Comics in Education: Benefits and attitudes
Many researchers and educators have been advocating the idea of implementing comics in the classroom due to how appealing and motivational comics can be in a learning environment. Indeed, a number of experiments and observations showed that comics are effective in engaging the learners to the lesson. Yet, other studies revealed that teaching with comics is still a challenging endeavor. This is due to the attitudes that teachers and learners may have towards the material.
The following article is an attempt to report and review the studies that dealt with the educational advantages of comics while illustrating with examples of comic titles that addressed issues congruous with the claims of the mentioned works. It also discusses the shortcomings by addressing the attitudes and challenges that this medium can represent in the educational context.
The definition of comics
The very first question to ask is how to define the keyterm comics. Popular culture enthusiasts have long been giving attention to this medium and considering it an art form. One of the most influential comic artists and theorists Will Eisner referred to it as “sequential art” that conveys narrative information to the reader through visual storytelling. 1 It may or may not contain words and when it does, it is usually in the form of captions to lend voice to the narrator or speech bubbles to show the discourse of the characters. Comics have distinct language that makes it stand out from other art forms. These include icons, pictorial runes, panels, page layout or external compositional structure, speech balloons, captions, sound effects, etc. All of these elements are combined to create a story in the form of a sequence making it appealing to the readers. In this context, Scott McCloud defined comics as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence.” 2
The image below displays and defines the components of comics that contribute to the creation of its language.
The benefits of comics as a learning tool
First and Foremost, comics proved to be effective pedagogical materials in developing learning and literacy skills. Frey and Fischer revealed that using graphic novels in class developed the learners’ writing skills. They discussed the dialogues, vocabulary, and ideas found in the comics and that led to generating more ideas about the invoked themes and coming up with complex sentences. The visual stories helped understand the author’s mood and tone. The learners became motivated to “explore more sophisticated word choice.” Implementing graphic novels also encouraged the teachers to create more writing activities based on them. 4 Similarly, Leon and Cardenas asserted that implementing comics in the classroom improved reading comprehension skills, particularly vocabulary and narrative plot. As a narrative text, it also helped raise motivation and interest in the story. 5 In the same vein, Zsuzsanna deduced that students could recall words better with comics unlike students who underwent traditional text conditions. 6 Vinoliya claims that comics ameliorate linguistic intelligence in that learners seem to learn more vocabulary, pronounce words correctly, and make usage of appropriate grammar. 7
Along the same line of thoughts, connecting concepts with the visual context of comics allowed students to build knowledge in multiple modalities. This entails that comics promote learning and develop literacy skills. In fact, Bolton-Gary experimented with comics in her class and found out that they aided her students in biochemistry by “provid[ing] cognitive-psychological and pedagogical-technical effects.” 8
Notwithstanding, the researchers have only applied the aforementioned studies in specific contexts, mainly in Western environments including the United States and Europe making it challenging for the results to be generalizable and applicable to African populations, for example. These latter tend to be inexperienced with this material and that would be hard for teachers and learners alike to get familiar with comic-based curricula. Besides, the authors did not address different learning styles and how some learners may not feel motivated despite the appealing nature that comics offer to the readers. These types of learners may be more inclined towards novels and books or they may learn best by watching videos. They mainly focused on the potential of comics without paying attention to their limitations.
Comics and critical thinking
As far as critical thinking skills are concerned, Krusemark ascertained that comics make readers think outside the box to teach them about life lessons, develop their cognitive skills, foster their reading motivation and imagination, grow their vocabulary, and engage them with art appreciation. Learners can discuss a myriad of debatable topics using comics and that would automatically invite them to think critically of a particular theme or issue.
“Randolph-Seng and McKenny (2013) found that a graphic text approach, as opposed to a traditional textbook, encouraged readers to engage in a storyline, assess the situation, and update their evaluations all while considering content.” 9
As the author of this article claimed, the study targeted comic readers and did not consider how non-comic readers may use critical thinking when reading comics about leadership. This undoubtedly creates a shortcoming that dismisses non-comic readers and that results in considering to include them in a future research to make the findings more reliable. In fact, non-comic readers most probably outnumber comic readers in the classroom and that makes it even more appropriate to conduct a study on how the majority use critical thinking skills in comics.
