Visual Learning, Visual Language and Photography

Visual Learning arises from the use of visual language, where linguistic meanings, information and sense are embedded in an image, rather than a text, and where the image is capable of being read, both in terms of the authors intent and in terms of the viewers own conditioned perceptions. Because a photograph is liberated (at least to some extent) from the constraints of a written text, it enables both author and viewer to encode and decode meanings in a very direct and often intuitive way. This results in a web of understanding that varies in complexity according to the visual acuity and perceptions of the persons who make and receive the image.

Visual language is acquired in early childhood and is a primary means of making sense of the world. Its acquisition and development continues in varying degrees throughout life. Images are codified through the naming of things and then, through the use of imagination are recalled and remembered. When linked to the development of spoken language and the reading of texts, images act to provide the ability to establish and order our understanding of the world and its complex pattern of relationships. For young children this is particularly important and is a process which is extended and enhanced through the use of reproduced images. Because it is acquired so early, visual language, like speech, becomes an internalised and natural occurrence, which does not need to be deliberately considered and acted upon in order to be used. This differentiates it from the reading of text, particularly in the early stages of learning when the ability to read must be deliberately taught.

Constant exposure to televised images extends the zone in which this learning is developed, introducing increasing levels of complexity and different means of representation. One effect of this is to covertly teach a range of visual conventions that direct the viewer into the range of understandings that are intended by the originator. The linking of this process with more formalised learning (e.g. forms of representation, connotations, cultural expressions and associated values) and reproduced images in other media creates powerful tools for thinking and expression. Media education acts to apply critical and aesthetic considerations to these developments and photography in its various forms provide the means of utterance. Photography, in its literal sense of ‘writing with light’ is concerned with the re-presentation of what has been seen, so that an image and its encoded meanings may be subsequently evaluated, interpreted and received. Consequently photography1 is a key to both visual language and learning. This is because it acts as a language that is more universally capable of being read than images produced by other means (e.g. painting, graphics) and is not affected to the same extent by the dialect2 adopted by the individual.

Visual learning occurs as an individual seeks to establish pattern and order on visual impressions of the world. It leads to the personal ownership of a scheme of representations, which are classified and coded with meanings. These images become the imagination3 and are recalled to become the images - in - action4, enabling new learning to take place as correspondences are established and new internalised images synthesised, together with shifts in meaning.

Teaching through Visual Learning

Because visual language is acquired from birth, simply through the process of seeing and only subsequently given further meaning and expression by being verbalised, it remains a powerful if not primary means of understanding, orientation and conceptualising for every individual. Activating those understandings by providing a means through photography, for writing with light and thereby directly using the same medium through which all the images were initially received; provides a means of expression which is not limited by verbal ability, vocabulary or writing skills. It by-passes written language constraints and because the produced image may be subsequently reviewed again and again, the information, visual stimuli, empathetic triggers and associations of meaning are all recoverable on demand. Instant or digital photography may enhance this learning process, particularly for young children, because it makes the formed images immediately reviewable, thus confirming what was seen and reinforcing what has been learnt, whilst the original content, for what has become a concrete experience of the image is still available for reference. This visual feedback loop provides security of knowing, an aid to classification and encoding as well as a means of cross checking individual perceptions and understandings with others. This in itself adds significance to the image as well as confirming the learning that is taking place.

Photography is the primary vehicle for visual learning and because it is largely dialect free, (i.e. not encoded with sets of personal and idiomatic uses of language which are culturally referenced) and is capable of acting as a 'language without frontiers', which subject to cultural determinants5 does not need translation from the language of one person to another, but enables meanings to be passed across both time and place. This is true of all levels of human interaction through photographic images, whether business or pleasure, personal or public. That is why in visual learning, there is no such thing as a bad photograph, only images that do not, in some degree realise their originators intent. This is true whether or not that intent was formally conceived of and realised at the point when the image was formed and made by the action of light on a sensitised media; or if it was made less deliberately (like a ‘snapshot’) and subsequently invested with meanings and connotations that are attached to it. This issue of realisation of intent is important, both for photography as a form in its own right and for visual learning. This is because the photograph (once it is made), may subsequently be re-interpreted by the originator and by others. When this occurs the content of the image remains viable, even if its value is diminished (or changed) by other associations or an inability to fully convey perceived or intended meanings. Consequently technically poor photographs are not excluded from this, as providing the image may still be viewed, it remains capable of realising intent. However the acquisition of competent photographic and visual techniques provides the means for greater clarity of expression, so this should not be considered as a reason for not teaching appropriate skills. On a purely visual level, access to a limited repertoire of techniques may inhibit access to the full range of possible expression and therefore to the appropriate use of things like meaning and metaphor. At the same time technical photographic competence does not in itself determine the extent and clarity of what may be realised and may actually become an end in itself (leading to sterile images in which meaning is subordinated to displays of technical virtuosity). So although photographic skills are necessary in relation to visual learning; the mastery of scientific and technical knowledge about photography, its processes and related craft based skills at whatever level, is of less importance than visual technique and acuity. This is not dissimilar to calligraphy, where mastery of technique and related understandings may enhance what is written without necessarily contributing to meaning. This is a point made about photography as a form by Andre Kertesz, who said:

