Making the Most of Infographics

You can’t miss them online. Infographics are those mash-ups of facts and ideas with illustrations and design. Educators and journalists use them to make complicated stories memorable and easier to understand. Marketers and lobbyists use them to persuade and motivate. If books were the meat and potatoes that nourished a previous generation of learners, infographics are the lite bites that can substitute for dinner only if they are very carefully chosen.

Colorful and concise, the best infographics graphics provide almost instant insight into challenging topics. By condensing and organizing data, they draw young people into new material so they remember it more easily and think about it more deeply. As attention spans shrink, it’s seductive to think students can communicate and learn in quick, bright bursts of information. Unfortunately, all infographics are not equal. Although they can clarify, some are confusing or even misleading. And any infographic is only as good as the facts on which it is based.

For parents and educators, this is a new frontier in literacy. Young learners will benefit when they can find reliable infographics that help them quickly grasp new material. Some will also discover that making infographics extracts the tedium out of homework such as reports, science projects and even basic note-taking. All kids will need some adult guidance about how to extract meaning from infographics without being hopelessly distracted. Here are some suggestions:

Recognizing Good Information When They See It
Some of the best educational infographics come from news sources such as the New York Times, the Washington Post and USA Today. Liking these organizations on Facebook will infuse a teenager’s timeline with interesting, fact-based maps, graphs and charts.

Many of the largest collections of infographics aren’t suitable for children because they accept uncurated submissions, so kids may encounter material that’s of dubious accuracy or intended for adults. Parents can safely point teens toward coolinographics.com, a blog that presents and critiques a new infographic each week. A word cloud makes it possible to search the archive and zero in on topics of interest. Educational infographics, suitable for elementary age children, have been collected by k12inc on a Pinterest board.

Regardless of where they are found, infographics are only as good as the information they include, so encourage your kids to ask the same critical questions they should be asking about other materials they find online.

Who is the source? Infographics come from media companies, educators, marketers, bloggers, political organizations, health providers and lobbyists. Encourage your child to do the detective work to figure out who made the infographic. If the source isn’t clear, the information is suspect.

What is the purpose? Sometimes infographics are simply about presenting complicated data in an interesting way. Often, however, the person or organization behind the infographic has an agenda. Talk to your child about how some people—researchers, reporters, teachers—are trying to get to the facts about a subject. Others pick and choose their facts so that they can persuade people or sell them something. In other cases, infographics are simply meant to be entertaining, so their content shoudn’t be taken too seriously.

Where did they get their information? A good infographic, especially one about a controversial topic, will include the equivalent of footnotes. Point out to your child that someone who is confident enough to cite sources is at least trying to present objective information.

DIY Infographics as a Learning Tool
Making an infographic can be a very effective way for a child to think deeply about new material and how it could be organized. Word clouds and concept maps help kids find connections between ideas. Charts make it easy to do compare and contrast studies. Different kinds of graphs can help kids make sense of data. And timelines help kids get a grip on the sequence of historical events. Happily, there are many free tools for creating infographics, and many of them are kid-friendly. Innovative teachers are already making use of some of these programs in the classroom, but you may also want to explore them with your child at home.

Create.ly – No need to register to use the free tools on this website. In addition to templates, the site offers open-ended options that are ideal for creating timelines and diagramming ideas by identifying key concepts and clustering facts around them.

Easel.ly – This website makes it very easy for students to create eye-catching posters. The intuitive interface gives kids access to templates, illustrations and tools that will help them clean interface, templates and illustrations.

Infogr.am – The free version on this website requires registration but then students have access to thirty easy-to-use templates for charts, graphs and other ways of presenting data

Piktochart.com – Designed for business, the free version of this site offers includes a wide variety of templates that will help students construct charts, graphs, maps and other infographics.

Textisbeautiful.net – This fascinating tool allows students to find patterns in a piece of writing but uploading text and then creating graphics that show often different words are used.

If you—or your kids—develop a passion for infographics, check out the learning blogs sponsored by the New York Times. (http://learning.blogs.nytimes.com) Typing “infographics” into the search engine will bring up lesson plans from educators who are thinking hard about how to help young people master the skills they need to become competent consumers of information in all its many forms.

Carolyn Jabs, M.A., raised three computer savvy kids including one with special needs. She has been writing Growing Up Online for ten years and is working on a book about constructive responses to conflict. Visit www.growing-up-online.com to read other columns.  to read other columns.