Imagining Pedagogy: Infusing Visual Literacy in Schools


The world is changing. If education was to be a preparation for life, it has to transform in tandem, (and if possible, anticipate) the changes in the world. One of the key changes in the world today is the advent of the information revolution. In the 21st century, with the invention of the computer chip, the ways in which knowledge is constructed and retrieved have changed markedly. Factors responsible for such changes include the emergence of the Interactive Digital Media, its accompanying enabling software, such as Adobe Photoshop, Multimedia Flash, as well as the experience of knowledge construction via navigating the Internet.

It grows ever more apparent that knowledge is produced and has to be accessed beyond the sole reliance on the linguistic mode. There is a growing awareness that more text are multimodal in nature, that is meaning is made by the joint co-deployment of language and images (both static, and increasingly dynamic). Goodman (1996) points out that ‘because of the increase in design software and the wider availability of computer technology, traditional definitions of literacy are no longer adequate in a world where text communicate to us in new ways - through graphics, pictures, layout techniques as well as through words’.

In other words, the increasing multimodal nature of text, both computer-mediated and traditional print, has required a new literacy to be acquired. This literacy goes beyond the learning of reading and writing in a language, which have been the main focus of education and the current pedagogical approaches. The learning of the reading and producing of visuals must take centre stage in the education arena if students are to be adequately prepared to effectively construct and critically access the array of multimodal texts in this age and time.

Bamford (2003) defines visual literacy as ‘developing the set of skills needed to be able to interpret the content of visual images, examine social impact of these images and to discuss purpose, audience and ownership’. Adding on to that, a visual literate person must be sensitized to the meaning potential and choices afforded to him in the production of the text, rendering to him an ability to make deliberate and effective choice in the construction and presentation of knowledge. The future of literacy determines that to be considered as an educated individual of tomorrow, one cannot be versatile only with language alone but must be savvy with multimodal communication.

Just like language, images are ideologically salient. Midalia (1999) suggests quite rightly that images ‘offer not a mirror of the world but an interpretation of it’. Barthes (1964), in his renowned work, The rhetoric of an image, points clearly to the need to elucidate the layers of meanings behind images which are seemingly innocent and innocuous. Performing a visual analysis on Panzani pasta, Barthes demonstrates the complexities, subtleties and ideologies that are revealed from a close reading of the image. Lim (2005) also argues against the privileging of the linguistic modality over that of the visual, presenting the perspective of images as a meaning making resource, not unlike language.

Promoting visual literacy in schools and infusing it as part of the meta-skills needed for the acquisition of knowledge is gaining importance, especially for students at the primary school level. Like linguistic literacy, visual literacy is a gradual process of gaining an understanding of the tools and facilities in the production and reading of visual text. Ausburn & Ausburn (1979) points out that it is an essential skill as students are required to ‘distinguish superficial, glamorous and pseudo-sophisticated messages from real and valuable ones’. Roblyer & Edwards (2000) argue that visual literacy skills are needed for the students to be marketable in modern society, due to the pervasiveness of the visual culture and the ubiquitous usage of visual communications strategies. There have been some attempts, in recent years, to further explore its application in pedagogy (for instance, Linn & His, 2000; Burmark, 2002 and Cooper, 2003.

The development of visual literacy in schools must occur on the stages of Awareness, Attention, Assimilation and Advancement. A unique set of challenges and potential are presented on every stage. Fundamental across the four stages is the need to develop the theory of reading images, which Kress & van Leeuwen (1996), amongst others, has made pioneering inroads. In addition to the theorization on images, possible applications of these theories packaged through practical pedagogical approaches must be developed as well.

The development of the theory of images has emerged (though not necessarily always to a satisfactory conclusion) in a diversity of disciplines including art, communication studies, semiotics, psychology, educational technology and applied linguistics.

Gaining considerable interest, as well as making significant progress, is the Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) approach towards multimodal text. Applying Halliday's (1994) Systemic Functional Theory, the tri-metafunctional distinctions for language can be applied in images as well. The Ideational meta-function represents the ideas and knowledge to be communicated. The Interpersonal meta-function engages dynamically with the reader and positions both the reader and the reading. Finally, the Textual meta-function provides the cohesion and coherence in the text. This approach can be helpful in eliciting the meanings made in the text.

Kress & van Leeuwen (1996), O'Toole (1995) working in the SFL tradition developed a theory of meaning for images and multimodal texts. Further to that, in recent years, cutting-edge research in multimodality has opened up a new theoretical space for exploration in our understanding of the meaning made in the interplay between language and images. This includes O’Halloran’s (2005) theorization on mathematical symbolism and Baldry’s (2000) analysis of the media text. More recently, various endeavors in multimodal discourse analysis have also been consolidated by O’Halloran (2004), Ventola, Charles & Kaltenbacher (2005) and Royce & Bowcher (2006). These attempts bring together the various advances in the field and provide avenues in which the efforts and endeavors in the field of multimodality from the systemic functional perspective can be recognized, understood and built upon.

The approach to infusing visual literacy into the current curriculum and integrating into pedagogy must then be a deliberate one. The four discernible stages of progression of Awareness, Attention, Assimilation and Advancement will result in visual literacy becoming a core part of education.

