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Using Cartoons to Investigate Geographical Issues. Dr Grant Kleeman Macquarie University–Sydney. This presentation:. Examines cartoons as a form of political satire and social commentary Outlines the benefits derived from using cartoons in the classroom

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using cartoons to investigate geographical issues

Using Cartoons to Investigate Geographical Issues

Dr Grant Kleeman

Macquarie University–Sydney

this presentation
This presentation:
  • Examines cartoons as a form of political satire and social commentary
  • Outlines the benefits derived from using cartoons in the classroom
  • Explores some of the cartoon-based teaching and learning strategies teachers employ to enhance the interpretative and communicative skills of students

Key points:

  • The term ‘cartoon’ has, since the mid-nineteenth century, been used to denote a humorous or satirical illustration published in newspapers and magazines.
  • For the most part, cartoons address topical public issues, personalities, events or social trends and seek to make direct comment on such matters.
  • The communicative power of the cartoon lies in its ability to present often-complex issues, events and trends in a simplified and accessible form.
  • A person’s interpretation of a cartoon is coloured by his or her own socio-political experience and cultural background.


When used appropriately, cartoons meet a range of educational needs, and the skill of cartoon interpretation is something that has application well beyond the years of formal schooling.

why use cartoons
Why use cartoons?:

Used in an educational context, cartoons are seen as having several distinct, though often interrelated, advantages. These include:

  • Promoting interest in a particular idea, issue, event or social trend
  • Initiating classroom discussion and debate
  • Developing critical thinking skills
  • Enhancing understanding of often complex ideas, issues, events or social trends
  • Extending gifted and talented students
  • Assessing student understanding – particularly effective where an overall appreciation of a topic, rather then the restatement of specific facts, is the principal aim
  • Demonstrating the interdisciplinary nature of the discipline.
critical thinking
Critical thinking
  • The process by which individuals use reflective, reasoned, rational thinking to gather, interpret and evaluate information in order to formulate an opinion or make a judgment. It also promotes a deeper level of engagement with issues.
  • By analysing the ways in which visual texts, including cartoons, work we enhance our understanding of the ways our feelings, attitudes and values are manipulated.
  • These understandings enable us to identify and challenge dominant discourses and evaluate various alternatives.
  • Empowered by these understandings, we are better placed to become agents of social change and work towards the removal of inequalities and injustices.
types of cartoons
Types of cartoons:
  • Political (or editorial) cartoons
  • Gag (or pocket) cartoons
  • Caricatures
  • Comic strips
political editorial cartoons
Political (editorial) cartoons
  • Represent a commentary on social change (broadly defined) and, in many instances, seek to provoke a reassessment of existing social attitudes and values.
  • For the most part, political cartoons highlight and comment on what the cartoonist believes to be the significant news of the day.
  • The aim of the cartoonist is to encourage the reader to adopt a particular point of view and predispose him or her to a particular course of action.
  • Stylistically diverse
gag pocket cartoons
Gag (pocket) cartoons

Gag (or pocket) cartoons generally take the form of a relatively small drawing accompanying a specific article or report.

  • Artworks that exaggerate or distort the features and characteristics (or the basic essence) of a person or a group of persons to create a readily identifiable visual likeness.
  • Most editorial cartoons, and many gag cartoons and comic strips, make extensive use of the caricatures of noted public figures.
  • Some caricatures are drawn in a manner that lampoons the person being portrayed and in some instances seeks to provoke ridicule.

Standalone caricatures differ from editorial cartoons in at least one important respect. In editorial cartoons, the idea comes first and the artwork emerges from it. The caricature, on the other hand, is a portrayal of personality.

strip cartoons
Strip cartoons

Cartoons that incorporate a series of separate pictures to illustrate a story. These may be for mere enjoyment or they may have a role similar to political and editorial cartoons.

cartoons as an instructional tool
Cartoons as an instructional tool
  • If cartoons are to be used effectively in classrooms students must know how to interpret them.
  • Their ability to do so is significantly enhanced if they have an appreciation of the various elements cartoonists use to communicate an idea.

