Monday 3 August 2020

Teaching Visual Critical Thinking - 1: What's with the crowd?

If education has to move beyond rote memorization and onto real learning, educators must create lessons which stimulate students’ thinking and curiosity. In a previous set of articles, I discussed how teachers at Al Qamar Academy  have tried to increase the depth of student engagement by provoking questions.  Another important set of cognitive skills that educators must build involve observation, inference and analysis. These skills are interdisciplinary and should form the foundation of learning. 

Teachers at school have struggled long and hard to come up with ways and means to foster the above mentioned skills.  The recent experience with using videos to stimulate minds, made us think of using a visual stimulus. The New York Times Learning Network has some brilliant resources, including one called “What’s Going On In This Picture”. In this, the NY Times shares a picture stripped of its caption every week.  Students are invited to discuss what they think is happening and to justify their guess with evidence from the picture.  Eventually, the caption is revealed on the website. Naqeeb & I decided to try this approach in our English class for the 7th and 8th grade students. 

I showed this picture to the students and asked them to study it carefully for a minute. Then I called on each student to explain what they thought was happening. I asked them to provide a justification for their guess.  Hana started up “I think it’s some sort of a Black protest. I think it is in America.” She thought it was connected to the recent George Floyd killing in the United States.  Afwan concurred. Others noted that all the people in the picture were Black, so it must have something to do with the Black protests. Maybe this was a shop they were trying to get into? I mused at the power of media - and its ability to successfully reduce an entire community to a unidimensional image - “protest”. It also struck me - here are a bunch of Muslim kids, already sensitised to media’s narrow portrayal of Muslims, aware of the negative imagery of “corona, violence and the skull cap”. Yet when they were placed in a position of a viewer of another oppressed community - they fell into the same trap. 

Then Izzy piped up - “It can’t be a protest. There are balloons there”. I could have hugged her. She looked beyond and thought deeper. This was obviously a “positive” event. “Maybe they are waiting for someone to come out. Someone who has been sick.” Others joined her - maybe someone recovered from Corona. They all caught on to the fact that the picture was recent - everyone had masks, so the picture must have been taken in Corona times. 

“Yes, it can’t be a protest - they are standing there. No one is trying to get in.” (Back to the stereotype peddled by the media about “shop looting”). I zoomed in on writing on the balloons - “Happy Mother’s Day”. “Oh maybe, they are waiting for their Mom. Or someone’s Mom!” they guessed.

I asked them to think about where the place could be, beyond being in the United States. Was it a house? Ahmed thought so. But Hana, who has lived in the US, said it didn’t look like a house. There were too many “Warning” & “Stop” signs on the door. Plus the door wasn’t wide enough for it to be a hospital. She noticed the sensors and CCTV cameras in the picture - not usually found outside houses. Afwan thought maybe it was a police station. But no, it didn’t look like one. What about a shop? But again, would the warning posters be posted outside a shop?  I called their attention to the foliage behind the people. “Palm trees!” “Maybe it’s California.” Someone guessed “Jamaica”. I liked the way the children started spotting clues and inferring facts from them.  

One child was hesitant. She simply described the scene to me “Many people are there. They are Black. They are looking inside a room.” I had to nudge her “I can also see that. But what can you tell me about what’s happening from all these facts you’re seeing?” “I don’t know what you mean…” she replied. “What do you think they’re looking at?” “Why are they standing there?” It took several minutes of deep silence on both ends - hers as she thought, and mine as I waited for her to proffer a theory. “Maybe they are waiting for someone to come out.” Good start!! 

Eventually I revealed the caption - family members waiting to wish an 82 year old woman living in an Old Age Home on Mother’s Day in Covid times of social distancing. The photograph was taken from the May 11, 2020 article “After Months Apart, Mother’s Day Visits Through a Doorway”.  I congratulated the children on having been quite successful in inferring a large part of the situation from the visual clues.

This was a great exercise on many counts. On a very basic level - we worked on conversation - this was after all an English class!.  Beyond that, children enjoyed the thrill of solving a puzzle, of having to spot clues and making guesses. The fact that the milieu was quite alien to the children didn’t pose a great challenge - maybe because of the few who had lived in the United States could explain the different hairstyles, sensors on doors or typically American warning sign posters.  Or maybe that thanks to cultural dominance, symbols of the US culture abound in popular media. 

There were some loose threads left hanging - we could have gone deeper in the whole perception of protest just because they saw a group of Black people. We could have talked about the social isolation of the aged necessitated by COVID. Or simply the variety of hairstyles in the picture. Or clothes.  The picture gave so much scope for discussion - it would have taken a whole period. And maybe next time, thats what we will do - devote an entire class to “What’s Going On in This Picture.” 

Aneesa Jamal

Note : Student chosen aliases have been used instead of real names.  Due to copyright restrictions, the actual picture cannot be reproduced. Instead a student drawn illustration has been used and a link to the actual picture has been provided in the article as well as below:

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