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Informal Learning and the Graphic Novel

June 25, 2012
Logicomix, Stuff of Life, Action Philosophers

Images via Wikipedia and

There’s a Graphic Novel About Plato?!

Actually, there’s a whole series of graphic novels about philosophers, the wonderful Action Philosophers series by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey.  There are graphic novels about DNA, about mathematics and mathematicians, about relativity, nuclear power, the writing of Alice in Wonderland.  You name the esoteric topic of scholarly interest and debate, the odds are that there’s a really well-done graphic novel (or series) out there about it.

I’ve had a sort of intellectual crush on this kind of book for quite a long time.  I first learned about the Holocaust from Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History series, especially the Cartoon History of the Universe, captivated me when I was just old enough to get a sense of how big the universe was.  And that’s not to mention that I learned most of my recent American history not from a class but from Doonesbury, of which I have a nearly complete collection starting with some of Trudeau’s comics from the Yale newspaper in the late 1960s.

It’s only in the past couple of years, however, that I’ve begun to introduce these books–and my passion for them–into my classes.  For a long time, I felt that they were not “serious” enough, that their pop style would convince my students that they didn’t need to use the formal, academic tone I was teaching them, that students would get “the wrong idea” about a subject, or a simplistic view.  It was only when I remembered that my own interest in such diverse subjects as history, mythology, and physics had been sparked by these books, and that I’d leaped from them to more, not less, complex understandings, that I thought I’d see what my students would do with them.

It turned out that they were learning dynamite, blowing holes in the students’ expectations about the subject matter.  They worked especially well when I put a yawn-inducing title like “Writing Proposals, An Introduction” on the syllabus, then brought out copies of these books and paired them with, for example, professional scientists’ research articles on similar topics (The Stuff of Life works particularly well for this–we looked at telomeres in one class and had a great time).  The students compared the styles of the pieces, looked for how each was directed to its audience, how they could use the graphic novel to help themselves learn to understand the high-flown scientific terminology.  It turned out that many of them had been turned on to science by PBS programs, touchable museum exhibits, and fun books, so playing with the language and communication of science was like a return to their childhood passion for the subject.

Playing Breeds More Serious Investment, Not Less

The keys for me, in evaluating whether the graphic novels were adding something valuable to the course or just making students happy because it was a species of “play time,” were three responses.

The first was the number of students who came up after class wanting recommendations (“Are there ones on physics?”  “What about engineering?”).  These students went out and found more to learn on their own, found more books that led them to play with ideas.  And students who did this, who went out and found graphic novels about their subjects, came back jazzed; one reported reading the entire book on the bus ride to the university.

The second indicator, for me, that the books were adding something to the class was the number of times students referred back to them in making points in class.  “Remember that DNA book?” they would say.  Even on the last day of the class, nearly three months after the books were discussed, when I asked each student to write up on the board something they’d learned in the course, a number referred back to the graphic novels, connecting them to issues ranging from “write for your audience” to “make it interesting.”  They actually remembered those lessons–and after all that’s not too surprising, given that those particular messages were related, in their minds, to images of strange extraterrestrial beings teaching each other about DNA (see The Stuff of Life).

Finally, the third indicator that the books were adding value, not just providing playtime, was that the students used the vocabulary they learned from talking about the books to write their proposals.  In peer review, for example, they would write things like, “Remember this isn’t a popular audience” and “think about tone and word choice”–issues we discussed using the graphic novels as examples.

Using Graphic Novels and Other Informal Techniques

There are a lot of informal learning opportunities out there for teachers and managers alike to use.  I find graphic novels particularly valuable because they bring an element of surprise, of fun, of the unexpected–and because once introduced to them, anyone who is interested can find hundreds more on their own.  Also, since they are texts (and not, for example, videos), they offer language and terminology that readers can then use to search for new information and to write their own pieces.  Also, there’s something about graphic novels that evokes childhood; you can imagine reading them lying on your stomach, under a tree, waving your feet in the air.

There are two important things to remember, though, to use graphic novels (or other “play” or informal texts) effectively, whether in the classroom or with your employees.

First, have a clear goal and set guidelines.  We didn’t just read the novels in class; we set out specifically to compare their styles of writing to research articles.  This was then clearly related to the goal of the day, which was learning about the proper styles and tones for different audiences.  Whether your goal is to inform your employees, to build group cohesion, to teach communication skills (and trust me, a graphic novel is great for this–any book that can explain Classical Philosophy or special relativity to a general audience through speech bubbles and pictures is modeling good communication), or what have you, make that goal clear and provide guidelines in meeting it.

Second, allow a lot of talking around whatever informal learning texts you choose.  Get groups together and find out what they’ve learned so that you can channel that learning to the overall goals.  Let your people talk about what they liked, where they went from the novel, what informal learning of their own they did as a result.  You will learn from them, they will be empowered to speak and think, and the least that could happen is improved cohesion and increased engagement.

Informal learning is absolutely necessary, especially for adult learners.  People need to be able to go off and find things out for themselves, and a “playful” starter text like a graphic novel can be a terrific way to introduce new concepts, especially if bounded by specific goals.

  1. What a great idea! Really takes the “ho-hum” out of reading research! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  2. Hi–thanks for reading! I do love graphic novels, and I was blown away by my students’ reaction to them. No more nodding without actually meaning to read the material, but pressing me for more information. A teacher’s dream, right?

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  1. Informal Learning and the Graphic Novel « Teaching/Management | Teacher Talk

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