To illustrate with manga, Heads by Higashino Keigo and Mase Motoro 10 tells a story of a young man who got shot in the head while attempting to save a little girl during a robbery. He eventually undergoes a brain transplant whose donor is the criminal himself. The main character gradually becomes perplexed and torn between two personalities, his own personality which is kind and loving and the donor’s which is rebellious, rude, and aggressive. The protagonist discovers the mystery of his operation and realizes that the donor who is also the criminal that shot him was in rage against the banker who sabotaged his mother, which made their life a living hell. The fact the criminal himself chose to have his organs donated after his death makes him someone who is not inherently evil even though he appeared to be so while attempting a robbery and a murder. Of course, this does not mean that criminals are allowed to do however they please. Everyone must be responsible for their behavior in society no matter how they feel. The point of this story is to simply understand that most humans are fluid beings who cannot be labeled as inherently evil or good. This is definitely a critical point of view that would spark a debate on morality and whether we can control the way we are with the brain we have and the experiences that shape our individuality.
The picture above shows the choice of the main character after undergoing this chaotic experience that a medical surgery caused. He pointed two guns to his head to kill both brain hemispheres which represent a part of him and his donor. Both characters have merged into one and decided to put an end to this misery. This is a tragic end and it reveals how inhumane and unethical the operation was. This is also a painful lesson that sometimes dying is better than living in hell. Death is natural; it can happen anytime and through different causes, whereas trying to preserve life in cruel conditions is unacceptable and unfair.
Comics and emotional intelligence
What is more intriguing about comics is that research further indicates that they have potential to foster emotional intelligence competence. The manga Heads mentioned previously helps its audience recognize that experiencing reality from others’ perspective can facilitate empathizing with them on a deeper level and understanding their struggles. Bolton-Gary asserts that comics have the potential to release emotions of a particular problem by creating a positive environment of learning. In her experiment, the way learners perceive the course has changed thanks to the implementation of comics in the classroom in that it generated more enjoyment and intrigue. Actually, comics promote empathy by helping students relate to the characters’ struggles.
One example is Craig Thompson’s autobiographical graphic novel Blankets 11 in which he tells the story of his life with a Christian community. The reader can relate to the ups and downs the main character goes through as in how he was struggling in his relationship with his first girlfriend and how he had to go to the camps to be taught about Christian principles. Most importantly, one can empathize with his pain of growing up in poverty. Another example would be American-Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang. 12 This graphic novel tells the story of a Chinese child who moved with his family to an all-American neighborhood and in which the child has to fit in at school while enduring the bullies. The reader, here, can feel how being different can be tough particularly in a homogeneous environment. Similarly, Mirion Malle published a graphic novel entitled This Is How I Disappear 13 depicting mental health problems like trauma and depression. It is a novel that makes the reader sympathize with the feelings of the protagonist even if they have not experienced these kinds of mental issues before.
Attitudes towards comics
Even though comics have proved to be valuable tools in education and teaching, attitudes toward their implementation in the classrooms remains controversial. This is due to how they are perceived as an art form in the first place. In fact, they used to be considered artistically insignificant because of the juxtaposed pictures and words nature of comics, the low-quality literary form compared to literature, their belonging to “low” art of caricature, and the stereotype of them being targeted to children only. Nowadays, comics are gaining attention worldwide that even “universities are teaching comics. It’s now part of the culture without having to be something to apologize for.” In this regard, it is possible to wonder why this shift in the way comics are perceived. Weiner explains this rise by stating four counter reasons including more movies are being based on graphic novels, there are more publications of literary graphic novels, novelists are getting involved with the medium by joining the industry to “explore serious literary novels,” and the media is giving it more attention. 14
Accordingly, comics started becoming even more popular and educators began using it in pedagogy. Kachosrky addressed this issue to observe how teachers and learners perceive comics in the classroom. In the science class, the teacher perceived comics as a tool while the learners saw it as entertainment. The English class, on the other hand, the teacher was hesitant to label comics either as a medium or a traditional form of literature. The learners, however, thought it was simply a medium. Therefore, “different positionings of the comics proved meaningful in different contexts and with different participants.” The researcher concluded that there is a clash between teacher’s objectives for using comics and their literacy practices, teachers and students did not perceive comics in the same way, and traditional methods kept controlling the lessons even with the use of multimodal texts. 15
The limitations of comics
In addition to the problematic attitudes towards comics that are mentioned previously, this medium still has other limitations including how it can seem confusing for some learners, particularly those who are inexperienced with it. Likewise, the connection between words and pictures can lead to misinterpreting information due to how complicated it can be for certain types of learners. In some countries where comics are not that popular, there is a limited number of comic books and buying them can be extremely expensive. This makes them almost unavailable in markets and that inevitably leads to their difficulty to gain access to classrooms. What is also important to consider is that comics are mostly effective for visual learners. Auditory and kinaesthetic learners may find it uninteresting or challenging to study using this material. However, this invites more research to be conducted to assume whether such a claim is valid or not.
