How graphic novels helped me slow down and develop a culture of metacognition

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In this post, Joe Arton discusses on how graphic novels have informed a slower and more reflective approach to designing courses and teaching. Joe is an Academic Developer at the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh. This post is part of Teaching Matters Leaning & Teaching Enhancement Theme: Books that inspire our teaching.

Slowing Down

I have a problem. I’m a restless reader and find almost everything interesting. I read books out of order, beginning with the conclusion, jumping around to what interests me, delighting in a well-developed index and contents pages.

For better or worse, a sense of restlessness and rapidly moving through the world is at the heart of my pedagogy. When I teach, whether it’s undergraduate media studies courses, high school, or as an academic developer, I approach a lesson like a design challenge sprint; identify the problem we’re trying to solve, ideate concepts that I’ve often just read about, design a range of active learning activities to test the solutions, gain instant feedback from student pulse surveys and then iterate my course design accordingly.

However, there are times when my students and I really need to slow down and think more about our thinking; how did we get to where we are with our thoughts? Reading graphic novels has helped me take a breath and design a metaphorical one for my students.

As an art form, graphic storytelling and visual narratives are a counterintuitive place to start when looking for slower, more deliberative, and reflective practice. Outside the classroom, sequential art is synonymous with Marvel, pop art, frenetic blockbuster films, and television shows. Yet unlike text, visual narratives force the reader to reflect on what happens to their understanding when abstract and complex ideas are turned into words and images. By making the strange familiar and the familiar strange it has a distancing effect and can heighten students’ awareness of the material.

A great example of how graphic storytelling and visual narratives can foster metacognitive practice is the graphic novel, The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth by Ken Krimstein.

The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth by Ken Krimstein.

I had previously read a biography of Hannah Arendt so was somewhat familiar with her journey. However, reading The Three Escapes, I was gripped by the accessibility of Krimstein’s depiction of Arendt’s strengths and weaknesses as a learner, a writer, and public figure. Krimstein’s book also spoke to the importance of not only asking ‘what are we learning?’ but ‘how are we learning?’ and testing the efficacy of our approaches as both teachers and learners.

Last Summer, inspired by Krimstein’s book, I wondered whether sequential art, graphic narratives, and comics could help develop a learning culture in the curriculum grounded in metacognition and empathy?

Graphic Storytelling in the Classroom

This year, in addition to my work on the Curriculum Transformation Programme, I’ve been teaching a weekend programme for K-12 students at a local non-profit. To help promote student metacognition, I designed a series of learning activities inspired by the principles and practices of graphic storytelling and visual narrative that could be embedded into the curriculum.

As part of a multi-week intended learning outcome, students were tasked with the following activity:

  1. Create a graphic narrative of their own learning experience in a typical day combining images and text to illustrate what worked well and what did not work well.
  2. Create a graphic narrative of someone else’s learning experience.
  3. Translate a section of the assigned class reading material into a graphic narrative.

Students then shared their graphic narratives in discussion sessions which gave them permission to identify common difficulties and challenges and empathise with the experiences of others. The student feedback that I gathered in weekly pulse-surveys indicated high levels of student satisfaction with this approach and there were notable strengths in the data in areas such as building community and belonging and creative and engaging assignments.

Visual Narratives and Curriculum Transformation

At The University of Edinburgh, I wanted to test the efficacy of graphic storytelling for academic development and have used visual storytelling methods to translate the insights gathered from curriculum transformation programme workshops into a series of carefully designed infographics. These have helped turn data into stories and are now supporting major engagement and communication activities of the programme.

The experience of applying these principles to academic engagement has led me to reflect on the responsibility of authors to their audience when it comes to curriculum transformation. Graphic storytelling establishes unequivocally the expectation that even abstract, unfamiliar ideas should be delivered in an easily absorbed manner. For me, reading graphic novels and then using the practices and principles of visual storytelling in my pedagogy has helped me put the learner and the reader at the centre of my practice and develop a more effective metacognitive approach to communication and engagement.

Resources and Further Reading

  • “Graphic Explorations of the (physical) State We’re In.” The Times higher education supplement 2316 (2017): n. pag. Print.
  • “Will Graphic Novels Ever Be Taken Seriously as Research Outputs?” Times Higher Education 2485 (2021): n. pag. Print.
  • Eisner, Will. Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative : Principles and Practices from the Legendary Cartoonist / Will Eisner. New York, [N.Y.] ;: W.W. Norton, 2008. Print.
  • Introducing the Teaching Matters’ ‘Student Illustrator Project’, Teaching Matters
  • Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow / Daniel Kahneman. London: Penguin, 2012. Print.
  • Krimstein, Ken. The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt : a Tyranny of Truth / Ken Krimstein. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018. Print. Will Eisner
  • Pintrich, Paul R. “The Role of Metacognitive Knowledge in Learning, Teaching, and Assessing.” Theory into practice 41.4 (2002): 219–225.
  • Tanner, Kimberly D. “Promoting Student Metacognition.” CBE life sciences education 11.2 (2012): 113–120. Web.

Photo of the authorJoseph Arton

Dr Joe Arton is an Academic Developer at the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh, he is a member of the University’s Curriculum Transformation Programme Team and curated The Edinburgh Hybrid Teaching Exchange, the University of Edinburgh’s internal site for Hybrid Teaching and Learning resources and best practice. He has a PhD in Film and Media and specialises in digital media (video, audio, and design) for academic development. Read his Times Higher Education Campus article on video techniques for increasing student engagement.

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