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Learning to Look

“People learn more than half of what they know from visual information, but few schools have an explicit curriculum to show students . . . about visual data.”—Mary Alice White

If you talk with faculty about how students have changed over the past decade or two, one frequent theme you’ll hear is how visually oriented students are now. That should not surprise anyone. Today’s culture leans increasingly on images and multi-media composition for both entertainment and information. Even online newspapers, for instance, supplement their articles with image galleries and videos.

We are not advocating a shift to a visual-only curriculum, nor are we suggesting that images are the only way meaning is made in the contemporary world. Instead, we believe that educators must take images seriously as one of the central ways people learn about the world and represent their understanding of it.

As teachers, we need to help students make sense of visual information in our disciplines. Although some visual literacy skills develop automatically over a lifetime of contact with images, the ones students develop out of habit tend to emphasize lower-order thinking skills. Research shows that true proficiency or higher-order visual literacy does not develop unless these skills are identified and taught (Ausburn & Ausburn, 1978). Moreover, the continual flood of images surrounding us often lead students to believe that they are proficient visually and to develop superficial habits of examining images. We see this all too often in our courses when students learn that we are showing a film in class: “Oh, so now we don’t have to think.” Students’ visual habits and professors’ visual avoidance combine so that our graduates often remain mindless and passive consumers of images, rather than becoming critical interpreters and producers of them.

Just as we continue to cultivate students’ reading and writing skills, we also need to help our students become proficient at both analyzing and composing with visual forms. Developing such skills and capacities in our students requires us to think in new ways about our teaching and our students’ learning.

A good place to begin is to examine how we use—and how we ask our students to use—visual images in our classes. To focus this examination, we adapted ideas from Katherine Martinez’s (1995) analysis of historians’ “comfort level” with images in their scholarly arguments. Martinez developed a simple, yet powerful, three-level framework that applies equally well to teaching. Considering whether images appear as illustrations, as the means of interpretation, or as illumination in our classes can help us assess whether we are using them just as entertainment or in ways that evoke critical thinking and disciplinary learning.

Images as Illustration

The first category is the most common, but the least likely to enhance student understanding of how images make meaning within our disciplines. We use images as illustrations when we add an image to a slide presentation to provide visual interest, but don’t discuss it or invite students to analyze it. In a class focused on Benjamin Franklin’s writings, for example, I might display a portrait while I lecture or while we discuss passages from his autobiography, without drawing any attention to the image. Similarly, we witness students treating images as illustration when they skip over the graphs while reading an economics textbook, believing that the text alone conveys the real meaning of the book.

Unexamined illustrations expose students to images, but not in a meaningful way. Although this approach gives students something to look at, it doesn’t expand their skills or knowledge of how to think within a discipline, nor does it challenge the preconceptions they might have about how knowledge is represented. To add depth to what students are doing, we need to move beyond using images as a presentation tool to using them as objects of interpretation, argument, and analysis aligned with disciplinary skills.

Images as a Means for Interpretation

When we ask students to engage more deeply with images, we move into the second category—using them as a means for interpretation. This analysis will look different in different disciplines. Using images as a means for interpretation can help students understand that the tools we use to collect pictures of the world (e.g., cameras, MRI scanners) change how we think about the world and each other. Similarly, inviting students to examine the images created to describe our experiences in the world (e.g., photographs, YouTube videos, graphs, Web sites) alter their understanding of it.   Visualizations of information both describe and interpret; they frame what we see in particular ways. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey (, for example, is not only a powerful research tool for astronomers, but also a rich resource of visual data that can change the way students learn astronomy. Instead of giving students textbook-style numerical data to do basic calculations, students could be guided through the process of integrating SDSS visual and numerical data to understand both how and why to do that same astronomical analysis.

When students discuss their observations, inferences, and interpretations, they discover what they missed, and with it, the importance of carefully examining visual images. They then begin to see images are composed with intention and design. This exercise can be especially useful with photographs or visualizations of data, which students often see as inherently “truthful” or unambiguous.

Images as Illumination

In the third category, images become integral to the learning experience; learning would not happen in the same way without them. Martinez describes illumination as using images “to surprise us into new perceptions.”

 Images can promote new understanding or deepen engagement with a subject. On the first day of introductory chemistry, one professor shows students photographs of everyday scenes, including an abandoned house and a bike rider. After asking them “Where is the chemistry?” in each picture, he asks them to list questions about chemical processes the images provoke. This exercise deepens students’ engagement with the subject, foregrounds lines of inquiry they will pursue later in the semester, and primes students to begin thinking like scientists.

Using images as metaphors for difficult concepts or to prompt students’ memory can be another form of illumination. Images can also be used to shift the emotional tenor of a scholarly discussion on an important issue which might easily be abstracted or dehumanized. Because images simultaneously engage thinking and feeling, they can illuminate the real, human significance of course material.

Images across the Curriculum

Changes in technology are making it easier and easier for us to bring images into our classrooms, but the digital revolution is not necessarily changing how people learn or understand the world. Humans always have used images as a central tool for making meaning. We should teach students to see critically and to compose with visual forms that are appropriate for our disciplines and our image-based world. Doing that will require not only re-envisioning our courses and our curricula, but also supporting faculty in learning to both value and use images in their teaching.

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  • anc_dyn_linksSeeing Is Believing
  • anc_dyn_linksTales from Real Life: Seeing it Differently: Digital Storytelling
  • anc_dyn_linksLearning to Look
  • anc_dyn_linksBest Practices: Words as Images
  • anc_dyn_linksIssues to Consider: Helping Students See the Bigger Picture
  • anc_dyn_linksReferences and Resources

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