Sometimes the simplest things can have the greatest impact.
Teaching history can be daunting and unwieldy, but if the information is broken up into bite-sized pieces and presented in a compelling way, it suddenly becomes much more interesting and easy to teach.
Know Your Nation (KYN) is a simple idea that came not from the mind of an educator, but a cartoonist. Since cartoonists have a very small space in which to get their ideas across, they tend to pack a lot of information into one or two cartoon panels, and use very few words. The last thing a cartoonist wants to be is verbose. Too many words and you lose the audience’s attention, and besides, the main attraction of a cartoon is that it makes you laugh.
The art of animation
Tim Mostert is the cartoonist for the Daily Sun newspaper,1 and has been writing and drawing the Speedy comic strip for 14 years.2 Speedy is a South African version of Homer Simpson,3 but with better manners. After creating Speedy for a few years, Mostert, who is also an art historian, wrote a regular column on the history of art and design in another paper. The audience for this paper was 20-somethings, who were not really interested in the material. Every educator’s challenge is teaching something to people who don’t want to be taught. With this column, Mostert had to hook the reader early, and keep their attention through clever writing that didn’t feel like education. Anecdotes about the artist’s personal life and saucy stories from the history of art worked to make the column popular. Even though the readers were more interested in things like designer jeans and sunglasses, they took the time to read the 300-word column.
Mostert realised this material could be animated, and developed a method of deconstructing paintings using animation and putting them back together again for the viewer. This series, The Finer Things, was extremely effective, and each three-minute episode seemed just the right length for a techsavvy audience with a short attention span. But not everyone is interested in art history, and Mostert wondered what he could also produce with the same communication format. What he and his team had discovered was a very powerful way to convey information that combined the visual, auditory and kinetic in one punch. Mostert presumed that the one thing every person would be interested in was their own country, and he created KYN, using the same format that had proved effective in The Finer Things. The new series focused on the history, culture and geography of one country at a time in short episodes.
See South Africa with Speedy
KYN is a cross-media endeavour, which means it works on all media platforms – TV, newspaper, radio, in-flight and even GPS. But it’s in the sphere of educational publishing that KYN can have the greatest impact. The series is packaged in a 96- page A4 format, and each page contains one article of between 250 and 300 words. Visually, each page has a strong image or two that leaves a lasting effect, and the Speedy character is also present to add a humorous touch. This visual format and article length has proven to be surprisingly effective, and students, administrators and teachers are extremely positive about KYN. The government also loves KYN, and the deputy minister of Basic Education, Enver Surty, has written the book’s foreword.
Know Your Nation Volume One: South Africa contains 82 articles that showcase the country’s history, culture and geography in an easy-to-read format. At least four more volumes will be produced on South Africa, as well as related series like Know Your Rugby, Know Your Cricket and Know Your Soccer, and two volumes on the Kruger National Park. Volumes on other countries are in the works, and Mostert is working with 80 foreign ambassadors in Pretoria to roll out the series about their countries.
Read, listen to or watch
In some ways, this is the future of teaching. What KYN does is package information that is already available to anyone, but in a way that makes it interesting and accessible. For instance, the KYN e-publication contains all the articles that are in the hard copy of the book, but in a digital interactive format. The articles have dictionary pop-ups, and every article will eventually have an accompanying animated version, as well as an audio version. Students can either read, listen to or watch each topic, and the length of each article or episode never feels too long. The material is also suitable for a range of learners, from Grade 4 up to matric. This is another aspect of the way cartoonists write for their audience, with multiple levels of comprehension in the same content. Parents will understand that when they watch certain cartoons, like The Simpsons, they get all the jokes. Their younger children will get some of the jokes, and the rest go over their head, but they still enjoy the cartoon. KYN is written in the same way – the writing style appeals to younger readers, while older students and adults understand the material more exhaustively.
There are also Speedy comic strips in the book, and Speedy comic strips and animation in the ePub. This is not to distract the learners, but to lighten the learning experience. The inclusion of Speedy as host and guide of KYN has proven to be beneficial, and both learners and educators have commented on how the content doesn’t feel so much like a textbook, but a fun way to learn about one’s country.
Encouraging cross-cultural connections
History can be a minefield, and has the ability to create conflict, as well as to unite people. We hear a lot about “nation-building” and “‘social cohesion”, which are both very important lofty concepts, but no one really has discovered a way to make these notions stick. With KYN, we have a very good start. Nationbuilding happens when we participate collectively in our country’s unique heritage and features, especially when it’s across colour lines and cultural backgrounds. By learning about one another’s fascinating histories, we expose each other to things that might have never been discovered, except in our own tribe. Through shared exposure, we move forward together, united as South Africans, who desire to know their nation.
1. See: http://www.dailysun.co.za/.
2. See: http://www.speedyshow.com/strips/index.html.
3. See, for example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homer_Simpson.
Category: Spring 2016