From Complexity to Clarity, It’s a Visual World After All

“Visual literacy is the ability to interpret, use, appreciate, and create images and video using both conventional and 21st century media in ways that advance thinking,decision making, communication, and learning.” – Engauge Report on 21st Century skills

In 1826, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, a curious sort interested in the emerging field of lithography, utilized a pewter plate, a few chemicals, and eight hours of daylight to bring the world the first photograph (or heliograph as it was called) dooming the then emerging artistic movement known as Realism. Within a few short decades, capturing life’s moments and likenesses became common place, infiltrating the lives of people everywhere by bringing news, enhancing prose, providing proof, and most importantly, affecting beliefs. We know now that the photograph is just an extension of what people have been drawn to eternally: the power of the visual.


I sincerely doubt there is anything artificial much more complex than cyberspace…


As a history and psychology teacher, I am inclined to provide significant opportunities for students hone their visual literacy skills. Here are a few ways  visual literacy may be embedded into lessons:

  • Using a practice known as SOAPSTone, students apply a number of specific critical thinking questions to charts, graphs, photos, and political cartoons (collectively known as infographics).
  • Photo essays with Voicethread, Weebly, and Clevr
  • What’s happening and why? – provide a photo or series of photos centering on an historical event and have students identify the event and how the picture is connected to the events significance.
  • How Many Really?
  • Create infographics like this one created by a student last year:


created by Adisa Narula, Ruamrudee International School

But it wasn’t until I stumbled onto this resource that I could see the proper way to approach functionality of the visual in the proper context. You see visuals often play a very specific role in the external environment.  I am inclined to see how visuals can take complex issues or situations and bring much needed clarity to the viewer. I can also see the opposite effect of the visual when considering the aesthetic value of art or the  powerful purpose of a symbol. Through history, symbols have provided meaning and ambiguity. Man’s earliest attempt to provide help and also conceal secrets have come through visuals (Dan Brown has made millions of dollars off of this concept). One of the earliest, and still one of my favorite, websites is an outstanding educational tool called the Encyclopedia of Symbols which allows users to identify symbols through their unique  visual characteristics (axis; hard/soft lines etc.) and also find symbols that have a special meaning to the individual. I highly recommend adapting this resource into a lesson for it’s appeal and visual literacy components.

So what makes humans so attune to visuals? Short answer: It’s the brain.

Cognition requires energy and focus. The brain looks for significant meaning by anchoring itself to cues. The trick is the nature of the cue and the proper level of association to the cue (that conceptually is the fundamental purpose of forging connections). Text, for example, is a symbol system and must be decoded to have meaning. That is, the brain first must compare letters and word-forms with shapes stored in memory. Then it gauges how the words fit together in the context of sentences, and so forth. All considered, reading is a lot of mental work. Granted, such effort may be perfectly justifiable while reading a novel and sipping iced tea in the back yard, but it’s not effective when listening for long periods of time. More importantly, written languages are accompanied by particular nuances that slows down processing.

Alternatively, images require relatively little processing because they fit with the message. Audiences routinely and efficiently observe visuals, analyze their meanings, and give attention to the speaker’s words, without a problem. That’s why watching television or movies is effortless. Showing people meaningful, content-based visuals, as opposed to text, lessens their cognitive exertion and improves overall experience. Most importantly, clarity is brought to complex concepts by allowing for entire pieces of a concept to be identified at the same time. The synchronic feature of images is often underscored….unless you are looking at a subway map or a complex photo.

Teachers should consider anchoring their lessons in visuals as either tools or as assessment products. According to the Engauge Report, students who are visually literate:

* Have working knowledge of visuals produced or displayed through electronic media

* Understand basic elements of visual design, technique, and media.

* Are aware of emotional, psychological, physiological, and cognitive influences in perceptions of visuals.

* Comprehend representational, explanatory, abstract, and symbolic images.

* Apply knowledge of visuals in electronic media

* Are informed viewers, critics, and consumers of visual information.

* Are knowledgeable designers, composers, and producers of visual information.

* Are effective visual communicators.

* Are expressive, innovative visual thinkers and successful problem solvers.”

It is reasonable to embed one or more of these outcomes into any unit plan and to help with that adaption, I have placed a very cool and helpful tool below called the The Periodic Table of Visualization Methods . Use this tool to complement the lessons you plan or for students to use when creating visuals (which is one of the emerging 21st century skill sets in commercial and non-commercial sectors of society).

Amazing way to think about visualizations.

I was very excited to find the video below to support the utility of visuals. Academy Award winning director Martin Scorese is a huge proponent of visual literacy initiatives and articulates what he believes to be the key power of visuals in reaching creating meaning and connecting to a wider audience.

A Conversation with Martin Scorsese: The Importance of Visual Literacy



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