Gated communities

(Spatial exclusion)

elements of cartoons
Elements of Cartoons




Visual metaphors

Exaggeration and distortion

Editorial and gag cartoons






The cartoonist’s message

  • Symbols have the ability to communicate often complex, emotionally rich ideas in a concise manner.
  • The use of symbolism involves the inclusion of representational forms or images that have meaning beyond what is obvious and immediate. In other words, a sign or object used by the cartoonist to stand for something other than itself.
  • The effectiveness of such references depend on the presumption that its meaning can be understood by the reader.
visual metaphors
Visual metaphors
  • Artistic devices used to help our minds come to grips with complex ideas by relating them to something more familiar and readily understood.
  • Used by the cartoonist to trigger, in an observer, a metaphoric rather then literal thought.
  • Refaie (2003) argues that the meaning an observer attaches to a visual metaphor ultimately depends on the nature of his or her engagement with the socio-political context. The viewer is likely to bring his or her own life experiences to the interpretation process.
  • Illustrations that exaggerate or distort the prominent physical features and/or idiosyncrasies of a subject to create an easily identifiable visual likeness.


  • Irony (an expression in which the true meaning is the opposite of the literal meaning) and Satire (the use of ridicule or scorn, often in a humorous or exaggerated way, to expose vices and follies) are often employed to give a cartoon a humorous edge.
  • Text-based statements (or captions) are used to reinforce and contextualise a cartoon’s non-verbal elements. In other words, they complement, rather than render obsolete, the other elements of a cartoon.

Perspective & tone

  • Perspective: The position, stance or point of view adopted by the cartoonist.
  • Tone: The mood created by a cartoon provides important insights to the cartoonist’s attitude towards the subject and his/her audience.
symbols and visual metaphors are amongst the cartoonist s most powerful tool
Symbols and visual metaphors are amongst the cartoonist’s most powerful tool.

Use of caption: Reinforces and helps contextualise the cartoon’s non-verbal elements.

Use of caricature: President George W Bush. Note the exaggeration of distinctive facial features.

Use of a visual metaphor: Stark, arid landscape used to further emphasise the plight and suffering of those living in the poverty stricken nations of the developing world.

Use of Symbolism: Uncle Sam – A symbol used to represent the United States of America.

Use of symbolism: Staring African child – representative of the suffering of people in the world’s poorest countries.

Use of a visual metaphor and exaggeration: An obese Uncle Sam used here to emphasise the affluence of the United States of America and the nations of the Western world more generally.

Use of symbolism: Aid begging bowl. A symbol/visual metaphor used to emphasis the plight of many of those living in developing countries. Also, represents the developing world’s dependence on aid.

Cartoonist’s perspective: Sympathetic to the plight of those living in the developing world.

Context: The cartoon was drawn as a response to the campaign mounted by Bob Geldof, Bono and Britain’s Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to address poverty in Africa. It involved cancelling the debt of world’s 18 poorest nations, pledging universal access to AIDS treatment and a commitment to double the aid given to African nations.

Cartoon by Sean Leahy of Brisbane’s Courier-Mail

cartoon analysis scaffold
Cartoon analysis scaffold

Group-based learning

Brainstorming – an instructional strategy used to generate, develop and refine ideas – can be undertaken independently by students, but is often more effective when employed in conjunction with group-based learning.Each member of the group can, for example, be asked to think creatively about a specific cartoon and then write down as many ideas as they can generate. Each member of the group then shares their ideas with their peers and the group then negotiates a consensus-based interpretative position. This process can be enhanced through the collaborative completion of a cartoon analysis scaffold or via the construction of a cartoon interpretation mindmap.

sample group based mindmap analysis of a nicholson cartoon
Sample group-based mindmap analysis of a Nicholson cartoon

Issue: Do those living in developing countries have a right to enjoy the same material standard of living as people living in developed countries? What are the implications of this for global warming?

Issue: Global inequality and access to natural resources.

Large family home – used to symbilise the high standard of living enjoyed by those living in developed countries relative to those in developing countries.

Caption used to reinforce the point being made by the cartoonist.

Used to emphasise existing inequalities and the possible impact of rising material standards of living in developing countries.

House full of domestic appliances. Powered by electricity generated via the burning of fossil fuels which add to carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere.

Simple dwelling symbolic of the low living standards experienced by many of those living in developing countries.

Climate change, rising sea levels, glacial retreat and an increase in extreme weather events.

Two motor vehicles powered by petrol, a fossil fuel. The burning of fossil fuels is linked to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.

Symbolic of the gulf between the living standards of people in developing countries and those living in developed countries.

Few material possessions (especially electrical appliances and motor vehicles) – Low levels of energy consumption.


Independent analysis and interpretation of cartoons

Having developed their skills of cartoon analysis via the group-based processes outlined above, students reach a stage where they are able to interpret cartoons independently. Students can further consolidate this skill by adopting a systematic approach to the interpretation of cartoons and the communication of the geographical knowledge and understandings derived from the process. This ‘scaffolding’ assists students to stage the cartoon interpretation process and structure their written responses.

