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Visual Literacy

Mary Alice White, a researcher at Columbia Teacher's College has found that young people learn more than half of what they know from visual information, but few schools have an explicit curriculum to show students how to think critically about visual data.

In societies where powerful interests employ visual data to persuade (what Alvin Toffler calls "info-tactics") schools must show students how to look beyond the surface to understand deeper levels of meaning and the tactics employed to sway their thinking. There is a danger that these images will serve as decoration rather than information unless we show them how to interpret (make meaning of) the data.

Many libraries and other groups are busily digitizing collections so that you and your students can explore great pictures and documents from your nation's past or from the archives of other nations. The National Library in New Zealand is a world leader in digitizing and sharing its collection at "The Library without Walls."

1. Go to the home page for Museum Victoria's Biggest Family Album (click here) or Use Pictures Australia (click here).

2. Using visual data (photographs, etc.) from one of these sites, you and your partner are charged with arguing a case for why one of the following industries was more demanding and difficult for workers than the other two:

  • fishing
  • lumber
  • raising sheep

3. You will collect one vivid photograph for each industry, copy or insert all three pictures into your word processor and list 6-7 visual details as a basis for selecting one industry as being more demanding and difficult than the other two. Make your reasons as specific as possible, supplying the visual data, details and evidence to build your case.

4. Having many great pictures is not especially valuable unless students can interpret the information. In your learning log, write your thoughts about the following:

a. How might you use these kinds of resources in your classes?
b. How can we teach our students to see the deeper meanings implicit in visual material?
c. What were the strengths and the weaknesses of the digital collection(s) you visited?
d. Should teachers steer students to worthwhile sites and cull the bad ones or should the teacher allow students to find their own?

5. The secret to developing challenging activities with such visual resources is to emphasize juxtaposition. When students must compare and contrast several photographs, paintings, ideas or industries, it creates cognitive dissonance and requires fresh thinking. Read this article on how these strategies can work well in your classroom. (click here) "Students in Resonance: Provoking Fresh Thought and Deep Reasoning with Dissonance, Contrast and Juxtaposition."

Other visual literacy resources:

Picture Australia
Search for people, places and events in the collections of libraries, museums, galleries, archives, universities and other cultural agencies, in Australia and abroad - all at the same time. Images found through the PictureAustralia service may be reproduced for research or study.

Australian National University - ArtServe   
Over 35,000 images.

The National Gallery of Australia

AMOL - Australian Museums Online
There are 229 museums from Queensland listed in the AMOL directory

The Thinker
A collection of more than 60,000 works of art from the San Francisco Fine Arts Museum.

The Web Museum
A very rich collection of paintings from hundreds of artists well supported with text passages.

The Library of Congress
The American collection.

Back up Activity

The Library of Congress in the States is busily digitizing its collections so that you and your students can explore great pictures and documents from the American past. One collection of photographs from the turn of the century, the Detroit Publishing Collection, supports powerful inquiry with a search engine.

1. Go to the search engine (a white box half way down the page where you may type words) on this page to find a picture about "coal breaker boys." Type the words "coal breaker boys" into the search box.

2. Once you find the picture, enlarge it by clicking on the thumbnail and then point your cursor into the middle of the photograph. Hold your mouse button down until a menu appears which includes the option "Copy this Image." Select that image and then paste the photograph into a word processing file you have opened with Word or AppleWorks.

3. Now join with your partner to probe beyond the obvious and infer psychological content. Who is the leader of this group? Write down your choice and then make a list of at least 8 reasons why you selected that one person over the others. Make your reasons as specific as possible, supplying the visual data, details and evidence to build your case.

© 2003, Jamie McKenzie,
All Rights Reserved