Supporting the use of concept cartoons

By Heather King - March 2011


Chin, C., & Teou, L.-Y. (2009). Using concept cartoons in formative assessment: Scaffolding students' argumentation.International Journal of Science Education31(10), 1307–1332.

Concept cartoons—cartoon-style drawings showing different characters arguing about an everyday situation and expressing both scientific viewpoints and common misconceptions—provide a ready stimulus for discussion and constitute a useful teaching, learning, and assessment tool. In debating the ideas, students articulate their thoughts, challenge each other, propose claims and explanations, and justify their reasoning. But these activities need considered support from educators.

In this paper, Chin and Teou describe a classroom-based study (with grades 5 and 6) in which concept cartoons were used to elicit students' ideas. The task was supported by a writing frame in which students had to record the character's views with which they agreed and why, and also develop any challenging questions to address to their peers. Other techniques involved students taking turns to talk and to record their conclusions, and were used to promote cooperative learning. The lessons were audio-recorded and the written records analyzed.

The paper includes excerpts of the students' interactions and teacher interventions. The findings highlight the need for scaffolding structures to allow students to talk about key concepts, the need for ground rules to promote collaborative discussions, the need for teachers to design and draw their own concept cartoons to ensure that they are personally and contextually relevant to students, and the need for teachers to be able to guide discussions skillfully (e.g., either opening up or closing down lines of talk).

In providing support in this way (even including the written frame, which suppressed the volume of student talk), the authors found that student talk was kept on track, and that students were more willing to take on active roles in offering and evaluating alternative viewpoints.

The particular significance of this paper for ISE practitioners is in highlighting the importance of providing appropriate support structures around key teaching tools to ensure that such tools work most effectively. In short, ground rules and structures that provide linguistic and conceptual scaffolds (e.g., writing frames, turn-taking) are essential when attempting to prompt and extend student thinking.

For reference, see