Are You Visually Literate? Are Your Kids?

If you're visually literate, you know what to look for in a photo, what questions to ask, and can begin to deduce its meaning and significance. Historical and cultural literacy will help you to refine and evaluate these deductions, as well as indulge in what the material culture scholar Jules Prown has called "cultural daydreams"--brainstorming about the larger meaning of the photo before diving into actual research on it.

Map reading, diagramming, making sense of charts and graphs in the business section of the newspaper--all of these require some degree of visual literacy. Simply put, visual literacy is the ability to "read" images for information, as well as to create them to transmit information.

I recently returned from a meeting of faculty and staff from research universities receiving grants to promote critical thinking through writing and other means. My university opted to propose not only a project in writing, but also a project focusing on visual literacy. This literacy is an important one for undergraduates, yet one that isn't made explicit in most courses, even though visual literacy is important across the disciplines. Many faculty members in higher ed could benefit from a refresher course in what visual literacy is and how to increase undergraduates' literacy.

Visual literacy is important in K-12 as well, and is taught, I think, more explicitly in those grades. As young students we learn to read bar graphs, to know (in the U.S.) that a stop sign is always a red octagon, that the symbols and colors on countries' flags represent something else. We also learn--informally, outside of class, on the playground, online, and on TV--to identify brand logos, to "read" a classmate's clothing to determine her socioeconomic class, to interpret others' facial expressions, and to create pictorial representations (e.g. avatars) of ourselves online and off.

Visual literacy is especially important in the digital age. Software and online tools have made it easy for anyone to create or manipulate images and to disseminate those images widely. As a result, we're introduced to more images now than at any point in history. The ability to interpret these images becomes increasingly crucial as we rely less on text and more on image and video to convey information. (For some examples, see Richard Lowe's Visual Literacy and Learning in Science.)

Keith Lightbody lists some benefits of incorporating visual literacy exercises and activities into the curriculum:

- students can learn better when teachers support a variety of learning styles
- students can improve reading and writing skills through the use of visual literacy techniques (studies have shown that processing in competent reading involves both phonological and visual information)
- visual literacy can contribute to visual-spatial intelligence (one of the multiple intelligences identified by Howard Gardiner). It can also be involved in other intelligences such as bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, linguistic, and logical-mathematical.

Lightbody also points us to many excellent resources on visual literacy in education.

Many aspects of blogging require visual literacy, from selecting the best images to include in a blog post to tweaking your blog's CSS code to better represent yourself online. Bloggers also have written extensively about visual literacy, although not always using the term "visual literacy" itself. Some examples:

One of my new favorite blogs is viz, which covers rhetoric, visual culture, and pedagogy. Recent posts of note: Lauren Mitchell's "Obama's Design," Erin Hurt's brief post on how PETA misuses images of women, and Tim Turner's "Worst Ad Ever?".

Meryl K. Evans offers 175+ data and information visualization examples and resources.

Ankit uses Coca-Cola advertisements from several different decades to illustrate this point:

A visually literate individual will pick up on these differences and see that all that the ad is telling them regarding the historical context of the advertisement and the technological capabilities available at the time, not just the product the ad is endorsing. Pictures oftentimes can relate more information than that which is most obvious, and the visually literate can pick up on this.

Nate Hill explains how visual literacy is embedded in cultural context.

Nancy White has a kajillion posts on what she calls "visual thinking."

Also not to be missed:

The periodic table of visualization methods--it may sound dry, but check it out anyway as it's actually pretty neat.)
The American Library Association's January/February 2008 Knowledge Quest Web issue on visual literacy
The online visual literacy project from Pomona College (alert: vintage web site, but still some good information and examples)
The Tactical Technology Collective's free e-booklet "Visualizing Information for Advocacy: An Introduction to Information Design
Finally, if you want to know more about the first image referenced in this post, check out its description in The Library of Congress Commons on Flickr.

In what ways do you feel especially visually literate, and how has your participation in online spaces increased your visual literacy? In what ways do you feel deficient in visual thinking? And how are you teaching your students or your children to be more visually literate?

Submitted by Leslie Madsen Brooks (view blog) on Sat, 04/19/2008 - 10:05pm
Posted In visual literacy | K-12 | Research, Academia & Education

Leslie Madsen-Brooks helps university faculty improve their teaching. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toy Box.

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