Visual Literacy – As Essential As Reading and Writing

I find the concept of embedding visual literacy into our teaching and learning to be compelling.  We have a real responsibility to teach ourselves and our students to better interpret, learn, and communicate via visuals as well as through written and spoken words.

The New York Times’ Learning Network has a blog called What’s Going on in this Picture? which is a great tool to get kids accustomed to truly look at pictures and interpret what they are seeing.  Does it tell a story?  Are there clues that give you more information and help you better piece the puzzle together?  Think critically.  Is there an underlying or hidden message here?  What makes you think that?  Do you agree with your neighbor or the kid on the other side of the world?  Does that make you reconsider your original idea?  Do you want to do something about it?  about our world?  Does it somehow make you want to spring into action?  What could you do?  What are the barriers to that action and how could you overcome them to make a world a better place?

In my thinking, the subject areas that could particularly use this as a tool are: Social Studies, English, and Foreign Languages, and in our Advocacy Groups where these photos can become springboards for discussions for different purposes.  Are there other subject areas that I’m missing?  Kids can analyze the photos individually, in small groups, and/or as a class and share their ideas in the comments section then go back and read and respond to others ideas.  What a valuable way to see others’ perspectives.  When we consider the concept of internationalism, this allows just that, exploring other people’s thinking and using it to expand and question our own thinking.  Isn’t this what the most positively influential people in our history have repeatedly ask us to do:  to think and reason and question outside of ourselves and our small communities.  To use technology as a means of doing this is quite easy and profound.  Looking through the student and class responses to this image…

In the blog’s comment area, I found it so interesting to see student responses and reflections from the literal to the inferential. Emotionally positive and negative. Those students in classes where they had obviously had a discussion and went a bit deeper – seeking out clues to give more context to the photo story. This has so much potential.

I agree with George Lucas in his discussion of the importance of visual literacy in education Life on the Screen: Visual Literacy in Education where he states that

We must accept the fact that learning how to communicate with graphics, with music, with cinema, is just as important as communicating with words. Understanding these rules is as important as learning how to make a sentence work…  The problem is that people don’t get the bigger picture. And the bigger picture is that a country survives on its educational system. Go beyond that: The human race survives on its educational system. That means that a country with the best educational system becomes the prominent country or society. The society that has a great educational system becomes the prominent society because that’s the way the human race survives.

Lucas’s buddy Martin Scorcese couldn’t agree more.

We would be neglectful if we didn’t embed visual literacy across content areas into our teaching and learning.  Not sure why this hadn’t donned on my before but happy for the realization now.  Our kids (all of us, really) are bombarded with visual imagery, videos, propoganda and need to know how to utilize that information wisely in order to better benefit the world we live in.  So I searched for some visual literacy resources on the web and found (like most things) that there are a ton of great resources.  K-8 teachers might find the Visual Literacy K-8 website helpful while others at higher levels might appreciate the University of Maryland College Park’s Visual Literacy Toolbox. This Engaging Visual Literacy post led me to a wealth of Visual Literacy resources.  The PIC-LITS “Inspired Picture Writing” website is a cool tool where you can choose a picture, then have students drag and drop words that describe it – or go freestyle and compose sentences, paragraphs, etc.

Looking into the website, I found a handy Periodic Table of Visualization Methods that people (I’m thinking, especially scientists) will love to use as a tool to look at visuals from a whole range of perspectives.  They also have a helpful list of Books on Visual Literacy.  In terms of the creation of visuals such as presentations, they also have a diagram representing what they term as the Stairs to Visual Excellence. Many of these principles mirror Garr Reynold’s Presentation Zen concepts.  While these have been primarily developed for the business world, like all good things in education we can remix them for our kids and classrooms.

Now, off to send the link to this blog post to my teachers!

10 thoughts on “Visual Literacy – As Essential As Reading and Writing

  1. Thank you for the information about the NY Times photo blog. That just got added to Feedly.

    You covered the subjects that could be used, but I might add two more depending on the picture. One would be math. How much weight is that man carrying? What information do we need to know to find out?

    Could this picture be used in science? What time of day is it? How do you know? What climate is this country in?

    Thank you again for the awesome resource.

  2. Thomas & TM,
    I’m so pleased that the resources I posted are helpful to you. That’s what this is all about – sharing to better support students’ learning. Thanks also, Thomas, for your math and science connections. You make me realize that anyone in any subject might see something that I might not.

  3. Hi Trent,

    The Periodic Table of Visualization Methods that you linked to is quite a source! I’m not even sure I understand all of it, but it seems so comprehensive. I’m looking forward to investigating it further. Thanks for the link!

    Your blog is gorgeous, by the way.


  4. I loved the Periodic Table too – so comprehensive! But I think the NY Times blog will be very useful for me in class. We encourage the use of the Six Thinking Hats with our Gr 5s and this could be a great conversation starter. In fact, one a week would be a great way to encourage their deeper thinking. They can start with the basics of the Hats, then move on when they don’t need that scaffold anymore.

    What about the Art teacher? Surely, they can use this idea? Furthermore, I think it would be incredible to use in Theory of Knowledge lessons. The older students could really develop a deep discussion from these photos. It could also generate great ideas when looking through an “internationalism” lens with students. Well, I was looking for some early morning “start our thinking” activities and have found a great idea. Thanks!

  5. I am so glad that the importance of visual literacy is becoming more recognized these days. The title you gave this post sums it up nicely! And thank you for scouring the web to find good resources to share with us. I’ve added the NYT “What’s Going On In This Photo?” column to the resources pages on my class sites. The photos there appear to have been carefully chosen for their potential to spark discussion and analysis, and I think they will be great for building students’ ability to “read” images. The accompanying questions should be helpful as well. Thanks!

  6. Tons of great examples and resources, as usual! Love the idea of looking at images from different perspectives and then having a discussion!

  7. I found the Martin Scorcese clip that you linked to really interesting, not only because I have great respect for him as a film maker but also because he hit the nail on the head when he said that there is “another kind of intelligence” out there, that of visual literacy. His description of how a story was told through the eyes of “the writer, the director, the cinematographer, through where they were trying to focus your eye” and how different lenses and different foci meant that you interpreted the story differently was fascinating, and again reminded me of how an image can be so easily manipulated in order to make the viewer see something very specific, and how that image is carefully aligned with what the image-maker would have you see. I think you are entirely correct to say that critical visual literacy should be an increasingly important component of our curriculum. Just as interpreting the vast amount of data that we are exposed to is a 21st-century skill, so is interpreting (and manipulating) the images that we are exposed to.

  8. I’ve seen this done in reading classes when introducing or reinforcing reading skills. It’s called a Write Around. Teachers put an image on a large chart paper and students have a silent conversation noting observations, asking questions, make inferences, etc. Later you deconstruct their responces and identify what kids did as readers: infer, predict, question, visualize, make connections, determining importance, summarizing, etc. I love the idea of using other visual images to introduce concepts across the subject areas as well. I love the bank of questions you shared as well. It’s a great springboard into getting it started in the classroom! Thanks for a great post!


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