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A comic take on dialogue in learning

I am interested in how professional knowledge can be created, refreshed and cultivated. The recent HertsCam Annual Conference was a good opportunity to reflect on this.

Knowledge-building through networking

What happens when teachers get together to engage in networking? It is often assumed that the point of participating in networking is to gain knowledge – especially know-what and know-how - which can be used back in your own school. This knowledge as commodity assumption seems to be dominant within the field of knowledge management popularised by Nonaka and Takeuchi when they wrote about The Knowledge Creating Company in the mid 1990s. I am interested in a more educational way of thinking about this. I hark back to the debates about a liberal education in the 1960s and in particular Michael Oakeshott’s contribution about education as an ongoing conversation ‘begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries’ contributed to by argument, enquiry and information of all kinds.

Education, properly speaking, is an initiation into the skill and partnership of

this conversation in which we learn to recognize the voices, to distinguish the proper

occasions of utterance, and in which we acquire the intellectual and moral habits

appropriate to conversation. (Oakeshott, 1959: 11)

In HertsCam, we often use the term knowledge building to denote a dialogic process which resonates with Oakeshott’s insight. When participants construct and share narratives about their efforts to improve educational practice, they join an ongoing conversation about pedagogy and leadership. I want to reflect for a moment on and exemplify how this conversational approach to knowledge building occurs.

Telling the story of what we have learned

Perhaps the idea of knowledge makes us think of exams or Wikipedia and Google. Early forms of knowledge transmission included the pictorial as well as dance and ritual. Traditional Innuit communities refined the art of verbal story-telling to convey their culture across the generations. All of this has been overlaid by the development of writing from cuneiform on clay tablets in ancient Mesopotamia to Shakespeare’s deft use of the quill pen. The development of print, as explored in John Naughton’s great book ‘From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg’, changed everything. Of course, these days the manipulation of printed and hand-written text dominates our education and communication systems. However, at the HertsCam Annual Conference recently, we heard about an alternative form of narrative construction – the comic strip. This is a form that goes way back; it is said that the pop art of Roy Lichtenstein was inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry. Maybe the word ‘comics’ gives the wrong impression; when I hear the word, I immediately think of the Beano but there wasn’t much to laugh at in the portrayal of the Norman invasion.

In the conference keynote address by Amanda Roberts, we learned about her use of comics in the PATCHATT initiative which seeks to support people with life limiting illnesses. The acronym stands for Patients Changing Things Together. Amanda has been very active in HertsCam for the past 20 years and has recently taken up a post with Garden House Hospice Care as a Community Engagement Coordinator. Last year, when she was preparing to launch PATCHATT, she wanted to explore how the principles underpinning the teacher-led development work (TLDW) methodology could be drawn upon to empower people in this quite different setting. Prior to Amanda’s presentation at the conference, there were seminars in which we engaged in intense discussion about these principles in relation to our experience as individual change agents. The slide in the image below presented a representation of the principles.

One of the teachers at the conference was Amy Dimmick, a Religious Education teacher. In the discussion that followed Amanda’s address, someone had mentioned the possibility that comics might be helpful in enabling students with special educational needs to communicate. This struck a chord with Amy who teaches Religious Education and has a group of students with special educational needs. She had been working on a project focusing on the use of ‘the learning passport’, a tool to help her group of students to talk about themselves, how they like to learn and how they are meeting their learning targets. This was not easy for some of the students. Amy thought that asking them to use comics to tell the story of themselves and their learning might work. She got her students to access the Manga comic maker template in PowerPoint. The task was the same, it just the format that was different.

The effect was remarkable. Kids who had previously been unable to write about their learning were able to express themselves freely. One of them used a Disney character to stand in for themselves – a kind of avatar – because that seemed to be an easier way to talk about himself. One looked after child had found it almost impossible to write about himself with the result that Amy assumed he had learned nothing in her subject. He didn’t want to use the computer; telling his story was too personal, so he chose to draw his own comic characters. This child surprised Amy with the breadth of his learning and the richness of his story as a learner. One of the issues in his story was the social dynamic in the classroom and how being able to work alongside another student had made a big difference.

The freedom to say what we have learned

In education systems across the world, the idea that we should be able to predict and determine the outcomes of learning experiences is ubiquitous. This is control freakery on a global scale. Of course, it is helpful to identify learning objectives. In the Annual Conference seminars about assessment for learning, there was a clear consensus about the value, not only of clarifying learning objectives, but also of discussing them with learners at the outset of any lesson. However, it has to be recognised that it is impossible to entirely predict all learning outcomes. In any worthwhile learning activity, whether it be a session in a primary school day or a seminar at a conference, all of us learners should be entitled to identify what we have learned. In addition, anyone who has the role of teacher in whatever learning scenario should respect the learners’ right to identify what they have learned. The question we have become accustomed to is: to what extent have you learned what I intended you to learn? There is also a more learner-centred question which is equally valid: what did you learn from that activity? As Amy has shown us, we can also pose the question: in what form would you like to tell the story of what you have learnt?


Oakeshott, M. (1959) The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind. London: Bowes and Bowes.

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