Ed Tech Cartoons


Capturing the attention of and engaging pupils during lessons is at times challenging and frustrating. Yet this is important if pupils are to benefit from the lessons taught. One teacher used cartoons during a Science lesson and found that her pupils not only enjoyed themselves but also gained a better understanding of the concepts. So what is the appeal of cartoons?

At first glance, technology and art seem as if they’re on opposite sides of the spectrum. Many art teachers might resist using technology in the art room for fear it will replace traditional artmaking methods. However, modes of learning are critical. Steve Jobs famously said, “technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts,. News Sports Entertainment Life Money Tech Travel Opinion. Political Cartoons. Herd immunity: Today's Toon. January editorial cartoon gallery. Editorial cartoons on education.

  • What are concept cartoons?
  • What are the benefits of using concept cartoons?
  • How can cartoons be used to clear misconceptions in Science?

Science concepts are often abstract and difficult to grasp, especially for children. And when teachers try to explain them in as simple a manner as possible, they run the danger of oversimplifying these concepts.

It is also common for pupils to develop misconceptions about these concepts. How then can we help our pupils to fully comprehend complex science topics?

One teacher decided to use cartoons to help her Primary 4 class learn about Matter. Ms Farah Aida Rahmat, who was then teaching at Pasir Ris Primary School, also tried to observe and document its effectiveness through action research.

Ms Farah made use of “concept cartoons” in her lesson. Concept cartoons are “cartoon-style drawings presenting characters with different viewpoints around a particular situation” (Roesky & Kennepohl, 2008, p. 1355).

According to researchers Brenda Keogh and Stuart Naylor (1999), concept cartoons are extremely versatile as a teaching strategy. They may be employed across subjects, such as in the development of reading skills in English, or the teaching of problem solving in Math.

Concept cartoons may be also used at different stages of a lesson – as a trigger to get students to tune in, as an activity to elicit pupils’ responses and generate discussion, or as a means of summarizing the topic at the end.

Ms Farah found such cartoons particularly useful for clearing up her pupils’ misconceptions about the Science topic, Matter.

“[This action research] made me think critically about how my pupils make connections between what they know and what is being taught to them.”

This was what Ms Farah noted as she reflected on her action research. She carried out her research at Pasir Ris Primary with the support of the Science and Health Education Department.

The purpose of this action research project was to observe the impact of concept cartoons as a teaching strategy. In particular, she was interested in its effectiveness in addressing misconceptions that would arise in the learning of a new topic.

Ms Farah worked with a Primary 4 class of 40 high-ability pupils. She taught two lessons on the topic of Matter and the pupils made a presentation during the third lesson. The lessons were modelled on the 5E-inquiry model of teaching and learning. Concept cartoons were used at different stages of the learning – the Engagement, Exploration, Explanation, Elaboration and Evaluation stages.

At the end of the study, she observed that her pupils benefitted from the use of concept cartoons in her teaching. The pupils managed to clear up misunderstandings about the topic. And, most importantly, they thoroughly enjoyed themselves!

“When my pupils enjoy themselves while learning, they seem to learn more,” noted Ms Farah. “Their engagement throughout the learning journey is essential to the success of their own learning.”

Clearly, there are many benefits of using concept cartoons.

  1. Grabs attention
    Kids and adults alike like cartoons. They usually associate cartoons with fun and humour. Concept cartoons thus provide an appealing and non-threatening way to represent ideas. Pupils are more likely to be enthusiastic towards the activity to come and will then be more focused and receptive to learning.
  2. Generates participation
    In cartoons, the ideas have to be presented succinctly. These ideas can be so thought-provoking that pupils are drawn into “participating” in the dialogue by “becoming” one of the characters, giving rise to vibrant class discussions. The lesson thus becomes more interactive and student-centred as pupils are actively involved in their learning.
  3. Develops skills
    During discussion of the concept cartoons, pupils have to verbalize their ideas and thoughts. They are motivated to take a stand on the different ideas presented. If they disagree, they may present and defend their points of view. This process allows teachers to gain important insights into their pupils’ understanding. Participating in such discussion also lets pupils hone their communication skills.

