Teaching Forensic Handwriting Analysis Using The Simpsons
Ian James Turner, Cristina Helen Plant, Ashleigh Whiffin, and Chloe Newton
The Simpsons is a successful animated sitcom. The opening credits of the show feature a series of chalkboards displaying “lines” produced by a star of the show, Bart Simpson. In this paper, a lesson plan is described that uses the chalkboards to teach undergraduate forensic science students the basis of handwriting analysis.
Key Words: Handwriting, Education, Popular Culture
Target Audience: Forensic Science Educators
After reading this paper the reader should be able to:
Program Level: Basic
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Originally published in The Forensic Examiner - August, 2015
The Simpsons is a multi-award winning U.S. animated sitcom that first aired 1987 as a regular short feature on “The Tracy Ullman Show” (Waltonen & Du Vernay, 2010). In 2015, The Simpsons has aired over 574 full-length episodes in 30-60 countries and is currently in its 26th season (Gouthier, 2007; Fox Network, 2015). The Simpsons is a cartoon sitcom set in the fictional town of Springfield and features the Simpsons family as a dysfunctional stereotype of Western (at least, American) culture. Members of the family include Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie.
Bart Simpson is a nine-year-old boy and is infamous in Springfield for being in constant trouble with authorities, especially at Springfield Elementary School where he terrorizes the teaching staff: Edna Krabappel and Principle Skinner. The opening credits to The Simpsons often feature the punishment for Bart’s misdemeanours: writing lines on the class chalkboard (see figure one on the right).
The chalkboard sequence is one of several running visual jokes that occur during the opening credits of The Simpsons. In this sequence, Bart is seen to be repetitively writing a simple phrase normally commencing with: “I will not...” and these writings are often both humorous and relate to current affairs. "I can't see dead people” relates to the 1999 film, The Sixth Sense.
Popular culture is a well-explored medium in the classroom, and cartoon-shows like The Simpsons have been the subject of serious scholarly activity in range of disciplines including Psychology (Eaton & Usal, 2004), Economics (Luccasen & Thomas, 2010; Hall, 2005), and Philosophy (Irwin, 2001). The chalkboards in The Simpsons present a novel opportunity for teaching handwriting analysis to students of forensic science and criminalistics. The large numbers of sequences and common word and letter combinations present a way to illustrate characters of handwriting, individual and class characteristics, and the basic principles of handwriting examination.
The lesson is designed to run over a one-to-two hour period and based on a constructivist approach: teaching and learning by allowing learners to relate to the material to their own lives (“Concept to Classroom”, 2014).
Step One - Pose the problem: Students are introduced to The Simpsons and shown a selection of opening credit sequences including a range of chalkboard gags. Popular websites such as http://bartsblackboard.com/ allow students to view the chalkboards as they change over the seasons.
Step Two - Structured learning around the problem:Students are encouraged to view the chalkboards and observe and make notes on any differences that occur over the seasons. They should then derive a hypothesis related to that handwriting. An illustrative example (which could be used as the focus of a class activity) is that the handwriting from seasons 15 onwards is different in appearance from that in preceding seasons.
Step Three – seek and value students’ point of view:Students are encouraged to think of reasons the handwriting could be different. This allows explanation of: natural variation (Bart’s handwriting has changed); unnatural variation (Bart has deliberately altered his handwriting); and the uniqueness of handwriting (someone else has written on the chalkboard). Additional handwriting concepts such as handedness (Bart writes left-handed) or handwriting development (Bart is 9 years old) could also be discussed at this point.
Step Four – Adapt instruction to address student suppositions: Students investigate their hypothesis using handwriting examination principles (facilitated by the educator). This may involve letter and word comparison, or sampling techniques, and allows discussion of: specimens (request versus non-request); script formation (comparison between cursive and block capitals); and statements of conclusions.
Step Five – Assess student learning in context of problem: Students finally test their self-generated hypothesis against the handwriting comparisons and talk about the confidence they have in their conclusions.
The Simpsons model for the teaching of handwriting has been employed to two cohorts of undergraduate forensic students (n = 83). One hundred percent of respondents (n =78) found the use of The Simpsons, and 97% the overall lesson plan, “very enjoyable”. No formal evaluation of competence in handwriting analysis has been made using The Simpsons. It is clear the use of the TV show has a positive impact on students’ engagement with the topic and shows the potential of popular culture in teaching forensic skills.
Concept to Classroom: Workshop Constructivism as a Paradigm for Teaching and Learning (2014, n.d.) retrieved from http://www.thirteen.org/edonline/concept2class/constructivism/index.html
Eaton, J. &Uskal, A.K. (2004) Using The Simpsons to teach social psychology, Teaching of Psychology, 31, 277-278
Fox Network: The Simpsons (2015, n.d.) retrieved from http://www.fox.com/the-simpsons/full-episodes
Hall, J. (2005) Homer Economicus: Using The Simpsons to teach economics, Journal of Private Enterprise, 20, 165-176.
Gouthier, D. (2007) It’s science after all, Homer!, Journal of Science Communication, 6, 1-2.
Luccasen, R.A. & Thomas, M.K. (2010) Simpsonomics: Teaching economics using episodes of The Simpsons, The Journal of Economic Education, 41, 136-149
Waltonen, K. & Du Vernay, D. (2010) The Simpsons in the classroom: Embiggening the learning experience with the wisdom of Springfield. North Carolina, NC: McFarland & Company Inc.
About the Authors
Ian Turner, PhD, MSB, MCSFS is a Head of Forensic Science and a senior lecturer at the University of Derby, UK. Dr. Turner was named a National Teaching Fellow by the Higher Education Academy in 2014 and is passionate about pedagogy.
Ashleigh Whiffin, MSc, studied Forensic Science at the University of Derby, UK and Entomology at Harper Adams University, UK she is now employed by National Museums Scotland as a curatorial assistant in the Entomology collections.
Cristina Plant, PGDip, AMSB, studied Zoology at the University of Derby, UK and Science Communication at the University of Edinburgh, UK. Cristina is currently involved in the informal science education sector developing and delivering engaging science activities for schools, adults and families.
Chloe Newton, MSc, studied Forensic Science at the University of Derby, UK and Biomedical Science at the University of Chester. Chloe is currently a Pharmacy Assistant with the NHS Foundation Trust and intends to undertaking research in the area of cancer drug development in the near future.
Publisher Dr. Robert O'Block, American College of Forensic Examiners.