation is about exposing a narrative, be it 1+1=2 (how much do I have), or y=x2+2x-3 (how do 2 competing forces interact), or E=mc2 (how much energy is contained in a certain amount of matter) (please excuse the unformated exponents). And of course, science is also about building (and changing) narratives. For example, the Copernican revolution theorized a new center for the solar system, and consequently a new understanding of humanity’s place in the cosmos.
Most of the narratives we hold and use are incomplete. One of our primary jobs as teachers is to help students build better, more complete, more effective narratives, not just to do well on tests, but to be successful as responsible, knowledgeable, ethical human beings. And many narratives that shape our lives are semi-conscious or unconscious to us. The field of psychology is largely about unpacking the narratives of who we are, how we got to our current place, and how to change our narratives as a way to change the direction of our lives.
Here’s a great narrative building exercise to help develop visual literacy, and to stimulate critical, creative thinking. I’ll present the basic model, then show you a couple of different ways to use it in your classroom:
Collect 10-15 images (or: some text panels, some images) covering an historic period, or sequence of events in a novel/play (best to have a copy of an illustrated novel for this). Give one image/text panel to each student (or group of 2). Let students self-organize around the classroom in chronological order, but without talking or helping each other. Students will have to assess their image/text and its place in the historical sequence, comparing theirs to the other image/text panels.
This exercise can also be used for science classes, eg. images/text/equations showing the progress of a complex chemical reaction, the progression of a disease, an environmental process, stages of development.
Don’t lose this critical opportunity for learning: If one student (or a number of students) aren’t in accurate chronological order, don’t correct them. Rather, ask why they have chosen the position they’re in. Often they may have a good reason, even if they’ve misinterpreted the image, or not known the correct sequence. It becomes a non-embarrassing learning opportunity for everyone, allowing alternate interpretations, and opportunities for discussion and conceptual improvement. Students that are afraid of making mistakes will not be creative.
This active learning technique can also be used to promote creativity and narrative building. Give students a collection of “unrelated” images, 5-8 of them for middle school students. Put students in groups of 3 or 4 and have them create an order and a narrative for the images. Have students present their narratives and image sequences to the class, so groups can see the multiple narratives that a data-set can support. As an alternative, you can put the images in a sequence which plays as a slow slide show on a screen/active board. Let each student create a story/narrative to connect the images.
I have done this exercise with adults and students down to 6th grade. It’s a very effective learning tool that promotes creativity in an enjoyable context. It also develops visual literacy and sharpens writing skills.
Next month: I will build off these ideas into other active learning lessons.
Quick reads; provocative articles:
25 Signs You’re Teaching In 2015 (are you maintaining your pedagogical edge?)
Dr. Lisa Abel-Palmieri, Director of Technology and Innovation at The Ellis School, is a champion of innovation, design thinking, and creativity in STEM subject areas and the humanities. In her blog excellenceandinnovation.blogspot.com she writes regularly about how teachers at Ellis and across the world are integrating learning innovations to transform classroom experiences.
If you’re planning a visit to Washington, DC, don’t hesitate to contact me about our great museums and ways to explore them.
All the best,