(Source: Keogh & Naylor, 1999, p. 433)

The concept cartoon above was developed to address the misconception that “some materials have the property of making things warm” (from https://www.conceptcartoons.com/). Each character in the cartoon conveys a particular idea “spoken” in the speech bubble.

The cartoon is useful as a teaching tool to invite pupils to voice out their opinions and provide reasons for their ideas. The informal nature of concept cartoons encourages pupils to present their views without fear of being judged. This opens up an opportunity for teachers to probe and clarify their pupils’ thoughts on the topic.

Here are some tips for developing your own concept cartoons:

  • Base cartoon characters on people or icons that pupils are familiar with
  • Choose a context for the cartoons that is familiar to the pupils
  • Minimize text used to present the concept
  • Concepts or ideas should relate to one central idea or word (Keogh & Naylor, 1999)

Visit the Concept Cartoons website to learn more about concept cartoons and how you can use them in your classroom.

Keogh, B., & Naylor, S. (1999). Concept cartoons, teaching and learning in science: An evaluation. International Journal of Science Education, 21(4), 431-446.

Keogh, B., Naylor, S., & Downing, B. (2003). Children’s interactions in the classroom: Argumentation in primary science. Paper presented at the European Science Education Research Association Conference, Noordwijkerhout, The Netherlands.

Rahmat, F. A. (2009). Use of concept cartoons as a strategy to address pupils’ misconceptions in primary four science topic on matter. In A. L. Tan, H. M. Wong, & S.,

Tan (Eds.), Action research: Empowering my practice in teaching science (pp. 11-37). Singapore: National Institute of Education and Science Exploria, East Zone Centre of Excellence for Primary Science.

Roesky, H. W., & Kennepolh, D. (2008). Drawing attention with chemistry cartoons. Journal of Chemical Education, 85(10), 1355-1360.

People sometimes tell me these days “wow julia, you are so good at drawing, it is so cool!”

I think this is kind of funny because, this is what happens when I try to draw animals.

But! There actually is a skill to explaining technical concepts to people with drawings. And Ithink I’ve become pretty good at that skill! It is just a different skill than like “drawing anelephant that looks like an elephant”

This post is about a few patterns I use when illustrating ideas about computers. If you areinterested in using drawings to teach people about your very favorite computer topics, hopefullythis will help you!

Let’s talk about how to structure cartoons and how to translate computer concepts into pictures!

cartooning isn’t about drawing skills

Just to emphasize it again – this is basically the entire visual vocabulary I use.

I think of tech cartooning as being about cartooning skills! I need to be good at:

  • using a very small number of words to express an idea (for example this mutexes cartoon has maybe 60 words in it)
  • breaking something down into simple concepts (“what are the key ideas you need to understand DNS?”)
  • staging relevant scenarios (“what’s a good example to use to show how a mutex works?”)

Here are some tactics I like to use when drawing!

personify the characters

I do a lot of personification/anthropomorphization – I’ll take a system and turn it into a cast ofcharacters who talk to each other. For example, here’s a scene from Kubernetes: the kubeletcomponent is talking to the API server

This is useful because

  1. it emphasizes that the “kubelet” and the “api server” (whatever those are) are important conceptsin Kubernetes
  2. it shows you that those two components communicate with each other
  3. it’s more fun than reading a paragraph saying the same thing

Here’s part of the cast of characters from my networking zine: (a laptop! a router! an operatingsystem! a program!)

Taking a complicated computer system and breaking down “ok, these are 3 main important characters inthis system” is incredibly useful.

show a scene

The next step after just making your characters is to put them into scenes and make them interactwith each other! So once you’ve established “the important characters here are the laptop, the DNSserver, and the HTTP server”, you can show how they actually work together in real life.