“If a little boy learns to write his ABC's perfectly, that is beautiful calligraphy, but it is worthless unless he can express himself well and use technique for his own art......Technique is only the minimum in photography”6.

Teaching through visual learning is more than using received images (e.g. as illustrations, visual aids, diagrams, graphs etc), it means the actual, active use of photography by either teacher or student as a tool for learning. It becomes a means of developing understandings and concepts and of giving physical reality to abstract ideas. It enables the student to 'see' what is to be understood and because of an existing acquired mastery of visual language to relate this to much wider spheres of knowledge. In effect it means that the skills acquired through having learned how to 'read the associations', (intended or otherwise) of images like advertisements; may be applied to the formalised learning required in a specific subject or set of concepts. Used in this way visual learning operates in an active rather than a passive mode to enlarge the zone in which understanding and the development of ideas takes place. This is enhanced because it uses media that are immediate, familiar and visually rather than textually orientated. The use by young people of electronic games, digital-media and other inter-active and visually dominated activities underlines why this will increasingly be the case.

Visual learning seeks through the use of photography, to find ways to re-present7 what is seen and imagined. It relies on the progressive acquisition and development of visual understandings which seek to identify and resolve what has or is being seen, to make associations and articulate these with greater clarity. In this it is closely analogous to spoken language and written literature, relying upon, and further developing forms and conventions that enable the transmission of meaning. So, when a representation is made in relation to a specific form of knowledge and with an intended outcome, the use of visual language enables otherwise difficult concepts to be 'seen'. For example, photographing a model house from directly above enables the concept of a plan view to be understood and internalised. Where this happens with instant or digital photography, ownership of that image is immediate and understanding and reality is then possessed. There is no intervening time lag, or external 'magic', but rather a concrete understanding that comes from immediately relating model, viewpoint, self and image. Photographing the reflection of a bridge not only makes a mathematical concept such as reflective symmetry concrete enough to grasp, but provides an image for subsequent recall and verification of similar situations or concepts. Further, it changes the nature of seeing itself because it sensitises the recipient of the re-presentation to that image in such a way as to make them more visually and conceptually aware. In so doing the concept is always more likely to be seen or resolved when bridges are viewed or considered. This form of learning provides a means of modelling by visualisation which is capable of being updated and extended as each subsequent 'bridge picture' is viewed, classified and stored by the imagination. This type of learning enhancement and enrichment is particularly powerful as it does not require a conscious effort to do. Where the photograph was made by the learner, aspects of ownership and belief are brought into play and these further underpin the learning and the possibilities of its subsequent recall and application.

Visual learning is acquired through the active and dynamic use of visual language. Visual literacy complements and extends the possibilities for its use in much the same way as reading and studying literature enables sense and enjoyment to be gained from written text but it is not the same as visual learning. Visual language and visual learning are as co-dependant as thought and speech, the one is both the genesis and expression of the other.

Where specific knowledge, understandings and skills (e.g. scientific, mathematical, artistic, historical, process skill etc:) which have been acquired, are deliberately applied in conjunction with the use of visual language, learning and the use of photography, the result is a powerful and symbiotic relationship which enables complex and abstract concepts to be more readily taught and understood.

Where written text is closely associated with a photographic image the resulting synthesis directs and informs its re-presentation in ways which enable the author to transmit intent more directly and consequently to modify the viewers initial perceptions in a considered way. When dimensions of visual literacy are combined with this in ways that utilise visual conventions, symbols, connotations and cultural referents, the authors intent may be made more explicit. The result is a sophisticated application of visual techniques, which if combined with appropriate levels of photographic technique enables very specific learning and stimuli to be received by the viewer.

