Friday, July 20, 2012

Infographics in the Classroom

Infographicvisual image used to represent information or data

Infographics are more than just a way to represent complex data. They tell a story. And as we've been discussing in Media Literacy these past few weeks, the media is the message. We do a great disservice to ourselves and our students if we do not first learn the language that message is being spoken in and then teach our students the grammar of it. 

 Look at the infographic below from Oprah's website and see if you can decipher its message:

Did you notice how the creators of this infographic (who appear to want to remain nameless) drop Oprah's name to give their statistics a sense of legitimacy but do not cite any other sources?  What about the pie chart that claims that student achievement and therefore by default non-achievement is driven by teacher quality?  Homeless?  No worries. If your teacher's good enough, you'll make honor roll.  Underneath this infographic is a link to an article about Waiting for Superman.  This infographic isn't just a representation of data. It has an agenda. 

The current state of education is such a complex issue yet as a medium the infographic's strength lies in its ability to simplify, to summarize.  Take for instance the statistics used above regarding the U.S. rankings in math and science.   Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) results have long been used to discredit public education in the United States. But these statistics fail to take into account that the United States is a far more diverse country than those that it is being compared to. 

In 2007 Masschusetts entered itself in as a "country" on the TIMSS report to see how they stacked up to the rest of the world.  The results? "Massachusetts 4th graders ranked second worldwide in science achievement and tied for third in mathematics; the state's 8th graders tied for first in science and ranked sixth in mathematics" (Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education). 1st is a lot different than 21st.  Just saying.  (FYI: The National Center for Women and Informational Technology does a decent job of summing up the problem with relying on TIMSS scores alone to assess the state of U.S. education.)  

I'm not trying to say that everything is sunshine and butterflies in our public schools but statistics can be wielded as tools or as weapons. Humorist Evan Esar defined statistics as "the science of producing unreliable facts from reliable figures."  That's why I think it is vital to help our students become more critical when confronting information presented in this format. 

But infographics are also a way for students to understand, to create and to inform.  They are free, relatively easy to create, digestible and dispensable.  Used correctly they have the potential to help students "reposition themselves, from cogs in the machine to social actions intent on jamming, resisting, and/or rewiritng the status quo" (Marshall and Sensoy, Rethinking Popular Culture and Media 11).  For example this infographic regarding the lack of diversity in Congress just popped up on my Facebook newsfeed:

Using publicly available data, the designer of this infographic is able to tell a powerful story about inequality and representation while simultaneously giving viewers an outlet for action--the link to register to vote at the bottom of the infographic.  This is the "outlet for [ . . .] despair" for which Linda Christensen advocates.  It isn't enough to expose them to the injustice inherent in the system; we must also give our students a way to deal with it.

This is where my desire to learn how to create an infographic came from.  I wanted a medium that students could create and share with one another digitally.  I don't know about you but I am sick to death of watching poorly designed PowerPoint presentations.  I don't like them, the kids aren't proud of them, so why am I still doing them?  It was time to explore something new and Media Analysis gave me the kick in the rear I needed to start.

I began by looking into two of the major infographic sites: Piktochart and (both free). I ended up using Piktochart because it allowed for more autonomy and was less glitchy than (though in's defense they make sharing your final product much easier than Piktochart).  Once I decided upon the site, I got to work creating an infographic.  I chose to use the data I'd collected during my teacher research (shout out to Dr. Johnson) because I hoped to use it as a vehicle to present my findings to the administration.    

After hours of trial and error, I created the infographic below:

Unfortunately, the only way (at least that I can figure out) how to share this in a way that you can read it is to email it as a .png file.  That's my big beef with Piktochart.  Otherwise, I'm pretty proud of my creation.

However, this infographic took me hours to create.  There is just so much that you can do on Piktochart.  I worry that if I have my students create their own infographics, they will be so fixated on making it look cool, they won't be able to finish the product in a reasonable time.  This is where the little voice inside my head questions whether this is really helping my students.  But then I think about all that you have to do in order to create an infographic--work with statistics, understand persuasive appeal, make an argument, tell a story, etc.--and I reconsider.

Really the only way to tell if this is going to work is to do it.  So I'm going to do it.  My plan is to show my students a version of the presentation on infographics that I made for our class.

Then have them analyze a few infographics and discuss them as a class.  Before we make our own infographics, I'd like to emphasize the idea that infographics have a point of view.  It is so easy for people to assume that because it is "published", that it looks nice, than it must be true/accurate.  After discussing infographics in general, I am going to have them sign up for Piktochart.  My first assignment will be for them to create an infographic about something they care about--Justin Bieber, motocross, animal rights, whatever tickles their fancy.  When they're finished I'd like them to publish their work by sharing it in some way--uploading it to Facebook, Twitter, their blog, etc.  I'm hoping that by sharing their schoolwork with a larger audience they will a) take it more seriously and b) feel pride in what they have created.  It all goes well then I will use infographics as a way for my students to analyze and digest more content driven topics like slavery, capitalism, war, etc. 

Stay tuned. . . 


  1. Wow, that Oprah Infographic made me angry! I was so happy to see much of it refuted in the comments, although the commenter didn't address how a teacher or principal was determined to be "effective." Grrr. Using raw cost to compare cost over a period of forty years is mendacious. Fantastic essay, Kelly. I think as these are so easy to share on social media sites (and I've even received them as summaries of surveys, for example from the Sloan Consortium), that you are correct -- it is vital that our students learn to read them critically.

  2. I can't wait to see what happens when you bring this to your students! I particularly like the point you make about Infographics having a point of view -- THIS IS KEY!!! You also might want to scaffold the data collection process for them... let the form follow function, so to speak. What are they trying to show? What data do they want to teach about? etc etc. Keep me posted!!