Here’s a scene with two humans talking:

and one with two programs who are both using the same mutex:

I think this scene (with program 2 thinking “not my turn yet”) is a pretty clear way to explain whathappens when a mutex is in use, and I think it’s faster to understand what’s going on than if youread a paragraph explaining the same thing.

make a list

I make a LOT of lists (for example, this post itself is a “list of things I’ve learned about making comics:)“). A few examples:

Here’s part of a list of networking tools and what they’re for

a list of attributes of a Unix process

and a list of strategies for asking good questions

A few things I love about making lists:

  • you can make a list of steps (step 1! step 2! step 3!)
  • it’s a really clear structure and so they’re easy to understand
  • it’s a nice way to teach someone something new (maybe you list 10 interesting things, and theyonly knew about 7 of them!)
  • none of them claim to be exhaustive (I didn’t say those were all the attributes of a process!)
  • sometimes I learn surprising things while making them. For example I started listing Linuxnetworking tools and I was really surprised by how many of them there were (I ended up listing24 of them!) (here’s the whole list)

make a diagram

A big part of the joy of hand drawing comics is that I can really easy make diagrams to explain whatI mean! No fiddling with LaTeX or graphviz or anything.

Here’s part of a diagram I made to illustrate memory fragmentation:

Edtech Cartoons Funny

and a slightly more involved diagram showing the structure of a UDP packet:

I love that I can use arrows / colours to emphasize things I think are important or give extrainformation. Like in this UDP packet diagram I greyed out fields that I thought were less important(like the “fragment offset”, which is definitely less important to understand than the source IPaddress).

make a joke

Computers are often really confusing and surprising. This can be kind of frustrating (“what is myprogram even doing?!!?!“) and also kind of funny! I think all the weird stuff that happens is part ofthe joy of computers! So sometimes I try to make jokes.

Here’s the Kubernetes scheduler all worried because it noticed a pod that it hasn’t been scheduled.(scheduler: “OH NO! I was supposed to have done that already! julia will be mad!”)

and a silly “C is for linearizable” joke (because the C in “CAP theorem” stand for “consistent”. But“consistent” is a pretty unclear term, so it’s more precise to say that it sounds for linearizable.So confusing!“)

just write some text

I like using cartoons but sometimes I’ll just write a paragraph. Here’s the start of a page aboutdstat:

This basically just says “every second, dstat prints out how much network & disk your computer usedthat second”. I could have typed that! But I think writing it by hand emphasizes like “no, this issomething I really love, I love it so much I wrote it out by hand and made a picture to show you!”

paste some computer output

Sometimes I want to paste and discuss some output you might see on a computer. For example, when Imade my strace zine I realized that a lot of strace output is really confusing. I wanted to pastesome actual strace output to talk about!

Luckily that is really easy to do in a drawing, because you can just put anything you want in it!

trace icons/logos

At the beginning I said “I can’t draw well”, which is true! But I can trace things. It’s a funway to make up for my lack of drawing skills.

It’s useful sometimes to include logos / icons! For example here are versions I traced of theKubernetes logo, the Recurse Center logo, Tux (the linux penguin), and a cat. The cat isn’tanybody’s logo as far as I know.

The hand-traced versions of these logos are kind of wobbly and imprecise in a way that is prettysatisfying to me, I think they look cool.

designing your comics

You have a blank sheet of paper in front you, and some information you want to convey! How do you doit? Having a few structure patterns really helps. Here are some examples:

Here’s one way of making a list:

A list of many small things:

and yet another list, here a list of steps. This one is organized into numbered panels!

This one is more of a normal comic and less of a list – it’s visually laid out withsquares/rectangles like a comic, and tells a bit of a story.

And finally this one is pretty unstructured. Personally I find this one a bit hard to toread/follow, I think having more structure than this is easier.

I think panels are a popular way of structuring comics for a reason, they help split up yourdrawing and make it clear what order the comic should be read in.

just making something a cartoon doesn’t necessarily mean it teaches what people need to know

I’m going to pick on another cartoon a bit here which I don’t really like to do but I need anexample :).

There’s an extremely adorable guide to Kubernetes called The Children’s Illustrated Guide to Kubernetes.

