5 Rules of Infographic Excellence


xkcd’s brilliant mockery of the explosion of “info-junk” (at left) should remind us that the best infographics should efficiently combine quantitative data, prompt pattern recognition and cogent visual storytelling.

Perhaps aspiring infographic designers would do well to revisit the work of the Edward Tufte, the guru of the art form. I’ve had a chance to attend one of his inspiring workshops, but you easily appreciate his thinking from his books. In his classic “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information,” he lays out his principles of Graphical Excellence (p 51) Graphical excellence is:

  1. well-designed presentation of interaction data – a matter of substance, statistics and design.
  2. consists of complex ideas communicated with clarity, precision and efficiency.
  3. that which gives the viewer the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space.
  4. always multivariate.
  5. requires telling the truth about data.

In the same book he showcases what he feels to be the best narrative graphic of space and time – Charles Joseph Minard representation of Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia in 1812. Six variable are plotted – the size of the army, it’s location on a two-dimensional surface, direction of the army’s movement, and temperatures on various dates during the retreat from Moscow. The comparative sizes of Napoleon’s invading army (in tan) to his meager retreating forces (in black) tell the story with eloquence.

Click images to enlarge
Minard Napoleon's Iinvasion

#Watertown #MITShooting: Unfiltered News vs Speculation


This morning, Twitter broke the story of the events in Watertown MA. Following the hashtags #Watertown and #MITShooting, I selected a few  tweets from roughly 2:10- 2:15 AM Boston Time.

As I tried to sort fact and speculation, I was reminded of a post I did a few years ago What Happens in Schools When Life Has become an Open-book Test?

I grew up in an era of top-down information flow – book publishers, newspapers, magazines, network TV, radio. I was accustomed to someone else making decisions about what I should read, watch and listen to. They created information, I consumed it. … Fast forward to a digital age which has fractured the information flow – fragmenting it into ever smaller pieces: LP record > CD > single song download > ringtone. Now we are armed with gadgets that allow us to re-assemble the info bits; by-passing the curatorial function that had been served by the legacy mass media. Who needs a Walter Cronkite? I can be my own editor, reviewer, researcher and entertainment director. … What happens in schools when life has become an open-book test? … Students are adrift in a sea of text without context.

Note: A few hours has passed since these Tweets appeared and the connections between the Watertown event and the Boston Marathon bombing continue to unfold. Looks like Twitter’s crowdsourcing scooped the major new outlets. But are we ready to curate our own news?

Four Keys to Teaching Students How to Analyze

This week I’m presenting at the national AMLE conference (middle level education) in Portland Ore. Quite nice since I live here!

My session
Thursday Nov 8 at 8AM
#1111 – Teaching Students to Analyze? Motivate with Skills, Choice and Reflection.
Here’s a preview

True analysis is messy work, but that’s where the learning takes place.

My talk has two themes – first, it’s a reflection on how analysis is taught in the classroom. Too often teachers give students a Venn Diagram and ask them to compare. What looks like analysis on the surface is often no more than re-filling information from the source material into the Venn. Graphic organizer are great to help students understand a variety of analytic models, but they often constrain students into someone else’s analytic framework. 

Summarizing and comparisons are powerful ways to build content knowledge and critical thinking. But if students are going to master CCSS skills they need to design the model, find a way to express it to others, and have the opportunity self reflect on their product and feedback from peers. Get them started with graphic organizers, then show some courage and be less helpful. True analysis is messy work, but that’s where the learning takes place.

My session will utilize audience responders to first evaluate sample lessons in summarizing and comparing, then collectively develop critical benchmarks. Teachers will next be given frameworks for designing lessons which enable students to think like designers, to apply their learning strategies, share their conclusions and set the stage for self-reflection.

FlipNLearn: a foldable that students design, print and share.

Next, I will demonstrate how to meet these four keys to teaching analysis with FlipNLearn, a foldable that students design, print and share. It’s an innovative learning tool that students design on a computer, then print on special pre-formatted paper. The result – a clever foldable that flips through four faces of student selected text and images. FlipNLearn is a great way to give students a manageable design challenge that promotes teamwork, self-assessment and reflection. In 30 minutes, or less, they can produce tangible product that blends the best of PBL and CCSS skills in communication. If you can’t make my session, look for me at the IMCOM vendor booth #819 for free tips on Portland’s best pubs and grub.

