Improving Student Ability in Interpreting Visual Sources through Action Research, pp. 2 of 14

Various strategies were undertaken by teachers in the school to address student difficulties when interpreting political cartoons and other pictorial sources but these achieved little success. Some of the strategies discussed included the initiative to re-teach the SBQ format and structure answers for students, and another involved exposing students to as many pictorial sources as possible and engage them in standard SBQ-based “drill and practice” approaches to analyze sources. Despite these approaches, however, we found that our students still encountered difficulties in interpreting pictorial sources. In 2017, the PLT adopted the issue as an area for action research.

Survey of literature

From our reading of the literature, we noted that pictorial sources are valuable tools to teach soft skills like critical thinking, and that the value of such an approach goes beyond simply doing well for the exams.

Morrison (1992), for example, emphasized the value of analyzing political cartoons and other pictorial sources and maintained that “political cartoons teach us how to read”  and “there are arguably few art forms that are as valuable to the educator in terms of facilitating critical thinking, interpretation, and analysis in such an entertaining way as political cartoons.” For her, “political cartoonists are in equal parts artist, journalist, and satirist.”

Yet, interpreting pictorial sources can be a huge challenge for many students. Students, particularly at the younger grades, tended to find political cartoons difficult to understand (Lukus, 1999). Studies have shown that many secondary school and college youths from the 1930s through to the early 1990s continue to have difficulty understanding editorial cartoons (Heitzmann, 1998). Some even questioned the ability of school students and even adults to comprehend the medium. Such problems seemed long-standing as studies in the 1960s had also reported that only 15% of adults were able to understand the cartoonists’ message.  (Brinkman, 1968; Carl, 1968).

What may be the cause for this? Werner (2004) suggested that one of the reasons for students’ difficulty with interpreting pictorial sources lay with educators who do not spend sufficient time explicitly teaching the skills needed to interpret pictorial sources. He felt that many educators often assumed that interpreting pictorial sources was an innate ability that students possessed. For Werner, most writers of history and social studies texts tended to use cartoons that focus on content rather than on how such pictorial sources were used to enable readers to examine implicit assumptions or how they can be used to develop interpretations.

Related Teaching Materials

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An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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