Connecting the Dots: The Unexplored Promise of Visual Literacy in American Classrooms

Not too long ago, my wife made the decision to try one of those on-line groceries-delivered-to-your-home deals from our neighborhood chain. She expected that setting up the template for the initial order would take some time, but, once its set, the idea is, you point and click and save yourself an hour and a half each weekend. The surprise for her, and me (enlisted to help out), was that when you go to choose the various selections of soap, pasta, meat, etc., you see only a brand name in script, a size selection, and a price --no click down for an image, packaging color scheme, company logo, dairy maid, ear of corn, giant with ear ring, etc. Just a three-word description of the item – “Tom’s Toothpaste- w/ whitener”, size and price. Suddenly, it became a challenge for both of us to try to visualize and choose the precise products that we had routinely, in some cases for twenty years, been selecting off the shelf as we whisk down the aisles on automatic pilot.

What has this got to do with education? Let me connect some dots, so to speak. For one thing, the composition of the students in our urban classrooms has changed dramatically. Long gone are those mythical days of the “general ed.” classroom, with a large core of on- or near-grade level students, a few outliers slower in their reading, one or two with mild learning disabilities, and the occasional second language learner. The inner-city classrooms I see these days may not have a single on-grade level reader among the 30 or so students, and will have anywhere from 4-10 students with special needs ranging from those who require minor accommodations to others who need teachers to make substantial adjustments to their planning, instructional materials and assessment. Also in the mix are likely to be a number of students with behavioral challenges and, of course, the 6-8 whose home language is not English and who may have come from countries where their education was interrupted or minimal to begin with. Our shorthand in Boston for this challenging array of learners is “the New Classroom” and the implications for instruction, teacher training and development, technology needs, and additional human resources are overwhelming.

Next dot? The dropout crisis. Urban districts are finding it difficult to finesse their dropout numbers for NCLB reporting and the real figures have begun to emerge. Some cities, provoked by the Youth Transition Funders Group discussions, are examining their numbers as a reflection of deep community concern. Whatever the motivation, the scale of the problem is frightening. Boston, a medium-sized city, is losing well over 1,500 high school age students a year to the streets. In 2007, USA Today, adding to the bad news, reported that among the nation's 50 largest districts, three are graduating fewer than 40%: Detroit (21.7%), Baltimore (38.5%) and New York City (38.9%). As the poor get poorer more families find themselves in crisis, and with our fatuous testing-as-school-improvement strategy exposed for what it really is, public school systems across the country are hard-pressed to address the intensified inquiry into how they plan to stem the tide of disengaged youth.

Add one final complicating dot to this picture. The old wisdom goes if you spend much time in high schools, you realize that in every hour, the best 5 minutes for most students occur during passing time. The hallways are where the real action is --home to lively talk, curiosity, engagement, relationships, and the passionate pursuit of “what’s happening”? Nowadays, those frenetic moments between classes are increasingly characterized by the proliferation of personal electronics that connect, display, gratify and inform –cell phones that transmit flashing images, iPods, uploads, downloads, students racing to find available computers to search the Internet, email or Instant Message. Educators still yearn to harness that unbounded energy, but are reluctantly coming to grips with the fact that teaching and learning as currently construed compete less and less successfully with the media appliances of the popular culture. While images and visual literacy are becoming more prevalent for our kids, text-driven instruction has come to dominate their formal schooling, perhaps more than ever before, a function of the press to prepare students for the all-important testing formats, starting now in the early grades and including dozens of state tests, the SAT’s, the AP’s, etc.

As Thomas West asserts, “more and more we insist on having our schools teaching the skills of the medieval clerk –reading, writing, counting, and memorizing texts”. As a frequent observer of schools and classrooms, I have to agree with West, that “clerk-dom” has become the daily lot for too many young people all over this nation, struggling to find a hint of meaning or access into the “work” and swimming in text.

"Please listen, class". "Pay attention, now". "Follow along with me, I'm on page three". "Will someone read for us?" --students let us know with their body language, their passive disinterest, or their distracting behavior, that it’s hard for them to be engaged and successful in an academic world interpreted almost completely through text, a format that discounts some of the very methods through which they might find meaning and become more intellectually involved. We are watching more and more kids, across grade or subject area, lean away and tune out from lessons that force them to listen, sort through page after page, write short responses, talk some, read more, write more, etc. For many of us, there has been far too little acknowledgment or discussion of the role of this kind of teaching and assessment and its correlation to our dropout plague.

Back to the on-line shopping. We know from such episodes and personal experiences, from child-rearing, from Howard Gardner and others, that we each learn in differing ways and at different paces— and, when given the chance, we express our learning differently. The novel notion that robust theories of multiple “intelligences”, aptitudes, and predispositions could inform and help to re-make the structures and teaching practices of our schools enjoyed a short burst of interest a decade ago, but is now largely off the table, too costly and complicated, save a small number of privileged schools, many at the elementary level. Yet, the marriage of popular culture and new technologies now plays an unprecedented role in the ways in which young people are entertained and informed, and, simultaneously, how they learn and communicate. The trend is undeniable and irreversible –most kids these days have learned to learn in these new ways first, and in the “old-school way” second, if at all. Add to this equation the limited capacity and/or determined resistance of many older educators to the uses of technology in schools, a sad fact that has proven enormously problematic in the medieval classroom. And while our students are connecting globally, we baffle visitors from other countries when we tell them how much we spend on textbooks, those relics of yesteryear --enormously expensive, containing a fraction of the information available on line, and outdated within days of publication. Like it or not, we are at a pedagogical crossroads and we either have to get on board with other, more expansive ideas about literacy and the related uses of technology or continue to pay the price in the loss of young minds.

