Offering a Suitcase to Deepen Learning: The Use of Images in Teaching

As I write these words, my 13-year-old daughter is sitting next to me, entranced by the iPhone in her hand and the world of images to which she has access. From showing me silly cat memes to sending her friends pictures on Instagram and Snapchat, images are a huge part of my daughter’s native digital language. However, while she thinks she’s being quite modern, there is something deep and ancient in her use of images to communicate meaning; something that unites her way of knowing with mine…and with yours.

In short, images can invite and evoke a deeper level of knowing. Like the difference between poetry and prose, the artistic and symbolic nature of imagery can invite the learner in at a deeper level than words alone. More nuanced truths can be captured. I simply cannot imagine teaching any concept without making use of some level of imagery, as I have found it to be the easiest way to anchor a learning task by engaging the imagination and intellect of the learner.

Let’s look at an example. Imagine a statue of Abraham Lincoln. Imagine Lincoln standing, feet slightly apart for balance, with an axe raised above his head, held in both hands. At his feet kneels a figure obviously held in slavery, with a chain stretched between shackles on their wrists. The chain is laid across a tree stump, positioned in the path of the descending axe. Can you see it in your mind? If so, read on to the next paragraph. If not, go back to the beginning of this paragraph and read it again more slowly. Allow your mind the time to create the image. There’s no rush.

Now that you can see it in your mind…can you feel the sense of motion in the axe? Can you anticipate the moment when the chain will be cut and the slave figure freed?

As you consider the image in your mind, I have a question for you: Is this image true?

On the one hand, we know of no historical moment when President Lincoln actually broke the chains of a person in slavery. On the other hand, the image is deeply true symbolically. If I were teaching a class on civil war history, I would start the class with the exercise above. Not only does it engage the imagination, it immediately deepens the meaning of historical learning and sends the message that history isn’t just dates on a page, but transformative movements that still affect us today.

Any time I am invited to lead a learning session (or “teach a class”), I start by considering how I would like the participants to leave my session feeling, and what they will be able to do because of our time together. Once I have determined these goals, I then spend time searching for an image that will carry those emotions and messages throughout the entire session. I then introduce the image early on in the session, typically tell some kind of story that makes reference to the image, and continue to integrate that image into each part of the learning, including the summary reflections at the end. I have found that when intentionally chosen in this way, the selected image has the power to act like a suitcase in which participants can pack their learnings and experiences. Simply seeing the image again can evoke the learning and emotions of the session in a way that makes it a powerful teaching tool.

These days, any time I read civil war history, I think of the imaginary Lincoln statue described above. My sincere hope is that the images I choose to supplement learning have the same staying power for those I work with as well.

How do you use images in your teaching and designing?

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Matthew Short ( is Assistant to the Bishop for Evangelical Mission of the Greater Milwaukee Synod, ELCA. He is a father, husband, digital native, and Lutheran pastor who loves using images in preaching and teaching.

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