Teaching Visual Literacy

I have taught a unit on media literacy within TOK for several years now.  While the IB doesn’t include visual literacy in the TOK diagram and syllabus, it is such an essential application of critical thinking in today’s highly mediated world.  Neil Postman, of whom I have written about before, is our key text for this unit but one of the most powerful warm-up exercises that gets students very clearly focused on issues of propaganda, juxtaposition and manipulation is this great little 60 second commercial from Competitive Enterprise Institute.  Honestly, it’s such a perfect piece you could teach the entire unit on it and it alone.

YouTube Preview Image

Generally, I have students watch the clip twice before saying anything.  Then, I assign them a focal area, either text, images, sounds, or juxtapositions/contrasts.  Each group then watches the clip again paying particular attention to their focal area.  Groups then dissect the piece together extracting the key elements of their area and then lead the class (sometimes frame by frame) through an analysis of the piece from their perspective.  Once every group has presented, I ask them who they think produced this, why and when.  They speculate and then I ask them to go online and answer those questions.

It generally doesn’t take them long to realize that Competitive Enterprise Institute is a “thinktank” that is heavily sponsored by Exxon Mobile and that this piece was run on US national television in prime time the week prior to the release of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.  This is usually sufficient to open up lots of discussion about propaganda.

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2 Responses to Teaching Visual Literacy

  1. Ali says:

    Hi Michael,
    Thank you so much for sharing this example of what teaching visual literacy looks like at the IB/high school level. I teach Grade 5, and after taking course 3 in September/October, I embarked on a quest to raise the level of my own teaching of visual literacy…and hopefully raise the level of my students’ literacy. We analyzed images, used images to make blog posts more effective, and created presentations in a “zen” style. But I often find that what I’m missing is a really clear picture of where my kids are headed in the realm of 21st century literacy. I appreciated reading about the work your TOK students are capable of, and how the questions we asked of images (e.g. What do you think about when you look at this photo? ) will eventually lead to the level of analysis in your classes.

  2. Avatar of Chris Fox Chris Fox says:

    Great clip Michael – love the music as it automatically gets your on board with how great carbon dioxide it. I guess with wonderful, cute, beautiful, peaceful images also make one feel all nice, warm and fuzzy inside. In the end though, we must teach kids to look past the fluff, bells and whistles and look at life critically. It must be a blast twisting students in multiple directions in TOK; I’m a bit jealous. Kids probably get so much more out of TOK than so many other classes. However, without the base knowledge, they might not be as successful in your course. It’s a great lesson about how music and images can corrupt the mind. I would love to see some of the other clips you use in class.

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