When interpreting cartoons with a geographical theme, students should be encouraged to ask themselves the following three questions:

1.What information does the cartoon convey? This includes the issue being addressed and the perspective, stance or point of view adopted by the cartoonist.

2.What geographical concepts/generalisations are related to the issue addressed in the cartoon?

3.What are the geographical implications of the issue addressed by the cartoonist?

internet scavenger hunt
Internet scavenger hunt

Using the Internet, have students locate cartoons indicative of a selected geographical issue such as global inequalities, globalisation, population growth, pollution or land degradation. Students can then analyse the cartoons using the processes outlined above, share their findings with the rest of the class and mount a wall display of the cartoons and the accompanying mindmap-based analysis.

Global warming

drawing cartoons
Drawing cartoons
  • Asking students to draw their own cartoon on a selected geographical issue is an excellent way of assessing conceptual understanding.
  • It can also be used to challenge gifted and talented students.
  • As an instructional strategy, cartoon drawing enables the student to:
    • apply their geographical knowledge and understanding in ways that demonstrate and enhance their critical thinking skills;
    • be creative and original in their thinking;
    • utilise symbols and visual metaphors to communicate sometimes abstract/complex concepts to an audience;
    • draw on their general knowledge and apply it in geographical contexts; and
    • explore and clarify their own value system.
groupwork based strategies
Groupwork-based strategies

Groupwork-based instructional strategies enable the gifted and talented student to relate to others, demonstrate their leadership skills, manage and influence others and appreciate and understand the views, attitudes and feelings of other students.

examples of instructional strategies
Examples of instructional strategies

Climate change

Sample cartoon-based instructional strategies

1. In groups, study the Nicholson cartoon and brainstorm the issue being addressed. Share your findings with the rest of the class. Use this information to write a short statement explaining the point Nicholson is tying to communicate in his cartoon.

2. Conduct a class debate. Topic: People in developed nations must accept a lower standard of living as part of their contribution to global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

3. In groups, brainstorm what you and your family could do to reduce greenhouse emissions. Make a list of the suggestions and share them with the rest of the class

Source: Kleeman, G. et al. (2004). Global Explorations. Melbourne: Heinemann.

migration australia s future challenges population
Migration & Australia’s future challenges (population)

Sample activity

As a class, discuss the point Nicholson is making in his cartoon. Use the knowledge gained to write a paragraph outlining your understanding of the issue.

nicholson on immigration
Nicholson on immigration

Sample activity

As a class, discuss the point of view being expressed in the Nicholson cartoon. What does it tell us about the relative size of Australia’s official refugee intake? Why is the use of the ‘fortress’ significant in this context?

Sample activity

Working in groups, discuss the issue raised in the cartoon. Share the main points raised in your group’s discussion with the rest of the class. To what extent do you think this cartoon reflects the current state of Australia’s mandatory detention policy?

land water management
Land & water management

Sample activity

As a class, brainstorm the point Nicholson is making in his cartoon. Explain how the cartoon relates to the issues of land and water management?

land water management29
Land & water management

Sample activity

Study the cartoon and then write a written response. Use the following points to help structure your response:

1. Identify the issue addressed in the cartoon.

2. Explain the geographical processes relevant to the issue.

3. Outline at least two different perspectives relevant to the issue addressed in the cartoon.

4. Identify the actions that individuals, groups and governments can take to address the issue highlighted by the cartoonist.

australia s alliance with the usa
Australia’s alliance with the USA
  • Sample activity
  • Study the cartoons and then answer the following questions:
  • Identify the issues addressed in the cartoons.
  • Who do the characters in the cartoons represent?
  • What perspective or opinion is the cartoonist expressing in each cartoon?
  • Do you agree or disagree with the perspective of the cartoonist? Justify your position.

The cartoonist's view

Nicholson on Cronulla

A Geography of ethnicity

Spatial conflict – the cultural importance of space

A matter of perspective

useful cartoon websites
Useful cartoon websites

The following Internet websites provide access to a vast number of political cartoons:

  • Cartoon Web
  • Cartoon Stock
  • Daryl Cagle’s Professional Cartoonists index
  • New Zealand Cartoon Galley
  • Nicholson’s Cartoons
  • News Limited Cartoons
  • The Age newspaper
  • The Sydney Morning Herald
  • The Guardian newspaper

The world’s newspapers can be accessed via:


Cartoons in Geographical Education

Not just for fun