The level and complexity of received television images activate this form of learning in very young children and although its subsequent articulation may be inhibited by restricted codes of verbal language, their ability to think and express themselves visually is not limited in the same way. Given a camera where all is required is that it 'sees' what the child wants and records without complexity, even very young children are capable of visually expressing concepts, ideas, feelings and emotions. They will use metaphor, connotation, colour etc in ways which actively use what has been learnt through the visual language skills acquired by seeing televised images.

The parent, who sits a young child in front of a television to occupy them, is not simply using it as a surrogate, although that may sometimes be the intent. This is because the child may be passively receiving what is presented, together with its auditory stimulus and enhancement; and may even be learning as a coincidence of the viewing process, as (for example) facts and representations of people and places are seen. Many parents may also be assisting the child to articulate and understand what has been seen and to enable the child to discriminate between behaviours and role models, the acceptable and the unacceptable according to the parent’s view of the world. Most parents will at some point be helping the child to differentiate between the real and the fictional, if only to ensure the possibility of a night undisturbed by 'bad' dreams. This may occur with varying degrees of awareness but it is all an appendage to the visual learning which is taking place continuously and unconsciously as the child receives images, manipulates, decodes, cross references, categorises and records them in the imagination. These are acquired images which will later be re-called and re-membered;8 both on demand (as a deliberate act of memory) and incidentally in conjunction with the processing of other stimuli which are being acted upon9. To watch a child of less than six months looking at a picture of a teaspoon on a page, to see that child recognise the image and try to grasp the spoon, before giving up after several attempts and then later on to watch as the child looks again at the same image of the spoon and does not repeat the attempt to grasp it, is to understand that a process of cognition has occurred, that behaviour has been modified and a category of 'looks like but isn't ' has been created. If this is the case, then the level of visual learning taking place through received images is likely to be highly complex and rapidly internalised and as such underlines the importance of utilising it as part of the formal learning process, especially as the process of visual language acquisition is probably innate and is only accidentally enhanced and further developed in most instances.

The teacher who recognises the latent potential for learning and expression which the active use of visual language and learning presents, gains access to a vast source of possibilities which are not precluded by the learner’s acquisition of motor and verbal language skills as pre-conditions for their realisation. As verbal and written language skills are developed together with modes of thinking and realisation, so the uses and complexity of visual language expression increases. Discrimination and differentiation are enhanced by this continuing development of visual language and learning and its interplay with other forms of expression. Writing with light becomes not photography limited by its associations but photography which is a personal and easily accessible means for understanding and expression.

Its active use by teacher and taught legitimises its possession in a place of learning. That makes it 'all right' to use, particularly by children, and as they are actually taught to refine their acquired visual understandings, so their ability to actively use visual language is increased. This is a form of learning by emulation or by apprenticeship which is strengthened by its taking place in a 'formal', interactive and social learning environment10. In order to mediate their understandings to others they must then apply reasoning skills, concepts and vocabulary from other disciplines (e.g. maths, music, art etc). These must then be articulated in speech or writing, a process which is facilitated and enhanced by possession of the visual image which they 'own'. Instant or digital photographic images strongly reinforce this process and enable further ideas to be tested or incorporated without the limitations of more writing or time. The result is more effective learning, of skills, subjects, concepts and vocabularies and because photographs also facilitate empathetic understanding and have the power to modify personal perceptions and behaviours11 so the possibility of enhanced motivation, participation, personal success, significance and satisfaction is also increased. The importance of this in education is not always well understood and whilst environmental, social and other factors directly affect issues like participation and motivation, the contribution made by the active use of visual learning and language should be recognised and exploited.

