Select an item by clicking its checkbox
Looking and Learning: Visual Literacy across the Disciplines (New Directions for Teaching and Learning, Number 141)
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
The editors of Looking and Learning argue that institutions of higher education have required textual literacy for centuries, but now are facing a problem: they have not cultivated visual literacy in an age when visual input has risen exponentially in volume, pace, and cultural significance. Little, Felten, and Berry propose to address this problem pedagogically throughout academic curricula. Eight contributing authors bring disciplinary-based tools to the conversation, discussing pedagogical approaches and outcomes for students’ development of visual literacy as a means of depth-learning.
One of the most valuable features of this volume is the introduction of the Association of Colleges and Research Libraries’ (ACRL) definition, promotion, and list of observable performance standards with outcomes for visual literacy (3, 8). Looking and Learning then details particular courses and pedagogical approaches by professors who claim that visual learning significantly enhances student perceptions of data and experience, deepens engagement with course material, and sharpens critical thinking skills – all important outcomes for effective education.
Chapter one, for example, focuses on visually-based pedagogical approaches for learning astronomy. A pedagogical shift came to Anthony Crider when he began to emphasize visual and information literacy skills rather than content delivery in his courses (16). He found that as a result, his students learned to think through problems more deeply and effectively. Now, close observations of the objects and phenomena in space are required, followed by deductive thinking to frame arguments for hypotheses and proofs.
Chapter two provides pedagogical tools that move students from subjective reactions to critical responses when encountering a visual input. In this chapter, like Crider, Michael Palmer focuses on developing the critical skills for visual literacy, rather than content-based learning. Likewise, chapter three shows how Katherine Hyde uses photography to cultivate sociological mindfulness and social identity (31). Cedar Riener teaches about visual perception in chapter four, using pictorial illusion to demonstrate that perception is not always accurate. Chapters five and six speak to “deep learning” through work with visual media including historical paintings (Steven S. Volk), and film-making (Alison J. Murray-Levine). The intent is to slow visual inputs so there is actual engagement and analysis of the subject matter as a visual story and language. Chapter seven introduces the process and structure of critique in the area of visual arts (Phillip Motley). The volume concludes in chapter eight with Deandra Little providing suggestions and strategies for teaching visual literacy throughout a curriculum (87).
For those who are visually impaired or have difficulty interpreting visual cues and yet are able to hear, there is little aid in this volume. One exception occurs in chapter five where historian Steven S. Volk helpfully introduces students’ auditory input for a person who is not sighted, discovering that learning is enhanced for everyone. Perhaps auditive literacy is the next logical educational contribution for learning by senses. Data and experience come through many senses; pedagogical approaches are likely to have to address these different avenues of learning as attention to differing abilities expands both culturally and legally.
Ultimately, the editors and contributors call for all teachers and students to “learn to look and look to learn” (5). Such a challenge seems obvious, achievable, and pedagogically meaningful (for the sighted) as an effective educational focus for literacy – literacy for a visual age.
The Age of the Image: Redefining Literacy in a World of Screens
Date Reviewed: May 13, 2016
Teachers routinely complain that students do not read well or enough. What they mean by this is that students do not know how to analyze written texts, in part because they fail to engage regularly with written texts. Stephen Apkon’s book challenges this traditional focus on verbal literacy to advocate strongly for visual literacy, particularly in K-12 education. In a world saturated with screens and images to be decoded, Apkon, the founder and executive director of the Jacob Burns Film Center, argues that we ignore visual literacy at our peril.
Few would argue with Apkon that we live in “the age of the image,” and in response to our situation Apkon argues for the importance of understanding the grammar of the visual. He does so by examining several interrelated perspectives on images and visual storytelling, such as brain science, advertising, and film techniques. He also provides a history of visual literacy that parallels in many ways the development of visual literacy. Rather than buy into the common parental and academic moral panic over “screen time” used by digital native “screenagers,” he encourages his readers to embrace screens and images by learning intimately how they work. This will benefit both producers and watchers, he argues, and can help classrooms function more seamlessly in our screen-obsessed culture.
This book will be useful to teachers who want food for thought but not direct guidance. Apkon notes early on that “As new literacies emerge, they don’t negate more traditional forms of literacy, but rather embrace them wholly” (10) but then goes on to champion what sound like fairly vapid if contextually apt viral videos as examples of visual literacy achieved. Apkon’s bias is understandable, but it seems to leave other literacies in the dust, despite the author’s claims that he’s not doing just that. The chapter devoted to teaching is full of information, including a sketch of the history of technologies in education, but it does not detail how one might go about this in a classroom or curriculum. In Apkon’s favor, he calls for a high school graduation requirement of a five-minute film that illustrates key visual grammatical skills and incorporates written work as well. That kind of balance seems appropriate and necessary.
This review will be published in the traditional written format (although if I were to follow Apkon’s prescription I should probably submit a well-edited video). I am wary of Apkon’s overwhelming enthusiasm for visual storytelling, placed in his analysis as top of the hierarchy of types of communication. Phrases such as “the unstoppable rise of visual expression as a popular means of conveying truth” seems remarkably optimistic: images, like words, can be used for powerfully negative propaganda as much as they can for “truth.” In sum, this book would have been more useful had it presented a more balanced view of the many literacies and illiteracies made possible by today’s technologies.