The benefits and risks of comics in education

This doesn't come as a surprise to a lot of us, but a recent study confirms what's been theorized for years: Comics are a stronger learning tool than text books. It's gratifying to see for the already-converted, but it should also be a strong signal to publishers and educators that the recent exploration of comics in schools is the right way to go. After all, the brain processes images 60,000 times faster than it processes text.

Image-based storytelling is a powerful educational tool. Comics are probably more able to combine story and information simultaneously, more effectively and seamlessly, than almost any other medium. Just look at how easily we superhero fans memorize our favorite character's power levels, sound effects, costumes and history. I could chronologically sort Cyclops' outfits over the past 50 years faster than I could list the first 10 presidents of the United States. Why? Because there is a colorful narrative in comics form tied to Cyclops that captured my imagination when I was young. Meanwhile, there was a dry narrative tied to the U.S. presidents, probably more like a litany of facts occasionally brought to life by a good teacher. That doesn't mean a history comic needs to give George Washington a ruby-quartz visor and Spandex, of course (although that would be pretty awesome!). U.S. history is actually pretty crazy and interesting on its own, but the engagement level will increase exponentially if we actually experience the story of Washington crossing the Delaware. And not just the one moment (already captured by Emanuel Leutze's iconic painting) but the sequential moments before, during and after, which builds understanding and context, not just temporarily memorized facts.

History might be the easiest, but this approach can also be brought to English (time and again, teachers are saying reluctant readers love comics), science and math. OK, I admit creating story narratives for math is tough -- that was always my worst subject -- but I'm sure someone much more capable than me is doing it right now.

And that's the good news. People are already working on these kinds of things. They're already out there to be read! But the above study shows that people are  just now understanding how useful they could be. The education sector of comics is ripe for a boom if not it's already in the early stages of one. The article about the study already hints at what is likely to follow: more and more comics in education, from grade school to grad school.

There's also a great potential to incorporate interactive elements into digital versions, so that more information can be presented on certain items on a page. Or audio of a historic radio broadcast can be part of the story. Really, the possibilities are limited only by the creators' imaginations as to how to find new ways to create a rich experience that is interesting to explore for students.

Another benefit is that kids will once again be raised on the language of comics. In my work with Dig Comics, we did street interviews with people passing by. and we were startled to learn how many really don't get how to read comics. It reinforced that comics are a language unto themselves. The language is mostly intuitive, especially for young or developing readers, but if you never acclimated to it as a child, you may have a hard time navigating the simultaneous streams of information. The growing number of comics in schools is an amazing antidote to this problem for future generations. And I have no doubt that this is going to pay back in huge dividends not only with a larger pool of readers but with a larger pool of creators that both bring perspectives to comics we haven't see a lot in the past. This could actually do more to bring comics reading back to the mainstream.

But as with any educational tool, there are risks. Using stories to teach brings up a potential for story content to be seen as inappropriate for certain age groups. Controversial topics come up in school, and comics can offer a unique way to address them if they're handled with care. Educator Anastasia Betts (who first told me the fun fact above about the brain's speed in processing images) recently wrote an article for teachers considering potentially controversial comics for the classroom. I was happy to see the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund pick up on it and re-post it for its readers. The more resources we give teachers, the better prepared they'll be at not only navigating potentially controversial material, but the use of comics overall. In fact, Betts does a monthly column for The Comics Observer with that exact purpose in mind. Because we may know the ins and outs of comics, but teachers interested in using this relatively new educational tool may not. There will always be growing pains, but the benefit both for educating and for the comics industry is too great.

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