Bruner characterises literacy as 'a technology for the empowerment of the mind'12 . Photography provides a technology that gives control over the systematic visual representation of meaning and does so in a permanent form. Photography literally enables the physical imaging of what the mind 'sees' and enables its mediation to its originator, to others and its review on subsequent occasions. This is empowerment of the mind, of a purposeful and participatory kind as well as an invitation to engage in alternative possibilities of interpretation and discussion. The nature of individual ownership of the image, immediacy, incremental learning through visual feedback and re-cognition, interest and relevance all enhance collaborative learning. Moreover, because of the teachers own use of the medium for teaching and learning, its acceptance as a valid means of personal expression is enhanced. This is a key goal for visual learning because it opens up the possibility for the sort of self motivated, self directed learning that empowers individuals. It means that we are no longer spectators but participants who make critical choices about how we choose to express ourselves through the media which surround us. To use is to own, so to have possession and understanding of visual learning and expression, is to create new opportunities for the acquisition of knowledge. To be literate is not just to read but also to write and to be visually literate is no different. What is different (although perhaps unrecognised) is the extent of the visual language that we already possess, together with the learning that accompanies it. Only the systematic use and exploration of that visual language and its expression through photography, as part of the wider learning process will determine what else is possible. We are living in a period when the printed word, reading and books as the determinants of knowledge and power are giving way to more visual and photographic media, (electronic or otherwise). Consequently visual learning is of increasing importance; not as an end in itself, or as another system of teaching but rather as a fundamental expression of our belonging to a society, in which visual media are the normal and accepted way of handling information, analysing, communicating and making personal statements.

1 No distinction is made between moving and still images, as both may be used to express intent and both make use of visual language and conventions.
2 Like spoken language, visual language may be considered to have different dialects, which are the result of cultural and similar determinants as well as individual choice in the nature of expression and idiom.
3 Imagination may be thought of as the store of images-in-(suspended)-animation through which we are able to synthesise new images which may not actually exist until they are given utterance. The reproductive and productive imagination gives the mind the power to form concepts beyond those derived from external objects. These may be projected as images in their own right and subsequently given physical form.
4 Images-in-action is used to describe the recalled, reviewed and animated image(s) which are being visualised and may be interacting with received visual images being seen in real time.
5 Which are in themselves constantly modified by viewing transmitted images (particularly television) which lead to a generalised and universally 'readable' set of images which give rise to the ability to articulate meaning by translation from one cultural context to another. This is more true of formal and familiar constructions (i.e. images which are 'objective' records as in scientific events, sport and news) and progressively less true of images which convey embedded cultural values (i.e. soap operas, films in a national idiom, religious images).
6 Andre Kertesz in Dialogue with Photography p.46. Hill P. & Cooper T. (1979) Thames & Hudson.
7 Literally to make a present (gift) of what has been imagined, seen, resolved and formed by the originator and presented as a photographic image for inspection, enjoyment, understanding etc: to another. It is literally a re-presentation and not simply a representation (applied or expressive) and as such is stored by being embedded in a fixed and transferable medium which is capable of being re-viewed at different times and places. The veracity of this re-presentation is determined by originator, intent, context and its re-viewer. The subsequent uses made of this re-presentation are determined once again by intent and may include not only revaluation of the of the image presented but its manipulation and re-juxtaposition in ways which modify or change completely the original intent, affect its veracity and in effect re-form the image in such a way as to begin the cycle again.
8 Literally re-membered, that is to say the members (like arms, legs etc:) of the whole will be assembled again, in a complex process of encoding and decoding which will construct a virtual image of the original, modified by other received perceptions. This re-membered 'body of knowledge' or construct may then be checked for correspondence or 'fit' by verbal articulation or other visual references. It may also be manipulated so as to generate new correspondences or different and sometimes original syntheses, which if created become expressions of originality as inventions or insights. In young children where reality and imaginings are synthesised in play, these constructs become ways of physically modeling the received world and of its translation into concrete understandings that may be worked through or tested.
9 This is not in any way to suggest that the repeated and unattended use of television as a surrogate parent is in any way desirable, but rather to underline the fact that even what is apparently passive viewing is producing learning. 10 Which is what is implied by Vygotsky (1978) in his exposition of 'learning in the zone of proximal development'.
11 The possession of an image or the repeated viewing of images of the self, modifies our idea of self. Visual modelling of another self image, based on role models, desires and social expectations becomes possible, as this is imagined more frequently it becomes its own reality and where externally reinforced is likely to become (through modification of behaviours, dress codes, personal experience etc:) the reality which is presented for inspection by others.
12 Quoted in Talk about Text. Where Literacy is Learned and Taught. Wells G.(1990) Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Toronto in Curriculum Enquiry 20:4 (1990) J. Wiley & Sons.
This article about the engagement of individuals with text and the potential of literacy for empowerment provides a number of insights into the potential for visual language.

© 2009 Dr. Jonathan H Robbins PhD FRSA FRPS FCIEA
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