Thursday, September 20, 2012

 Blog 6: Reading Sequential Art as a
Higher-Order Problem Solving Skill,
Part 1: Content

Graphic textbooks' main goal is to pass on information. In Part 1: Content, we will explore how graphic narratives communicate those skills in a story, and in out next blog, Part 2: Context, we will examine how the human brain interprets sequential art. 
Attitudinal instruction comics are all about slaying dragons. The hero (reader) is faced with a challenge (problem), and embarks on a quest to find the solution (answer). Along the way the hero is joined by a mentor and maybe a few friends (Chorus) who help him on his quest. Attitudinal instructional comics are what Joseph Campbell (1904–1987) refers to as monomyths, or, the hero’s journey (that is why there was a picture of Obi-Wan Kenobe and Luke Skywalker at the end of Blog #5).

Sometimes the reader is given a doppelgänger; someone to relate to in the story. In theater this is referred to as transpositionality. (Chew and Stead, 1999) The doppelgänger is created in order to evoke a sympathetic bond with the reader. When all we had was oral tradition, or radio dramas like The Shadow, the relationship between the hero and the listener was entirely in the listener’s imagination. With comics; however, the physicality of the hero is concretized to whatever degree of abstraction the illustrator(s) decides is best in order to tell the story. The less detailed a doppelgänger is; the more iconic it is, the more universally relatable it is. The concept is referred to as Amplification Through Simplification, and it was explained in great detail by Scott McCloud in his seminal work, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. (McCloud, 1993, 30) A great example of the use of this concept in comics is Jeff Smith’s extremely popular series, Bone.

Problem Based Learning

            Problem Based Learning (PBL) was developed by Howard S. Barrows (1928–2011) in the late 1960s. PBL is “an instructional (and curricular) learner-centered approach that empowers learners to conduct research, integrate theory and practice, and apply knowledge and skills to develop a viable solution to a defined problem’” (Savery, 2006, p. 12). Simply put, PBL is a form of scaffolding tool (Blog #5) in which the teacher (called a tutor in PBL) facilitates/guides the students through a series of complex problem-solving tasks and self-reflection. PBL is a powerful instructional approach, and has become the model for education at several institutions such as the University of Delaware. Queen Mary University in London uses PBL in their School of Engineering and Materials Science, and employs planned problem scenarios in their curriculum. Although they are acted out, planned problem scenarios, if they were illustrated, would be graphic narratives. How PBL varies from graphic textbooks is that PBL is, primarily, group-based learning. While the Chorus can substitute for that to a degree, when utilized as part of a classroom setting where a real teacher/tutor is present, graphic textbooks become an even more powerful educational tool.

            So how can we incorporate problem-solving strategies into graphic textbooks? Well, that all depends on the skill of writer, doesn’t it? Though there is no one-size-fits-all answer to that question, here are some problem-solving strategies to consider when developing graphic textbooks. Remember, with graphic textbooks, and especially graphic eTextbooks, the students can go outside of the narrative (suspend the narrative) to find the answers they are seeking in either the real or digital world. The following list is by no means exhaustive, and is simply meant to help you get an idea of the kinds of strategies that can be woven into a graphic textbook narrative. For a more comprehensive list, click on this link and look at Over Fifty Problem Solving Strategies Explained by John Malouff, Ph.D., J.D., found on the University on New England’s website.
Abstraction                                       Analogy

Divide and conquer                         Draw a picture or graph

Hypothesis testing                          Lateral thinking

Look for patterns                             Proof

Reduction                                         Root cause analysis

            After looking at these strategies scroll down to the end of Blog #6 to read two pages from the graphic textbook, Optical Allusions, and try to see what kinds of problem-solving strategies are used in the text. Click on the pages to make them larger!
Do Graphic Textbooks for Undergraduates Really Work?
Is There Any Quantitative Data?

            Yes! (to both)

            “Are Comic Books an Effective Way to Engage Nonmajors in Learning and Appreciating Science?” by Jay Hosler and K. B. Boomer is the first hard proof that graphic textbooks have a positive impact on learning at the college level. (CBE—Life Sciences Education, Vol. 10, 309–317, Fall 2011) The study used Hosler’s Optical Allusions to measure student’s attitudes about biology, comic books, and content knowledge. Optical Allusions was written and illustrated by Hosler, and supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). (Hosler, Juniata Voices, 44)

            Hosler and Boomer’s quantitative results were based on pre- and post-instruction testing across four classes. According to Hosler:

“I used it in Sensory Biology, which is traditionally a non-majors class composed primarily of freshmen and sophomores. This, of course, was the class for which the book was designed. I also tested it in Evolution (a 300-level course), which is usually a mix of sophomores and juniors, and in Neurobiology (a 400-level course), which is populated by second-semester seniors. The control was Biology 2, a 200-level course and the second course students take in the Biology sequence. The students in the control group did not read Optical Allusions but were exposed to the same concepts during the semester.” (Hosler, Juniata Voices, 45)

            The survey revealed:

1    A significant improvement was observed in the median content knowledge scores for all groups
2    Attitude scores towards biology showed a significant improvement overall, but Sensory Biology, the course comprised of mainly non-majors, showed a significant increase in student opinion towards biology.  Additionally, in Organic Evolution, students with pre-instruction content knowledge who scored at or below the class median had a marginally significant higher increase in their attitude toward biology, which suggests that the text may help engage those who initially know less content.
3    Students who reported an increase in attitude toward comics tended, on average, to show an increase in attitude toward biology.

            As with the EduComics study in Blog #5, Hosler and Boomer conclude that “we must assess whether these results suggest comics in general can be an effective pedagogical tool in the classroom or do they apply only to the book discussed here? Given the general appeal of comics, images, and stories, it seems likely we are talking about comics in general, but testing this with other comics will be an essential next step.” (Hosler & Boomer, 2011, 316)

Topics for Discussion

1) How do we initiate further testing?
2) What is standing in the way of graphic textbooks being used for undergraduate study? 

NEXT BLOG: Reading Sequential Art as a Higher-Order Problem Solving Skill, Part 2: Context


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