Kerpow! Comics sock it to 'em - the info, that is

21st May 2010 at 01:00
Finally, a research study involving children that actually tells them the findings

Classroom observers typically meld into the background when watching teachers at work. But that's a little difficult when you're a three-eyed talking octopus.

Aliens have descended on Scotland in a new comic book designed to communicate research findings to pupils in a way that dry, statistical accounts will never achieve.

The team behind the first major study into pupil councils, Having a Say at School, thought it crucial, when embarking on the Lottery-funded project, to communicate findings in a way that would interest pupils of all ages.

Jonathan Sher, director of research at Children in Scotland, which worked with Edinburgh University researchers, says most studies involving children fail to communicate results to them. When they do, the information is usually presented in a "patronising or boring" way.

The team wanted to produce a series of postcards, until it became clear that this had been done many times before. So they decided on a comic book and commissioned Toby Cook, who graduated from Edinburgh College of Art last summer.

The book took six months to produce and was sent out to schools earlier this month.

A trial version had been shown to pupils last year, which taught the researchers some crucial lessons. Younger boys said there should be more action, or "kerpow", as Dr Sher puts it.

Children, mindful of the high-handed speech of Doctor Who's foes, were also adamant that aliens should use complex language and not talk childishly. That legitimised the squeezing-in of more difficult terminology and led to the naming of the aliens' planet: Didactica.

Children had insisted to Mr Cook that there should be a fantasy element, as "images of children in a classroom would not be immediately interesting and might turn them off". So the comic is full of striking and amusing graphics, from the multi-ocular octopoid aghast at the indifferent attitude of one teacher, to the archetypal Didactican headteacher, who has 12 eyes and spits acid goo.

There is "something immediately engaging and recognisable to children about comics", says Mr Cook, who has had good early feedback - even reports of children asking for the comic to be read at bedtime - and hopes to carry on his relationship with Children in Scotland.

Arlene Wilson, headteacher at the 31-pupil Dallas Primary in Moray, initially feared children would find the aliens patronising and fail to connect with the story. In fact, they loved the characters and she saw the comic's value when they suggested they try long-term planning - like that advocated by the aliens. Mrs Wilson believes staff could also learn from the comic, and has asked for extra copies after pupils said it would help with general reading.

So what have the children learned from the comic? P7 pupil Sandra MacKellar says she discovered that local authorities could help pupil councils and that it was useful for experienced members to stay on and help new incumbents. Molly Keen, P6, learned that it helps to take your time. Both girls enjoyed the alien chef who asks colleagues why they just don't eat the human teachers.

It was a revelation to Iona Gray, in P6 at Liberton Primary in Edinburgh, that pupil councils could get training. The 10-year-old praised the comic for being "very creative", but thought there was sometimes "too much information on one page".

Even comics buff Niall Turnbull, 13, was impressed. The Dunbar Grammar pupil is a discerning reader of action comics, with Spiderman and X-Men among his favourites, but believes "there's not really anything to be improved on in the concept or artwork".

What's more, he says, the comic "would encourage young people to think about their role in society and not dismiss decision-making as a purely adult arena".

- www.havingasayatschool.org.uk

henry.hepburn@tes.co.uk.

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