Stages in development for visual literacy

Awareness. This is the preliminary stage where there is recognition by educators that meaning is not made and knowledge constructed by language alone. Textbooks contain visual aides such as figures and diagrams which can potentially facilitate or hinder learning. The Internet ushers in a myriad of possibilities for pedagogy and contains an immense storehouse of knowledge expressed and can only be retrieved via a multimodal navigation through the hyperlinks network. The media floods our senses with endless information conveyed more through images (both static and dynamic) than through language. Advertisements purporting various ideologies seek to entice and draw ingenuous consumers. Multimodal communications dominate in the world today.

Not being visual literate will relegate the students to a highly disadvantageous position, at the vulnerable receiving end of the information onslaught. The conventional focus on language literacy, while nonetheless important, must edge to allow for a focus of visuals as well as the interaction between language and images in a text. This awareness can be initiated from the classroom teacher, but sustainability and impact can also be generated when there is a systemic shift in the educational outcomes, from adjustment in curriculum, pedagogy and assessment.

Attention. The systemic change in the education system will nonetheless be dependent on a series of inter-related factors. These factors include the breakthroughs in the theoretical models for visual literacy as well as research and studies into the application of these theories into classroom pedagogy. Support rendered through making available infrastructure and funding plays a crucial role in developing this new and emerging field. The establishing of several (never mind competing) theoretical models could provide a solid foundation for implementation of these approaches in schools.

Beyond developing the theory, a review of the education system, currently taking place in many parts of the world, is essential to ensure relevance and to stay on the cutting edge. Skills that may be obsolete must be ruthlessly discarded to make room for new skills needed for the students to excel in the world of tomorrow. These new skills do not pertain only to visual literacy but can also include creative thinking and entrepreneurial skills.
What is perhaps most challenging is the transformation of the mindsets of the educators and the general public that could be resistant to change. There is a need to gently sensitize them, through education, to the changing realities of the world today and can probably take place over time. The change of mindsets happens at varying rates for different individuals, and it’s best to seek out a few 'enlightened' individuals, as entry points, and make examples of them through their success.

Assimilation. The actual infusion of visual literacy into the education system has to be a gradual one, and achieved over considerable time. Assimilation includes the explicit teaching of visual literacy skills, complete with theoretical underpinning and practice on visual texts to the students.

Cooper (2003) argues that from a pedagogical perspective, the use of interactive digital media engages the students' interest and facilitates understanding. It can even aid the bridging of learners to higher order processes such as identifying causation and effects as well as critical thinking.

Although visual literacy is a core skill in knowledge construction via the conventional print mode such as textbooks, there is a need to expose the students to a wider diversity of interfaces of learning, such as computer-mediated-communication. In addition there is a need to adequately equip the learners with the necessary tools to learn in the new environment, made available by technology, in particular the new media, which traditional pedagogy is ill-equipped to do so.

Moving beyond the retrieval of knowledge, students need to be taught on the production of knowledge by communicating multi-modally. The myth that visual communication is idiosyncratic and whimsical must be broken, revealing the deliberate intent in meaning making through a conscious selection of the choices afforded by the new medium. The effective teaching of the reading and producing of visual texts as well as being savvy in a multimodal learning environment form the key thrusts allowing visual literacy to be assimilated into mainstream education.

Advancement. With the effective integration of visual literacy into the education system, several outcomes are desired and can possibly be viewed as indicators of success. The teaching of visual literacy aims to raise a visual literate generation of learners that are sensitive to the intricacies and nuances of multimodal communication as well as have the capacity, if not to perform a critical discourse analysis on language and images, to at least be able to 'read' visuals with a discriminating eye. The principles of visual literacy can possibly be extended to learning in all other semiotic modes which would equip the learners to access knowledge from current and emerging media.

Students, sensitized to the makings of a multimodal text, would be effective producers of texts that co-deploy language and images, engineering the multiplication of meaning resultant from the interaction of the two modes in a text. This is likely to lead to less cases of 'textual dissonance' where disjointed or even conflicting meanings are made from the multiple modalities in a text, rendering a distracting and possibly confusing meaning made.


As this is an emerging field, rapidly gaining emphasis and mileage, there are many areas for exploration, both in terms of developing theories and concepts as well as their practical pedagogical implications. Moving beyond mere visual literacy would be a more complex arena of multimodal literacy, which demands an understanding on the 'inter-semiosis' that ensures from the interaction between language and images. Although some exploration has been initiated (such as Baldry 2000, O'Halloran, 2004, Lim, 2004, 2006), much remain to be done. The experiential component of materiality in the hypermedia traversing the network of hyperlinks on the Internet invites further exploration as well.

In this paper, four stages of development for the implementation of visual literacy in the education system are laid out. However, it could be helpful to note that we are not starting from ground zero. There has been a certain degree of awareness in the education scene on the importance of visual literacy with increasing attention given to it in some sectors. Although encouraging, more need to happen to effect the systemic changes necessary to result in a sustained and entrenched position of visual literacy in schools. The future of schools cannot be separated from the future of the students and it is determined by our ability to interpret the trends and change in the world. The signs seem to be pointing towards a need for visual literacy. _A fully visual literate generation has tremendous potential, particularly in transforming the paradigms of knowledge construction and expression. Technology has made available the necessary ingredients for a revolution in the packaging and dissemination of information. The revolution has taken place. Visual literacy complements this as the essential skill empowering individuals to operate in this new world order with savoir-faire.

- Victor Lim Fei,
Jurong Junior College , Singapore

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