Why We Fight: Selling a War to America

My iBook Why We Fight: WWII and the Art of Public Persuasion free at iBookstore

Designed as multi-touch student text, it focuses on the American response to WWII – especially the very active role played by government in shaping American behavior and attitudes. “Why We Fight” gives students a chance to step back to the 1940s and experience the perspective of Americans responding to the Pearl Harbor attack and WWII. Americans were hungry for information, and Washington responded with a PR blitz to sell the war to the American public.

It features 13 videos including rarely-seen cartoons like “Herr Meets Hare” (1945) starring Bugs Bunny, government films “What To Do in a Gas Attack” (1943) and Hollywood wartime flicks like the “Spy Smasher” cliff hanger series (1942).

View naval deck logs detailing the attack on Pearl Harbor. Listen to FDR’s “Day of Infamy” speech while you read his handwritten notes on the first draft of the speech. Listen to man-in-the-street interviews recorded the day after the Pearl Harbor attack. Swipe through an interactive timeline map detailing early Axis victories of the war. Use an interactive guide to interpret over 40 wartime posters.

All of the historic content is in the public domain. And the iBook provides access to the digital content, so users can remix the historic documents into their own galleries and projects.  Students can use an iPad-friendly historic document guide to analyze all the source material and share their observations with peers and teachers. “Why We Fight” is filled with “stop and think” prompts keyed to Common Core State Standards and includes a student guide to learning from historic documents and links to a teacher’s guide to related activities and free iPad apps.

This first of a series, “Why We Fight,” focuses on why Americans went to war and how the government defined the reasons for war and the nature of our enemies. Students build critical thinking skills as they are guided through the documents in consideration of three questions:

  • Why did Americans go to war?
  • Was Washington’s public relations blitz crafted to inform the public or manipulate? Did it appeal to reason or emotions? Did it rely on facts or stereotypes?
  • How do the themes in this book apply to your life and America today?

The next iBook in my Homefront USA series will consider how Americans were asked to change their lives, work harder and sacrifice in support of the war effort. Additional iBooks will look at how the war brought dramatic changes to American society – contrasting the growing opportunities for women with the internment of Japanese Americans.

Image credits:
Title: Enemy ears are listening.
Artist: Ralph ligan
United States. Office of War Information. Graphics Division.
Washington, D. C
Date: 1942
UNT Digital Library.

Title: Avenge December 7
Artist: Bernard Perlin
Publisher: Washington, D.C. : U.S. G.P.O. Office of War Information,
Date: 1942.
Northwestern University Library

What is Writing For?

Question: What is Writing For?
Answer: Writing is for making assigned writing.

Students everywhere are asked repeatedly to write papers that are inherently insincere exercises in rearranging things they’ve read or been told…

That’s the response given by Verlyn Klinkenborg in his thoughtful NY Times essay Where Do Sentences Come From?

He writes, “What is writing for? The answers seem obvious — communication, persuasion, expression. But the real answer in most classrooms is this: writing is for making assigned writing. Throughout their education, students everywhere are asked repeatedly to write papers that are inherently insincere exercises in rearranging things they’ve read or been told — papers in which their only stake is a grade.”

Instead of being motivated by autonomy and choice, students are routinely assigned to write responses to prompts they have no interest in. The tacit audience for their work is the teacher, the purpose is a grade.

Over time students learn that the only information (or ideas) worth knowing are those that come from the teacher or the text. The lesson learned?  Since student contributions won’t be tested – they’re not worth knowing. “Mr Pappas, will this be on the test?”

As Klinkenborg observes, [writing] “is harder than it seems because first you have to find a thought. They may seem scarce because nothing in your education has suggested that your thoughts are worth paying attention to. Again and again I see in students, no matter how sophisticated they are, a fear of the dark, cavernous place called the mind. They turn to it as though it were a mailbox. They take a quick peek, find it empty and walk away…. Sift the debris of a young writer’s education, and you find dreadful things — strictures, prohibitions, dos, don’ts, an unnatural and nearly neurotic obsession with style, argument and transition.”

Read Klinkenborg’s essay for some interesting prompts for activating the writer’s voice. I’ll offer three considerations for assigning and evaluating writing in the classroom. For an example click here.

  • Let students make some choices about their writing.
  • Let students write for a more authentic audience than the teacher.
  • Use more peer evaluation and self reflection. 

Worried that students won’t take more responsibility for their writing?
Don’t worry, that’s what they’ve been doing with their friends on Facebook.

Image credit: Flickr/Nesster