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Developing Critical Thinking Through Comics

By Jennifer Haines
Originally published on Diamond Bookshelf

In 1956, a committee of educators, headed by Benjamin Bloom, published Taxonomy of educational objectives: the classification of educational goals, which contained a pyramid of objectives which educators set for their students. The objectives were arranged from least challenging at the bottom to most challenging at the top. In 2000, the pyramid was revised to place Creation at the top.

At the bottom of the pyramid are Knowledge and Comprehension: simple recall and demonstration of understanding. Application asks students to use their knowledge in new situations. Analysis requires them to examine cause and effect, and provide evidence to support statements. Evaluation asks students to make a judgement about two or more things by examining criteria. Finally, Creation requires students to produce something uniquely their own. This pyramid of critical thinking skills has greatly influenced the development of curricula since its publication, as teachers strive to develop lesson plans that engage students on several levels, especially the higher ones.

It may seem at first that using comics as a teaching tool might limit a teacher to seeking the objectives of Knowledge and Comprehension, however, through discussion of imagery and characterization, comics also effectively engage the higher levels of critical thinking. Recently, I have been touring a workshop on comics to various elementary schools. I lead students in grade 3 to 6 through an examination of the comic Bone, in which we discuss panel transitions as well as word picture combinations.

One of the truly unique properties of comics is panel divisions. The gap, or gutter, in between the panels expresses a lapse of time. That lapse can be long or short, depending on the creator’s goals with the page. But, it is up to the reader to imagine what is happening between those panels. While reading comics, students are unconsciously engaging their Creation skill to make the story flow in their mind’s eye. In looking at the first transition on page 33 of Bone Volume 1, students need to imagine how Fone Bone runs in, gets the baby possums from the rat creatures, and turns to run away again. In this way, each student becomes a co-creator of the story, as each student will imagine that transition as a slightly different scene. Acting out comic pages is a great way to actively engage this skill.

In examining page 16 of Bone Volume 1, students are required to figure out what is happening without the aid of any dialogue, relying only on visual cues. Students are quickly able to articulate that Fone Bone is looking for something, because he has a map, and that he is tired and hot, because he is resting in the shade. They also are able to identify Bone’s journey as a long one, due to how the landscape changes from one panel to the next. This clearly engages students’ Analysis skill, as they take in visual cues, process them, and explain what information they provide.

Application is utilized as students take what they know from their understanding of human emotion in life and apply it to examining characterization in comics. On page 16, they can tell you that Fone Bone is brave, a daredevil, and willing to face adversity, because of what they see him doing. Articulating these character traits helps students develop a language of description, which is useful in their reading and writing skills.

On page 136 of Bone Volume 1, students quickly pick up on the close relationship between Fone Bone and Smiley Bone, due to their smiling, hugging, shouting (represented by large, bold words in their speech balloons), and running toward each other. Astute students will also realize that there is no background in the bottom panels. When questioned about this, two clear answers develop: for Fone Bone and Smiley Bone, nothing else exists in the world because they’re so happy to see one another; the reader is more drawn to the excited embrace of the characters because there is no visually distracting background. The fact that the background is yellow only solidifies the idea of happiness. Why? As they put it, because light colours make you think of happiness, and because yellow is used to draw things like smiley faces and the sun.

It has become very clear from my interactions with students through these workshops that they are able to identify and discuss many aspects of the comics they read, from imagery to characterization. This analysis actively engages students’ critical thinking and develops valuable skills in articulating their understanding of mood, character relationships, voice, and more. As comics are already beloved by elementary students, it is easy for teachers to bring them into the classroom to engage their students to use and develop their critical thinking skills.