I think this cartoon is cool and introduces a lot of important ideas. But for me personally Icouldn’t understand how Kubernetes worked at all until I understood the role of etcd in Kubernetes(all the Kubernetes state is stored in etcd and every other Kubernetes component is stateless). Andthis cartoon doesn’t mention etcd even once! So I don’t think this cartoon would really have helpedme understand Kubernetes.


I think there are kind of 2 ways to use drawings to teach:

  1. draw diagrams / cartoons that make what you’re teaching more clear
  2. use drawings to make what you’re teaching more fun

Making concepts more clear and more fun are both great goals! Making things fun can be a good way tomake people pay attention and make hard concepts seem less intimidating!

But when I’m working on illustrations I find it useful to think about whether my drawings areactually helping explain the concept or whether they’re just fun (like drawing a picture of a sharkwhen talking about Wireshark!).

In this children’s illustrated guide to kubernetes, I think the drawings mostly serve to make thecontent seem more fun – almost all the actual content is in the text. I think if you removedall the giraffe drawings the document would contain basically the same information! This is not abad thing necessarily but I usually like to have more informational content in my drawings.

tools that make it easy

The tools I use today to make these are (see this interview for more)

  • a Samsung Chromebook Plus (though any samsung tablet with an S-pen will work. Or an ipad with theapple pencil!)
  • the Squid app for Android (goodnotes for ipad is good too!)
  • that’s it!

Edtech Cartoons Cartoon

Having a tablet I can draw on means I can really quickly draw something, click “share on Twitter”and immediately show it to the world. I definitely produce way more drawings with it than I did whenI was working with pen and paper. And they look way better :)

drawings don’t have to be beautiful to be awesome

I started out by drawing things on paper with a pen / Sharpie and just taking pictures. They alllooked way less good than everything I’ve posted above, but they were still really cool!!

For example here’s a very early drawing that I drew in pen on paper and posted to Twitter. Today Ifind this kind of janky & illegible but honestly when I posted it I got TONS of positive comments(evidence).

So drawings do not have to be beautiful and clean! They can be a sketchy thing you wrote on paperand that is okay.

how do you decide what’s a good subject for a tech cartoon?

Let’s take this comic on floating point I made last year! For that one, the steps were:

  1. Remember that I was really confused about floating key point until I learned a few key insightsfrom Stefan Karpinksi. When I learned these things my mind was totally blown and it was soexciting!!!
    • a double is 64 bits. That means there are only 2^64 floating point numbers!!!
    • The smallest double after 2^52 is 2^52 + 1 (so 2^52 + 0.2 = 2^52).
    • This means you can’t have integers above 2^53 in Javascript
  2. Think “well, those three things are really simple, I could put them in a comic”
  3. Figure out how to organize them into panels of a comic!!
  4. Don’t draw more than one page.

Here’s the final floating point comic I came up with in this example

I organize a lot of my comics about some key insight / fact / surprising thing that it took me along time to learn and was really useful to me.

Another example of this is this “how Unix permissions work” comic – like if you don’t know that‘0644’ is a number in octal and why it maps to rw-r--r--, it’s hard to understand how permissionswork. Here’s the comic about unix permissions.

Edtech Cartoons Youtube

you could make tech illustrations too

If you are interested in drawing tech cartoons, I hope this blog post gives you some ideas about howto do that! I’ve seen a lot of people making great illustrations about tech:

If you’re interested in making cartoons I’d really recommend the book Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud, it’s a reallyincredible explanation of how comics work. I learned a ton from reading it.

A few other people who are doing great work in tech comics:

  • Lin Clark https://code-cartoons.com/ (a lot of React cartoons). She also has some awesome posts aboutFirefox internals like Inside a super fast CSS engine: Quantum CSS (aka Stylo)
  • Amy Wibowo https://bubblesort-zines.myshopify.com (computer science zines!). I previously wrote anextended fan post about how great I think her work is.
  • Mariko Kosaka https://twitter.com/kosamari tweets cool drawings! like this one about HTML1.x vs 2.x
  • Vaidehi Joshi has been making awesome CS comics at https://medium.com/basecs