How comics can help students understand the deluge of data

Young people need to realise that the modern world runs on data, and it is often manipulated for political or financial gain, writes maths teacher Jessica Barnecutt. So, she trialled an approach that uses visual storytelling to explore the statistics of complex issues like migration
13th December 2019, 12:04am
How Comics Can Help Students Understand Data
Jessica Barnecutt


How comics can help students understand the deluge of data

As the past couple of years have shown, knowing the data - and how to interpret it - can be a useful way of finding out what is really going on in the world.

Whether it involves political, corporate or, indeed, campaigner spin, using data to hide or transform a story has become common. Equipping our students with the necessary skills to call those falsehoods out is a key part of what we should be doing in schools, particularly in maths.

But how well do we do that? Data in maths is often seen just as a learning point: a core skill, and one that prepares students for a vital component of A-level maths and further study. While GCSE students can generally find an average or a range without too many problems, answering questions from the data is a different matter.

We need to make sure that we are teaching data more comprehensively. The world is run through data, which we generate every time we send an email or buy something online. It's vital that we give students at key stages 3 and 4 an insight into how data is collected, organised and even manipulated.

How could we do that? I have trialled an approach in my classroom that I believe is very effective.

It all started when I came across PositiveNegatives, a non-profit that makes comics, animations and other visual narratives based on real-life issues, including migration, conflict and climate change. Its comics and animations are all available for free use and distribution through a creative commons licence. And its educational department collaborates with teachers and learning consultants to create free resources.

The full picture

I quickly saw the potential of comics to bring big data sets into the classroom in an engaging, real-world context. So, as a team, we started planning, focusing on the topic of migration.

Why a comic? The medium encourages reluctant readers, can effectively convey complex information and even, according to researchers at Sheffield Hallam University, supports better recall of information among students. So, our new project, Maths of Migration, was born: a set of pilot lessons to explore if the approach would work.

Through PositiveNegatives, I had access to a real-life data set, created by Professor Heaven Crawley, an expert in migration at Coventry University. The data was based on 500 interviews with migrants and refugees arriving in Europe during late 2015. These conversations revealed the complex reasons why people made this dangerous journey.

Some were fleeing war (more than 50 per cent of those interviewed on the Greek islands were Syrian), while others were desperately seeking work.

As Crawley explains: "We often get a very simplistic or singular story about the experiences of refugees and migrants. This kind of research, especially when you start to dig down into the details of individual cases, shows you that, actually, people's motivations, their journeys and their aspirations are more complicated than you might assume."

We planned a series of maths lessons for KS3 and KS4 in which Crawley's data set would be shown to my students, along with PositiveNegatives' animation North Star Fading, which is based on the testimonies of four Eritrean refugees and illustrated by the graphic novelist Karrie Fransman.

Fransman describes North Star Fading as a "zoom comic" that takes viewers on a refugee's terrifying journey from Eritrea to England through a sequence of images. Beginning our sessions with this animated comic encouraged us to consider how refugees travel across oceans, countries and even continents.

I asked my students what other details they would like to discover about these journeys before we turned to the data for possible solutions. The lessons taught students how to pose their own questions and then use the data to answer them.

For example, one student asked: "How many refugees were previously employed in their home country and where had they originally travelled from?" The class worked through data analysis techniques to find the answers.

The pilot sessions concluded with my students making infographic posters to showcase their findings from the data. The posters were a riot of colour, with pie charts and scatter graphs explaining a multitude of findings. We were all amazed by how many different perspectives could be generated from the same data set.

Building on Fransman's zoom comic, we created infographics that allowed students to showcase their findings in unusual visual ways. Comics and visual storytelling had become both the inspiration for this project and the means through which students were conveying complex statistical information.

Stories behind the statistics

From these sessions, it was clear that approaching the data in this way, and understanding the real human stories behind the numbers, was having a significant impact. One Year 10 student explained: "Eventually, this wasn't just a maths project, it was a story [about migration] we needed to expose and that wasn't being told enough."

The class was learning how data could reveal human stories, empowering them to ask their own questions and seek answers.

We would like to expand this and help other schools to embrace the methodology - we want to see how much further the approach can be pushed and what the impact of it might be at a larger scale.

So, we applied for funding from the Shine Trust, which supports projects that enhance the education of disadvantaged children. We were given a grant that enabled us to run a training day in October for teachers, as well as making our resources and experiences available to other teachers for free. Another training day is scheduled for February and we have big plans to do more.

My hope is that the success we enjoyed is replicated in other settings. I helped my students to develop the necessary maths skills to understand this data set, and now, through Maths of Migration, they are reaching their own, informed conclusions.

As one student commented, maths isn't just about learning for an exam, it's also about better understanding the world we live in.

Jessica Barnecutt teaches maths at Oaklands School in East London. For more about the Shine Trust winners and how to apply, visit

This article originally appeared in the 13 December 2019 issue under the headline "How comics can help students to understand the deluge of data"

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