Why Visual Literacy?

In the process of researching and writing my book, Visual Literacy: Learn to See, See to Learn, I was able to substantiate what I already knew in my gut from years of classroom teaching and professional development: students learn more, faster, and retain it better with image-rich instruction.

No one doubts the need for print literacy: reading and writing words. I would advocate that visual literacy – reading and writing images – is an even more basic skill.

My colleague, Lou Fournier, sent me this picture that he took at the Palatki Indian ruins just north of Sedona, Arizona. The small hand was imprinted on the stone walls around 5,000 B.C. It makes me think of the walls covered with grafitti in many of our modern cities. Mankind wants to communicate, to say: “Look, I was here.” This reaching out tends to be, now as it was 5000 years ago, in the form of the most basic, visual (rather than textual) communications.

Our visual world –
Today, clearly, we live in a visual world. Our news comes to us through visual media: illustrated magazines and newspapers, movies and television, and visually engaging sites with streaming video from the Internet. Thanks to ubiquitous televisions, Iraqi Freedom unfolded in our living rooms. And who can ever forget the planes crashing into the twin towers of the world trade center on September 11th?

Our youth has grown up with television. The average teen has watched about 22,000 hours by the time she graduates from high school. (Compare this to the 12,500 hours spent sitting in classrooms!)

And our children are coming to the very visual medium of computers at an earlier and earlier age…

Brain bandwidth –
As human beings, our brains are wired for images. According to research from 3M Corporation, we process visuals 60,000 times faster than text. This is because we take in all the data from an image simultaneously while we process text in a sequential fashion.

I could tell you about my wonderful former boss and the love he feels for his first granddaughter. Or, I could show you the photo:

Which is faster? Which is more memorable?

Color power –
One of my favorite features of computers (and the Internet) is that color doesn’t cost any more than black and white. In my book, Visual Literacy, I devote an entire chapter to the power of color – explaining how we react physiologically and psychologically to the various colors, discussing the implications and applications for educators, and offering purposeful activities for the classroom.

The point that I’d like to make here is that color is a powerful communicator. What do we know about the scene below because of the color?

From Images to words –
There is a natural progression in the way we process information: first the image, then the words. We run into trouble in schools when we try to reverse that order, when teachers use words and assume every student sees the same image.

For example, what if I, as the teacher, say the word “tree”? If you live in Olean, New York, you’d probably see a sugar maple tree. From West Palm Beach, Florida? A row of palm trees. Or, if you grew up in Tacoma, Washington, the way I did, you might see a cedar, fir or some other evergreen tree. Is one of those trees any more “correct” than the other? (Is there always just one right answer?)

A letter was recently circulating on the Internet describing a young boy’s reaction to this beautiful sunset:

“Dear God, I didn’t think purple and orange went together until I saw the sunset you created on Tuesday. That was cool.” – Eugene

“I didn’t think… until I saw.” The image always preceeds the thought. Einstein imagined riding on a beam of light and then did the math to back up his theory of relativity. First the image, then the thought.

Lou Fournier put it most succinctly when he summarized my research in this area into one catchy phrase: “What You Get Is What You See,” or WYGIWYS™.

(This is, of course, a play on the term WYSIWYG, which described the breakthrough in the early ‘80s when we first were able to SEE on the computer screen what we were going to GET on the printer.)

An expanded discussion of this phenomenon along with more insights into visual literacy is available as a chapter in our recently published book: Snapshots! Educational Insights from the Thornburg Center.

Resources for images –
So where do we go to get images? How do we bring the outside world inside the four walls of the classroom?

Scanning students’ own drawings is a great way to get their perspective on any topic.
The Internet is also a rich source – offering millions of images to the savvy surfer.
And digital cameras are a great way to capture that perfect, royalty-free image.

Videos are even better than still images, because they incorporate not only the pictures, but also music, motion, and words. That synergistic approach is definitely our best shot at addressing a variety of learning styles and reaching every learner.

Multimedia, multiple streams –
But is all that multimedia really necessary? Are videos anything more than a way to babysit students on a Friday afternoon? Aren’t all these images more distracting than helpful? More decoration or entertainment than substance?

Quite the contrary. Research is showing that with multiple streams of information coming in students have greater focus. They learn more, faster, and remember it longer. As one young man expressed it, the traditional chalk and talk classrooms are like going down the freeway at 30 miles per hour. You have plenty of time to get distracted and bored. The multiple streams, multimedia approach is like traveling at 80 miles an hour. You have to concentrate or you’ll crash and burn.

So, really, what we’re talking about is transforming classrooms from boring places where students ask: “Why do I have to learn this?” to engaging places where students ask: “Why do I have to leave now?”

We’re advocating breaking down the walls and opening classrooms to the world of experiences that lie beyond. Traveling from Alaska…

to Hawaii… to outer space . . . and everywhere in between. We can talk until the cows come home, but unless our words, concepts, ideas are hooked onto an image, they will go in one ear, sail through the brain, and go out the other ear. Words are processed by our short-term memory where we can only retain about 7 bits of information (plus or minus 2). This is why, by the way, that we have 7-digit phone numbers. Images, on the other hand, go directly into longterm memory where they are indelibly etched. Images we share with students will be with them forever (not just for the test).

As parents and educators, we have the responsibility and the opportunity to expand students’ data bank of images, to select images of beauty and truth, of love and devotion, of inspiration and hope for the future.

That is the mission of visual literacy.


NOTE: For a FREE video version of this article, along with more information on selection and purposeful use of videos in the classroom, call 1-800-483-3383 or log on to www.schoolvideos.com and follow the prompts for the free “Effective Teaching with Classroom Videos” tape or DVD.

If you’d like to order either of the books mentioned (Visual Literacy or Snapshots! Educational Insights from the Thornburg Center) contact the author at lynellb@aol.com.

For additional articles by Dr. Burmark on the importance of visual images in teaching and learning, go to the 100% Educational Videos web site: www.schoolvideos.com.