How do we teach visual literacy? What kind of pedagogy might we use? How do these pedagogies differ across disciplines? How can they relate to each other?
To explore pedagogical techniques appropriate to visual fluency, group members took turns providing 15-minute teaching demonstrations. The goal of each demonstration was to illustrate how visual thinking can be elicited by structured activities. Although activities were varied, we observed some common principles. In each activity, participants encountered ways in which the notion that a “picture is worth a thousand words” is problematized by the complexity of the relationship between the image and what it represents (or creates).
We also found that many of these techniques involved systematic, conscientious instruction. One method that exemplifies this approach is Visual Thinking Strategies.
Visual Thinking Strategies
The Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) teaching method involves open-ended, highly structured discussions of visual art, and aims to increase students' critical-thinking, language and literacy skills along the way. By engaging in a rigorous group 'problem-solving' process, students cultivate a willingness and ability to present their own ideas, while respecting and learning from the perspectives of their peers.
VTS Open Ended Questions
· What do I see?
· What do I know about what I see?
· How does what I see (and know about what I see) make me think differently?
· How does this understanding make me encounter the world differently?
Notes on Visual Thinking in the Sciences
Seeing, looking, and interpreting visual objects is important beyond simply conveying theoretical concepts about the natural world, so that practitioners who work on people can know more about them as people. For example, medical programs value the ability to see comprehensively, because they need students to incorporate visual observation into the diagnostic process. A liberal-arts science curriculum should thus challenge our students to expand their attentional focus. This includes being critical evaluators of the images they are exposed to through social media and technology.
The technical work of scientists is done socially and thus relies on precise communication, usually through visual notation and other visual forms of expression. But the information actually conveyed depends strongly on visual conventions, intentions, understanding of representation, and implicit assumptions triggered by visual forms. For example, scientists create graphs, diagrams, and visual models to communicate their work professionally, and to carry out their work technically.
Pedagogical approaches in the sciences
To facilitate the development of visual skills, faculty use approaches that are similar to VTS, in that they encourage students to confront the representations of scientific ideas. They evaluate the content, cultural context, and the intentions behind the creation of these representations. An example is a classroom discussion of the contradictions created by a ball-and-stick model of a molecule and a structural drawing of the same molecule, and how disciplinary norms (through visual conventions) resolve these contradictions.
In addition, there are clear applications of classical VTS in natural and social sciences curricula. For example, VTS could promote critical review of visual information presented in advertisements, helping students take into account cultural context and cognitive principles, and using neuroscientific principles to investigate the effect of visual information on the brain.
The pdf below illustrates how a science lesson might employ a VTS-type approach.