“Reading” Pictures…. Examining Visual Literacy

My last post was all about media literacy, and the opinions I expressed on the topic have lead to some rather impassioned conversations amongst some of my colleagues. It seems that many of us have slightly differing views on what media literacy really means. So this week, before I start talking about visual literacy, I am going to start with a definition. This definition can be found on a website titled Visual Literacy Using Digital Still Images.

“Visual literacy is defined as the ability to interpret images as well as to generate images for communicating ideas and concepts”. (Stokes, 2002)
A visually literate person should be able to
• Interpret, understand and appreciate the meaning of visual messages;
• Communicate more effectively by applying the basic principles and concepts of visual design;
• Produce visual messages using computers and other technologies; and
• Use visual thinking to conceptualize solutions to problems
(from Jerry Christopherson, 1996 International Visual Literacy Association Conference, referenced from the book, Visual Literacy: Learn to See, See to Learn By Lynell Burmark, p.3, 2002)

Now that I had a definition, I wanted to learn more about visual literacy.

I began my quest to learn more, by reading David William’s blog post called A Brochure Without Words. In the post, he states, “There is simply too much information these days; too many words and not enough time to read them.” For that reason, he promises to keep his blog post short. I will try to follow his example and do the same. Then David goes on to briefly explain that one year ago, he and some colleagues at the International School of Brussels began to work on writing a new school brochure. This new brochure focused heavily on the visual – lots of pictures and only a little text. I paged through said brochure, which was embedded on his blog, and I’ll have to admit it was very pleasing to the eye. You could surmise a lot about the school from the photos. For example, you could tell that there are a variety of programs offered at the school, the student body is very diverse, and the grounds are beautiful. As a prospective parent, I’d be impressed. Sometimes a picture really does say 1,000 words.

My next destination was Garr Reynold’s Presentation Zen, where I read the post The Power of the Visual: Learning from Down Under Promotion Videos. Here, Garr talked about the success of both Australia’s and New Zealand’s recent tourism advertising campaigns. One thing that Garr says both countries have done so well is apply something called the “rule of thirds”. This means that when you take a photo, you don’t place the subject at the centre of the picture, but instead near the “powerpoints”. I heard about this “rule of thirds” idea a few years back and started to apply it to my own photography with great success. Just this past weekend, I was enjoying the Tokyo outdoors and took this amazing photo. I hope to have an opportunity to use it soon.

Two Rooms Restaurant - Tokyo, Japan

After leaving Garr and the sweeping vistas from Down Under, I headed over to Brain Rules to see what John Medina, a molecular biologist, has to say about Vision. In his book/multimedia project, he outlines 12 rules for the brain that he says all business leaders, parents, and teachers should know. Rule number 10 is that “Vision Trumps All Other Senses”. Medina says that humans can remember pictures far better than they can remember something they have heard or read, and that we should toss our old PowerPoint presentations that are text-based and make new ones that are image-based instead.
Intrigued, I watched Medina’s slideshow based on rule 10. On the first slide, the text reads:

“Recognition soars with pictures. Various studies show that recognition doubles for a             picture compared with text. Concrete text is more effective than abstract text because         it’s better at electing a visual cue.”

Next to the text was a chart, supposedly demonstrating what the text stated. Unfortunately, the graphic did little to help me understand the meaning of the text, and I found the whole thing quite confusing. I understand that visuals are often more powerful than words, but the visual was confusing and there was not enough text to explain the chart accurately. I think if Medina wants to make his point more strongly, he might rethink the visuals he is using. Just saying…. (In fairness to Medina, I think the slide was supposed to have audio, but it was not working. Perhaps a combination of text and audio would have helped me decode the visual. )

Even though, I found the slideshow confusing, I did peruse the rest of the site to find out about the other brain rules, and I strongly suggest you do too. I liked hearing that the brain needs a nap midday (now I know why I am always so tired at 2pm), that multitasking is a myth (I emailed the slide to my sister in an effort to try to get her to stop texting and driving), and that the brain pays a great deal of attention to emotional events (that’s why sex sells).

I then viewed the presentation Visual Literacy by Terri Johnson. Here are her suggestions to educators:
1. Images must specifically illustrate the targeted content and match the instructional goal.
2. Ensure that students have a meaningful interaction with images or video.
3. Make sure the images and videos supplement your good instruction, not replace it!
4. Model appropriate use and attribution of copyrighted digital images and video

I like what she has to say. Most especially, I think her last point hits home. Just the other day, I was talking about the literary genre of drama with my students, and I did a quick Google search in front of the class for a picture of the comedy and tragedy masks that are associated with drama. I told them I was going to find one that I would later paste on a handout for them. I skipped over a few, until I found the one I was going to use. My students were asking why I wasn’t using certain images, and I explained that I was looking for an image that I had permission to use. I did not intend to have a discussion about copyright, but this became a great teachable moment about proper use of images.