So what should be done?
Consequently, more research needs to be conducted on comics in language teaching and pedagogy as a whole. This will impact the development of curricula by including comics in the educational programs and textbooks. This should be applied in foreign language contexts as well while considering the cross-cultural effects that may influence the teaching environment. For instance, using comics among a cultural group that is inexperienced with the medium may hinder the learning process. Yet, this does not mean educators and researchers motivated to implement comics in the classroom should drop the idea and continue sticking to traditional methods. These latter can propose remedies by offering training to the teachers to apply comic-based intervention programs and introducing students to the medium and helping them understand its idiosyncratic features.
In a word, comics can develop literacy, linguistic, emotional intelligence, and critical thinking skills making them a highly significant material that is worthy of attention and consideration to be included in education. Despite witnessing tremendous positive changes, ambivalent attitudes toward this art form continue to dominate and hinder the way teachers and students are supposed to perceive them. This entails that educators interested in comics should work on changing these perceptions and raising awareness about the benefits of comics.
- Eisner, W. (1985). Comics and sequential art. Poorhouse Press. ↩
- McCloud, S. (1993). Understanding comics. Kitchen Sink Press. ↩
- Differenceengine. (2018). Elements of a comic strip [image]. https://differenceengine.sg/for-educators/elements-of-comics/ ↩
- Frey, N. & Fisher, D. (2004). Using graphic novels, anime, and the internet in an urban high school. English Journal, 93(3), 19-25. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/4128804 ↩
- León, A.P.M., & Cardenas, B.A.C. (2018). Improving reading comprehension through comics as a narrative text [Bachelor’s thesis, Corporación Universitaria Minuto De Dios Education Faculty]. https://core.ac.uk/reader/323208960 ↩
- Zsuzsanna, K. (2017). The possible benefits of using comic books in foreign language education: A classroom study. Képzés és gyakorlat, 15, 243-260. ↩
- Vinoliya, D.A. (2016). Implementing comics in ELT in primary schools. Indian Journal of Applied Linguistics, 6(6), 281-3. ↩
- Bolton-Gray, C. (2012). Connecting through comics: Expanding opportunities for teaching and learning. US-China Education Review, 389–95. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED533545 ↩
- Krusemark, R. (2015). The role of critical thinking in reader perceptions of leadership in comic books. Sequential Art Narrative in Education (SANE), 2(1), 1-25. ↩
- Keigo, H., & Motoro, M. (2003). Heads. Young Sunday (Weekly). ↩
- Thompson, C. (2003). Blankets. Top Shelf Productions. ↩
- Yang, G.L. (2006). American-Born Chinese. First Second Books. ↩
- Malle, M. (2020). This is How I Disappear. Drawn and Quarterly. ↩
- Williams, R. (2008). Image, text, and story: Comics and graphic novels in the classroom. Art Education, 61(6), 13–19. ↩
- Kachorsky, D.P. (2018). I am not Prometheus: Traditional literacy and multimodal texts in secondary classrooms [Unpublished doctoral thesis]. Arizona State University. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/158457042.pdf ↩
What do you think? Leave a comment.