The baby’s developing capacity to focus is the first stage of learning to see. Recent research investigating attention in infancy has revealed that, at just four months old, babies are able to organise visual information in at least three different ways, according to brightness, shape, and how close the visual elements are together (proximity). These new findings mean that very young infants are much more capable of organising their visual world than psychologists had previously thought (Farran, Brown, Cole, Houston-Price & Karmiloff-Smith, 2007). The developing capacity to see (and hear) is thus the primary conduits of learning for children gifted with both sight and hearing. Both are critical building blocks in the formal education process.
Indeed the definitional dimensions of the word see testify both to its reach and its foundational nature:
• To perceive (light, colour, external objects and their movements) with the eyes…
• To behold (visual objects) in imagination, or in a dream or vision
• To perceive objects by sight
• To perceive mentally; to apprehend by thought …
• To perceive, apprehend, or appreciate in a particular manner
• To perceive by visual tokens
• To learn by reading
• To direct the sight (literal or metaphorical) intentionally
• To look at, contemplate, examine, inspect, or scrutinize
• To visit (a place)
• To attend (a play etc.) as a spectator
• To ascertain by inspection, inquiry, experiment, or consideration
• To make sure by inspection that certain conditions exist
• To know by observation (ocular and other);
• To witness … to observe, find … (The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1973:1928)
It is thus clear that see is a much more all encompassing term than either view or visualise, both of which might be regarded as more formal subsets of it (The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1973:2474 & 2483); however, there is not yet an appropriate overarching term to encapsulate this skill set in the way that the terms numeracy and literacy have come to be understood and accepted as umbrella skills developed as fundamental through specialist teaching and learning but with specific and targeted applications across the curriculum.
The Australian Government Literacy Policy for Australian Schools (1998) endorses the following definition of literacy:
Effective literacy is intrinsically purposeful, flexible and dynamic and involves the integration of speaking, listening and critical thinking with reading and writing (DEET, 1991:5), pointing out that it draws attention to the significance of effective literacy which requires the ability to read and use written information, to write appropriately, in a wide range of contexts, for many different purposes, and to communicate with a variety of audiences. Literacy is integrally related to learning in all areas of the curriculum, and enables all individuals to develop knowledge and understanding. (DEETYA, 1998)
The Crowther Report (1959) coined the term numeracy to ‘represent the mirror image of literacy’. Its definition was refined by the Cockcroft Committee that pointed out that, just as literacy is more than reading and writing, so numeracy is more than numbers and measurements. The Cockcroft Report (1982) thus argued that, to be numerate, an individual should understand the basic ways mathematics are used to communicate information which involves
• being ‘at ease’ with all those aspects of mathematics that enable a person to cope with the practical demands of everyday life [and]
• the ability to understand information presented in mathematical terms (Cockroft Report, 1982:11).
The Australian Numeracy Education Strategy Development Conference (1997) has since developed an overarching framework to describe numeracy that considers the core to be ‘…using…some mathematics…to achieve some purpose…in a particular context’ (DEETYA, 1997:13). In New South Wales this has recently been further
… we understand numeracy to involve using mathematical ideas efficiently to make sense of the world. While it necessarily involves understanding some mathematical ideas, notations and techniques, it also involves drawing on
knowledge of particular contexts and circumstances in deciding when to use mathematics, choosing the mathematics to use and critically evaluating its use. Each individual’s interpretation of the world draws on understandings of number, measurement, probability, data and spatial sense combined with critical mathematical thinking (DET [NSW], 2007).
Current evidence, however, suggests that the curriculum stalwarts of literacy and numeracy are no longer sufficient to equip students with the basics they need to operate in the innovation oriented, digitally wired twenty first century. Burmark’s (2002) text welcomed her readers to ‘the age of images’ with the quip that ‘[t]he signs are everywhere – for those who can read them’, arguing that The primary literacy of the 21st century will be visual: pictures, graphics images of every kind. Engineering, architecture, computer trades, health care
professions, even jobs as pedestrian as cooking fries at McDonalds (now done with sophisticated robotics) all require visual literacy. It is no longer enough to be able to read and write. Our students must learn to process both
words and pictures. They must be able to move gracefully and fluently between text and images, between literal and figurative worlds. (Burmark, 2002: Ch. 1)
However, by December 2007, eSchool News had published an article entitled “Hightech gadgets top kids’ holiday lists” which argued that, partly because of ‘a phenomenon known as “age compression”, technology is replacing ‘traditional toys for ever-younger children’ and that, as a result, companies are responding with ever
more high tech products; for example, Hong Kong-based VTech Holdings is offering a line called the Tote &Go
laptop Plus, a kiddie computer with an LCD screen that teaches three year olds math, language, and music lessons. The article points out that:
Thanks to products such as this, it’s easy to imagine a generation of children who already are accustomed to learning from a computer before they evenstart school – yet who begin school in an environment with little access totechnology. (eSchool News, Dec. 20, 2007)
On January 2, 2008, the eSchool News Special Report (Jacobson, 2008) noted that ‘These are special times for visual learning’ given that the rise of digital video is not only transforming educational delivery but affecting the substance of education. In June 2008 the first in a series of trans- and inter-disciplinary conferences designed to
explore and examine critically what it means ‘to be literate in a world that is continuous being re-shaped by the enormous array of printed, digitised and transmitted images and visual communications systems hat contextualise our perceptions of ourselves and our world’ will be held.
Yet, in the face of ongoing developments, the appropriation of literacy as a term applied to the visual can be argued to be potentially misleading given its intrinsic association with the verbal. The essence of the visual should thus be encapsulated in the new term visuacy which is defined here as involving the ability to create, process, critique and appreciate the spectrum of visual phenomena in the individual’s external and internal environment. Clearly, as with numeracy and literacy, visuacy is both a key foundational skill and also has applications and relevance to many other areas of the curriculum. Visuacy skills, as with literacy and numeracy skills, are required across the curriculum and need to be contextualised in their disciplines; however the teaching of the foundation skills - as with literacy and numeracy - is not the proper responsibility of discipline specialist teachers in History, Science, English or Mathematics. Visual education, which encompasses the broad spectrum of learnings around the accumulated knowledge relating to the creation and reception of images, is the responsibility of the trained visual educator. Sandell (2006) argues that it is a primary responsibility of visual education to explore, in systematic ways, …how, in contrast to what something is, through creative expression and critical response…Through the informative process of critical response, students perceive, interpret, and finally judge ideas connected to visual imagery and structures, past and present. Through the transformative process of creative expression, students generate artistic ideas that they elaborate, refine and finally shape into meaningful visual imagery and structures (Sandell, 2006:33).
The triumvirate of visuacy, literacy and numeracy has the potential to provide the basis for Australia’s developmental trajectory into the future. If the centrality of visuacy is not acknowledged and the concomitant need for visual education across the years of compulsory schooling is not considered seriously and in systematic
ways, that trajectory may be very seriously compromised.
- Professor Diana Davis, Visiting Senior Professorial Fellow
Research School of Humanities
Australian National University