So, what makes me hopeful? The work of a small but growing number of schools, educators and thinkers that have not been anesthetized by testing, who keep in mind such notions as curiosity and emergent curriculum, and who have also taken to heart both the realities of The New Classroom and their students’ deep connection to developing technologies. These are folks who acknowledge as West posits, that “machines have already become our best clerks… it will be left to the humans to maximize what is most valued among human capabilities and what machines cannot do –and, increasingly, these are likely to involve the insightful and integrative capacities associated with visual modes of thought”.

A decade ago, DeFanti and Brown summarized reasons for the booming popularity of visualization in their Advances in Computers, "Much of modern science can no longer be communicated in print; DNA sequences, molecular models, medical imaging scans, brain maps, simulated flights through a terrain, simulations of fluid flow, and so on all need to be expressed and taught visually…. Scientists need an alternative to numbers. A technical reality today and a cognitive imperative tomorrow is the use of images. The ability of scientists to visualize complex computations and simulations is absolutely essential to ensure the integrity of analyses, to provoke insights, and to communicate those insights with others." It becomes clearer each day, that it’s not only scientists who are moving beyond text and numbers.

Among those making sense of these issues is Kristina Lamour-Sansone, founder of The Design Education Consultancy, whose commitment to bringing highly-challenging and disciplined graphic design values and applications into classrooms in a number of cities has shown exceptional promise. Working in Boston’s High School Renewal Initiative, Lamour-Sansone has been digging in with teachers of substantially separate special education classrooms, second-language learners and behaviorally- challenged students. Her visual-literacy approach captures the energy and vitality needed to liberate learning for those youngsters least likely to succeed in passing through the ever-shrinking “eye of the needle” of text-driven instruction. Lamour-Sansone works with teachers eager to plan lessons that turn students loose on their machines and in their mind’s eyes, to design complicated, eye-catching visual arrays that reveal sophisticated reasoning and high levels of intellectual engagement. These organic “maps” that interweave concepts, skills, connections, and comparisons are then deconstructed and converted back into thoughtful, highly organized outlines and drafts for use in chapter summaries, research papers, essays and portfolio artifacts.

For example, in a civil rights unit in their integrated Humanities course, Social Justice Academy students comparing the lives and ideals of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X began by brainstorming what they knew in small groups. Then, researching independently on Google Image Search, they developed formative Venn diagrams capturing images and events from the lives and experiences of the two men. By using tracing paper on top of central, well-chosen images, the students began to add vocabulary and key concepts from the lesson, linking them to the enduring themes identified in the unit’s curriculum standards. Meanwhile, Lamour-Sansone worked with teachers to help them learn page layout software for designing visual timelines as a classroom tool in conjunction with the lesson, demonstrating promising impact on teacher capacity and positive professional development outcomes. The unique, visual time lines helped to further provoke students’ developing notions of King’s and Malcolm’s intersecting or opposing strategies and beliefs. Finally, with firmer ideas about the men and issues in question, the students returned to essay writing, class discussion and, eventually, test-taking, having transcended the initial limitations of a text-based, linear approach, and with strong images of the unit in their “mind’s eyes” and at their disposal.

Some teachers have gone above and beyond the initial expectations and are thinking actively about how to tap the potential of graphic design-based visual literacy in the initial introduction of skills and concepts, enhancing their didactic repertoires. Some schools in which Lamour-Sansone has worked are making time for teachers to learn such techniques, more commonly found within intellectual constructs such as that of the Reggio Emilia, a respected yet under-utilized approach that capitalizes on the realization that complex visual thinking is both instinctual and universal. Lamour-Sansone is committed to appropriating these notions now for urban public schools, building their capacity to employ them across a range of concepts and skill development. Kids are getting on board and looking forward for opportunities to employ what comes naturally to them. One need only look at videos of her students in traditional classrooms and their work in other classes centered on graphic design techniques to wonder how the same students can show such different attitudes towards the same material and concepts. Across grades and subject areas, this work is showing exceptional potential to draw in the marginal learners, among them those who struggle with text and language and for whom points of entry may have more to do with visual thinking than with straight text.

The commitment of Lesley University in planning for the opening of a new Center for Graphic Design in Education, to be directed by Lamour-Sansone, means, one hopes, that the generative thinking behind such initiatives as Harvard’s Project Zero is about to find its way into mainstream educational planning and programming. And what’s great about this movement is that it is in no way a lowering of standards or an end-run around those significant skills students will need to learn and thrive in their work and private lives. For these people and these schools, reading and writing remain the central goals, but they are recognizing a smarter way to get there.

As West concludes, “Education, and self-education, is nothing without performance, results, application and (sometimes) official verification through some sort of credible examination. The inherent flexibility of the computer, and the surround of global technology, would seem ideal material for these tasks as well as for all forms of creative pursuit –many not possible otherwise. It would seem likely that such developments would open up such pursuits to whole new sections of the population –especially those who could never pass the initial hurdles before”. Now, more than ever, we need to connect the dots, and to make way for the powerful visual thinking lying dormant within our classrooms to surface in order to make sure our young people have the chance they deserve to pass the hurdles we put in their way.

Larry Myatt was the founder and long-time Headmaster of Fenway High School and the Co-Founder of the Center for Collaborative Education, both in Boston, and the founder and Director of the Greater Boston Principal Residency Network. He teaches at the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern University, is a co-founder of the Project for Educational Options and a convener of the Forum for Education and Democracy.

Published By: Phi Delta Kappan

Date Published: November 21, 2008

An abridged version of this article appeared in the November 2008 edition of Phi Delta Kappan. Reprints are available through PDK Intl., but the author retains copyright.

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