Cartoons in the Classroom

“Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either.” –Marshall McLuhan Image I’ve always loved cartoons. As a child I remember racing home after school to watch reruns of the old 1960s Spider-Man. They were short, sweet and action packed. In my 20s I watched more adult oriented cartoons like Duckman, Mission Hill and Clone High. I will still sit and watch a good cartoon over most of what’s on television. There’s something nostalgic and comforting about them that takes me back to my parents’ basement circa 1982. It’s this deep-rooted love of cartoons that draws me to them in what I consider to be the golden age of educational animations on the internet. Organizations like TED Ed and the American Chemical Society Bytesize Science (now ACS Reactions) are producing new animated lessons on an almost daily basis. YouTube channels like MinutePhysics and AsapSCIENCE have millions of subscribers, clearly revealing a latent demand in the general public for learning about science through animation. As a teacher I don’t want to miss the opportunity to leverage this powerful tool. Cartoons are instantly engaging. They have a built in level of fun so students pay closer attention. I see their eyes widen as I fire up the projector. The medium of animation is perfectly suited to Education whether you flip lessons or not. Internet cartoons are a 21st century version of the text book paragraph + diagram meant to explain some topic, only infinitely better. Education cartoons are short, concise, dynamic packages delivering otherwise esoteric concepts in an easily understood and familiar way. In Science classes I use cartoons to reinforce a concept I’m trying to convey. Sometimes as the introduction, sometimes as a way of summarizing what we’ve just been exploring. Chemistry is especially suited for animations since most of the ideas Introductory Chemistry students should leave with are impossible to see or experience. Unlike Physics, where people have some personal background with things like throwing a ball or falling down, Chemistry, at the molecular level is completely devoid of intuitive sense. Electron shells, bonding, the atom itself are all out of the realm of daily life and cannot be easily imagined (and therefore understood) by the novice. This side of Chemistry is especially hard to really teach without visualization. Cartoons provide an accessible scaffold for students to build a mental image of what Chemistry is. These animations become touchstones to a deeper level when we see something in the lab or are doing the math. While it’s important to a young chemist’s education, watching a chemical reaction in a beaker has no explanatory power on its own. Animations are able to bridge the gap between what they see or do at the macroscopic level and understanding what is happening at the microscopic level. One of my recent favorites was by George Zaidan and Charles Morton through TED Ed on “How Atoms Bond”. In the Sodium Chloride example students see Sodium’s lone valence electron moving over or being captured by Chlorine while Sodium’s original valence shell fades away. That connects ionic bonding, valence electrons, position on the periodic table and the octet rule all together in a dynamic way. I know that even the weakest student now has some reference in their mind for something they will never see. Students with prior knowledge can check their mental model against what’s been presented. It’s videos like these that I find the most useful. The heavy educational lifting is done by the visuals. The golden age of Education cartoons isn’t limited to science. Any class can use cartoons to bolster concepts, engage students and provide insight. For an English or EAL class Myriapod Productions’ Mysteries of Vernacular are delightfully animated etymologies of some common words. They combine language, history and culture all in 2 minutes spots. Vi Hart makes hand drawn animated doodles discussing mathematical curiosities and math in things like music and nature. She discusses a side of mathematics not normally included in a high school course in a way that can perk student interest. TED Ed is probably the most prolific producer of animated lessons. They create high quality cartoons on a wide variety of topics including literature, politics, history and just about anything else covered in a high school curriculum. Brief, easily digested cartoons transport students to ancient Rome, show them how to analyze art or when to use a comma. Another one I like is Kurzgesagt. They make animated infographics on things as diverse as evolution or fracking. Visualizing numbers and data is another great way to use the medium.  Seeing relative size or fractions all as graphics helps students understand the subject at hand but also basic mathematical skills like using ratios and percents. With animation the infographic is improved by being extended to dynamic processes. I have highlighted the impact cartoons can have on learning through visualization. However, there is a more fundamental quality that makes them so useful in teaching. Regardless of the classroom topic, what they have in common is the narrative form. A cartoon is a little story. It has a beginning, middle and end. Just like my old Spider-Man episodes. This is the ancient recipe for being entertaining and memorable. Today’s educational animations harken back to a time when short, simple narratives were common in cartooning. Think of Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny or Woody Woodpecker. We all have our favorites that still stick in our minds. The links provided throughout this entry as well as my collection of science cartoons at are good places to start for anyone looking to use cartoons in their practice. I couldn’t finish this post without including Spider-Man just for fun. I think all kids want to be Spider-Man but I also wanted to be Peter Parker. It wasn’t the radioactive spider that gave Spider-Man his web. It was Peter Parker and his knowledge of science. Even at the age of 5 I knew that part wasn’t as far fetched as his spidey-sense and ability to climb walls. I can’t discount the impression watching a super hero scientist must have had on me.


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