Just as reading is fundamental to education, visual communication is a tool professors must use effectively—and pass along to their students.

In 1992 I was setting up a studio for a new computer art course at the College of DuPage. Needing a break, I went to visit my brother Don outside of Nashville.

Shortly after I arrived, we were looking at a problem he was having with his PC. His then three-year-old son, Clint, wanted to help.

He climbed into his dad's lap and turned on the computer. When it booted up, he typed in "w-i-n" without instruction from his dad, grabbed the mouse, double-clicked on the paint program, and began drawing a picture.

What he created, was the normal drawing of a child—similar to most three-year-olds "coloring" with crayons. I asked my brother how could a child of three—barely able to form sentences or recite the alphabet—manage to do something that seemed so complex to most adults.

He said Clint often sat in his lap while he worked and one day just asked if he could do it. The little "genius" had seen it done so many times that an explanation was unnecessary and to a three-year-old would have been meaningless anyway.

My nephew was working from visual, not verbal sequences. The "complex" technology was no more impressive to him than were his crayons.

I was struck by this discovery of the effectiveness of visual communication in learning for two reasons. First, visual communication and learning were more effective than even I as an artist had assumed. I didn't know why, but, in this case, visual instruction was more effective that a verbal explanation. Second, it struck me that "technology" was far more accessible than many assumed.

Old Possibilities
I recall being taught in graduate school theories as to why visual communication is important. There were simple notions that it was a part of the "good life." Visual communication, the theory went, adds excitement and keeps one engaged in life.

While that is certainly important to an educator, such theories treated visual communication as an "add-on"—a useful but optional mode of communication. There were also cognitive/recognitive theories and observations about an innate human need to communicate visually based on the efficiency of thought.

Some theorists believed that humans are genetically wired to communicate visually and that images are often more efficient than words in thought processes—basically an academic version of the proverb that "a picture is worth a thousand words." We heard anecdotal stories, but little quantitative data supported the ideas at that time.

Recently Semir Zeki (2000) theorized about the "visual brain" and development of spatial awareness, abstract thought, and what he called "neuroesthetics"—the study of the neural basis for perception, creativity, and achievement.

While there are debatable issues in Zeki's article, I suspect there is indeed a link between neural development, aesthetic experience, and cognitive and ethical development. One need only compare a classroom of general education students to one full of art students. Their thought processes and sequences are distinctly different. The presentations that are effective for each group differ markedly.

But let's assume that none of these theories is proven. What if visual communication is not more efficient than its verbal counterpart? What if it plays no role in neural or cognitive development? What if we cannot scientifically prove that visual communication has a positive impact upon learning? Is there still reason to use it in our classrooms?

Cultural Engagement
The answer is "yes." Visual communication is important in the college classroom because it exists in the lives of our students and to some degree always will. Western civilization has become more dependent than ever on visual culture, visual artifacts, and visual communication as a mode of discourse and a means of developing a social and cultural identity. We must use visual communication and analyze its use for much the same reasons we've used reading and writing. We can either teach students to use it well or leave them to ignorance. We can send them into the world visually literate or visually illiterate.

As teachers, our essential task is to get students to consider new ideas and explore their value and relevance. The teacher must enter the students' world and draw them into a greater light just as Socrates did in Plato's myth of the cave. Our job is not to yank students from the mythical cave of ignorance but to lead them out by means they can appreciate.

Consider the "world" of the average college student. Television is likely the primary source of cultural experience with the Internet rapidly gaining on it. Music is not listened to, it's watched via MTV/VH1 and DVDs. Playing a pretend game of "army" now takes place in a large building with rented laser guns for a $7 fee. Personal needs are discovered by watching 30-second television spots rather than through personal introspection.

The social context of today's college students, for better or worse, is more dependent upon visual communication than before. As academics, it is our obligation to meet our students in their social, cultural world and bring them to greater illumination.

Doing so requires teaching them about shadows and their relationship to the light. It means teaching them to use the light and the shadows in combination to understand reality. Because visual communication is important in education, neglecting visual communication is to leave our students at the mercy of those who develop that communication and to expect them to discern stimuli that are only shadows of reality.

As an art professor, I, of course, use visual communication in the classroom. But using visuals in the classroom is something we all should be doing, just as giving reading assignments is what we all do. There is not a discipline in higher education that could not benefit from the frequent use of visual communication in the classroom. This may mean using a video, a well designed web site, a photograph, or a diagram on a whiteboard—and using them often.

Obviously, communicating visually requires that professors learn effective visual communication skills, just as we've had to learn effective verbal communication skills. We must continually ask what makes visual communication effective. What modes of expression are most accessible and relevant to our students? What is thoughtful and insightful, and what is merely entertaining?

If we are to educate our students to the fullest, we must incorporate visual communication and stimuli into classroom experiences. Whether or not there is some neural or cognitive benefit is irrelevant. What matters is that visual communication will forever be a part of our students' lives. We can either use that tool, or we can avoid it and leave our students enslaved by visual communication out of ignorance. For each of us, the challenge is whether we separate from cultural trends or fully engage them—without becoming mere entertainment.

- National Education Association

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