10 ways Visual Literacy can bridge gaps & prepare students for the future

“You have 20th century teachers educating 21st century students. It’s like a 100-year gap.”

— Ulises Brengi, 22, Argentina.

According to The World Economic Forum COVID Action Platform, there was a strong sense that schools aren’t currently equipping young people with the right skills, and aren’t teaching in a way that makes the most of modern technology.

In his 2001 paper entitled ‘Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants’, Marc Prensky made a case for teachers to find and incorporate “digital native” methodologies in their teaching practices if they are to successfully engage students that have grown up in front of the screen.

Kress and van Leeuwen (2006) contend that we are in a transition from the “old literacy,” in which images have been made subservient to language to the “new literacy,” in which images exist side-by-side with written text, but often as independent entities.

From emojis, to memes, to Pinterest we are witnessing the emergence of ‘the Visual Internet’, shining the spotlight on the importance of visual literacy.

What is Visual Literacy?

Visual literacy is defined as student’s ability to “use, interpret, analyze, and think critically about visual images and the significance of what they are seeing” (Bamford, 2001). It’s increasingly significant in the digital age — and also more complex as students are bombarded with visual information, from a wide variety of sources and devices.

Looking at visuals and technology as interconnected, Spalter and van Dam (2008) examined the multifaceted process by which we make sense of the stimuli that reach our eyes through visual computer-based materials. This resulted in them coining the term ‘digital visual literacy’ (DVL).

DVL is now essential in many daily life and workplace tasks, from looking critically at news images to designing a website or app, creating presentations, and modeling and visualizing data in virtually all of the sciences. (Spalter, 2009)

Silverman and Piedmont (2016) note “Years are spent teaching students grammar and paragraph construction so that they can become strong written communicators, but rarely is the same attention spent on the elements of visual communication”.

In an era of globalisation, using visuals to communicate can overcome language barriers.

We believe sustained Digital Visual Literacy exercises in the classroom hold the answer to many of the challenges posed above and can pave the way for vibrant and fun discussion in the classroom.

Why is it effective

A body of research points to the effectiveness of using Visual Literacy to increase grades and effectiveness in the workplace. Traditionally physical artworks such as museum peices have been used as the learning tool. However, in a post COVID world, where school trips to the museum may be compromised, we propose that contemporary digital art can be just as effectiveness, if not more so.

Amy Herman, author of Visual Intelligence states “If you can talk about what is happening in a work of art, you can talk about scenes of everyday life; you can talk about boardrooms and classrooms, crime scenes, and factory floors.”

1. Develops Observation

Like any other skill, observation can be mastered with practice. In his 1950 book The Art of Scientific Investigation, Cambridge scientist William Ian Beardmore Beveridge gives the following instructions: “Powers of observation can be developed by cultivating the habit of watching things with an active, enquiring mind. Training in observation follows the same principles as training in any activity. At first one must do things consciously and laboriously, but with practice the activities gradually become automatic and unconscious and a habit is established.

Naghshineh et al. (2008) observed that formal art observation training improved medical students’ visual diagnostic skills.

2. Can lead to better grades in other subjects

Amy Herman refers to a case of ninth- and tenth-graders who were taken to the Frick for a walk-through of the galleries. The students discussed the observational process and completed written exercises about the artworks they had seen. The results were remarkable. Their teacher recalls; “I barely recognized some of them: they were alert, eager, even energetic.”

Back in the classroom, he noted that the students who took part in the museum training could more easily see connections in math problems than the students who had not. Through ongoing visual literacy training, the percentage of students who met the mathematics standard on the Regents exam that year increased to 44% and climbed to 59% the following year.

3. Improves Communication Skills

Installation artist and photographer JR explains that art is about “raising questions, and giving space to interpretation and dialogue. The fact that art cannot change things makes it a neutral place for exchanges and discussions, and then enables it to change the world.

Amy Herman states; “We need to be able to communicate when it’s business-as-usual but also prepare our business for the unforeseen, for the emergency, for the impossible.”

Butler (2013) suggests that the integration of visual and digital literacy into the school curriculum can improve oral and written language development in a class of 6–8 year olds.

4. Sparks curiosity and interest in a subject

Ali- Khan (2011) notes the potential to better engage and motivate students in the context of visual literacy education, and suggests that “it is important that we as educators harness the vibrant power of visual communication, and that we try to find ways to engage our students in working together with us in decoding images and in producing them”.

5. Builds essential STEM skills

In a 2020 study, students who studied a topic and then generated their own questions scored an average of 14% points higher on a test than students who used passive strategies like studying their notes and rereading classroom material. Creating questions, the researchers found, not only encouraged students to think more deeply about the topic but also strengthened their ability to remember what they were studying. STEM disciplines require not only content knowledge but also curiosity and inquiry, questioning and skepticism, assessment and analysis — as well as a strong learning mindset and confidence when encountering new information or challenges.

6. Nurtures Design Sensibilities

Visual literacy includes recognition of the importance of use of visuals, knowledge of principles of page and screen layout, use of colour and font, appropriate line spacing, and selection of applicable images based on intended message and social context and the ability to implement that knowledge.

7. Encourages Laughter and Play

Humour can increase retention in even boring subject lectures. Because of their hyper-responsive dopamine reward system, adolescents may be uniquely primed to react positively to educational humour (Henderson, 2015). This can be done by using images with humour, memes or animations as primers.

8. Develops Creative Thinking skills

A phenomenon observed across several studies describes a reduction in original thinking in children ages 9–10 years compared with younger and older children — the “fourth grade slump.” The social pressures on young adolescents toward being part of the crowd often lead children to lose their capacity to think “out of the box.” Siu-Kay Pun from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore demonstrated how a visual literacy course was able to nurture creativity in business students. We have also seen how tools like Padlet can incite peer-to-peer sharing and evaluation.

9. Connects learners to contemporary digital creators

By profiling the creators behind the images, we can start to build connecting between educators, students and visual communicators, and create a platform for virtual residencies, workshops and talks.

10. Connects learners to new technologies

The versatility of digital images means they can be adapted across technologies such as AR, VR and 3D printing. Children can interpret a computer graphic and then create the object using 3D printing, then hold it in their hands to explore its size, weight, texture, and shape. With the information they gather by touching the physical object, they can decide how to use it or change it.

By using digital art and animation themed around complex and sensitive topics such as the Internet and mental health, supported by a visual literacy approach to spark questioning, critical thinking and creative problem solving, we can pave the way for students to communicate with a level of visual sophistication that will carry them through the multimedia-dependent future. At the same time, we can start the bridge the gap between educator and students, incite group sharing, peer-to-peer commentary and create a safe space for students to voice concerns or anxieties about the digital world we are living in.

The author will be holding a free Visual literacy & Creativity workshop for educators in early January 2020, to demonstrate the benefits in action. Please sign up here.

Visual Literacy advocate, creative agency founder, owner of pro-social kids brand EYEYAH!, inspired by art and design, and mother to two daughters.