After leaving Terri Johnson, I visited a website called Visual Literacy and Picture Books. The opening statement on the page again reminds readers that in today’s society, we are constantly being bombarded with visual images. Because of this fact, classroom literacy programs must include “learning experiences which allow students to think critically about how images convey meaning”. The web page goes on to say that picture books can be used successfully to help student think critically about images. Immediately, I added this web page to my Diigo list, seeing as I use picture books all the time with my grades 5 and 6 students, and am sometimes criticized for using such “easy” books with my students. In my classroom, when I tell my students I am going to read a story, they excitedly gather on the floor in front of me and listen. They often point to things in the images, and occasionally, we discuss how the image relates to the text and what the illustrator was trying to show in the image. After reading the rest of the web page, I vowed to do more of this image analysis with my students.

I rounded off my reading by returning to Garr Reynold’s Blog and the post Nurturing curiosity & inspiring the pursuit of discovery. In the post, he asserts that our schools do a “poor job of nurturing students’ natural curiously.” He continues by saying that “a necessary element of good teaching is curiosity” and that to be a good teacher, we must demonstrate our own curiosity in order to inspire it in our students. According to Garr, “The best teachers are the ones who show their own desire to learn more about their subject and who are not afraid to show mistakes or admit that they don’t know it all.”

I couldn’t agree more. Back in 2006, I was really frustrated with how I was teaching. I was getting the students to read and getting them to write, but it wasn’t working well. They were not engaged by what they were reading, and their writing lacked quality. Though my students were too polite to admit it, I knew I was boring them to death. After all, I was bored, so they had to have been. Luckily, I was given the opportunity to attend a workshop at the Columbia Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project.

On the first day of the two-week session, I listened intently to the opening speeches. One speaker said something to this effect: “How can we tell our students that it is important to read and to write, if we don’t do it ourselves?” It made me think. Here I was, a reading and writing teacher, but the last time I actually read anything for pleasure was probably the previous summer’s holiday and the last time I had written for pleasure was probably high school. I was telling my students that it was so important that they read and that they write, but I wasn’t doing it myself because I was “an adult with a job” and simply “too busy”. Classic “do as I say, not as I do” behaviour.

After the course ended, I began to write for and with my students. When I asked them to write something for me, I did it first – sometimes I would prepare it ahead of time and sometimes I would write right in front of them. I also started to read too, for pleasure, and talk with my students about what I was reading. They began to finally see me as a writer and reader, and that empowered them to do it themselves. My classroom was suddenly a very different place. Because I was reading and writing, I had passion for the subject again, and I began to have much more meaningful interactions related to reading and writing with my students. My teaching was revolutionized and I now know that as educators, we cannot inspire curiosity in our students if we do not act like lifelong learners ourselves.

Now, you might say that that last Garr Reynold’s article has very little to do with visual literacy, and though he may not mention the term “visual literacy” in the post, educators can take the idea of curiosity and apply it to our teaching of visual literacy in the classroom. Our students need curiosity if they are going to make meaning out of all the visual images they are being exposed to. All evidence today seems to suggest that we teachers need to use more visuals to catch our students’ attention. We also must make sure that these visuals are effective and engaging. But the final piece is that we must inspire our students’ curiosity, and show them that they must not just take all these visuals that they are exposed to at face value, but instead examine them critically.

Recently, I have been thinking a lot of visual literacy as I teach my grade 6 students. For many years, I have had them study the novel with a Native American protagonist. When I first started teaching the novel, I simply assumed that my students knew what the term “Native American” meant. I quickly realized, however, that this was not the case. Of course. Why would they? I am from North America, so I understand, but many of my students have never even set foot on the continent. So, I began to teach about Native Americans. My first failed attempt was to give the students a long handout with a few pictures. Not surprisingly, they were bored. Then I experimented with a PowerPoint with a little less text and more visuals. It was better, but still not very successful. Then, a couple of years back, I started to use some picture books, namely Between Earth and Sky, Crazy Horse’s Vision, and If You Lived with the Iroquois. The students find them much more interesting I think mainly because they include a narrative and pictures. Now, I plan to add the book Brother Eagle, Sister Sky to the collection. This book is a bestseller, but some Native American groups think it should not be read because they have issue with its illustrations. I plan to read it to the class and then hold a discussion about the images.

After doing all this reading about visual literacy, I know also plan to study some still photographs. Recently, I realized that all the images of the Native Americans I have been using are from around the time of colonization. The other day, one student asked me if all the Native Americans were now gone. I certainly don’t want my students to think that Native Americans have disappeared, so I have decided that I must also include some images of Native Americans today. I plan to use the present day images below with my students next week. I found the first few from Flickr, and the last one is one I took myself of students that I taught a few years back in Canada. My plan is to show these present day images to my students and ask them what they conclusion they can draw about Native Americans today from studying the images. I will use their responses to prompt a discussion about issues facing Native American people today.

Alright, not all that brief. My apologies. I will try keep the next posta bit shorter. Stay tuned. :)

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One Response to “Reading” Pictures…. Examining Visual Literacy

  1. Pingback: Visual Literacy: My Reflections | Mary's Blog

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