10 Little-Known Benefits of Teaching Visual Literacy
The international stakeholders of the OECD Future of Education and Skills 2030 project highlight three foundations as particularly important:
- Cognitive foundations, which include literacy and numeracy, upon which digital literacy and data literacy can be built
- Health foundations, including physical and mental health, and well-being
- Social and emotional foundations, including moral and ethics
These core foundations are the building blocks upon which context-specific competencies for 2030, such as financial literacy, global competency or media literacy, can be developed.
Through pilot programs in Singapore schools, we have demonstrated that thoughtfully curated thematic illustrations are an effective way to grab students’ attention and introduce foundational knowledge whilst developing competencies for the future of work.
Until now, traditional art such as paintings in museums has been the focus of visual literacy training. We propose that contemporary digital art and illustration can be just as effective, if not more so.
Amy Herman, author of Visual Intelligence states “If you can talk about what is happening in a work of art, you can talk about scenes of everyday life; you can talk about boardrooms and classrooms, crime scenes, and factory floors.”
- Develops Observation
Like any other skill, observation can be mastered with practice. In his 1950 book The Art of Scientific Investigation, Cambridge scientist William Ian Beardmore Beveridge gives the following instructions: “Powers of observation can be developed by cultivating the habit of watching things with an active, enquiring mind. Training in observation follows the same principles as training in any activity. At first one must do things consciously and laboriously, but with practice the activities gradually become automatic and unconscious and a habit is established.”
Naghshineh et al. (2008) observed that formal art observation training improved medical students’ visual diagnostic skills.
- Can lead to better grades in other subjects
In her book, Amy Herman refers to a case of ninth- and tenth-graders who were taken to the Frick for a walk-through of the galleries. The students discussed the observational process and completed written exercises about the artworks they had seen. The results were remarkable. Their teacher recalls; “I barely recognized some of them: they were alert, eager, even energetic.”
Back in the classroom, he noted that the students who took part in the museum training could more easily see connections in math problems than the students who had not. Through ongoing visual literacy training, the percentage of students who met the mathematics standard on the Regents exam that year increased to 44% and climbed to 59% the following year.
- Improves Communication Skills
Installation artist and photographer JR explains that art is about “raising questions, and giving space to interpretation and dialogue. The fact that art cannot change things makes it a neutral place for exchanges and discussions, and then enables it to change the world.”
Amy Herman states; “We need to be able to communicate when it’s business-as-usual but also prepare our business for the unforeseen, for the emergency, for the impossible.”
Following our Chongfu Primary School pilot, 71.4% of teachers agreed the program helped develop their students’ English language skills.
- Sparks curiosity and interest in a subject
Out of 28 primary school teachers we spoke to, 100% agreed and strongly agreed that visual aids are a powerful way to spark interest in a subject.
- Builds STEAM skills
The practise of Visual literacy builds essential STEAM skills such as deep noticing, questioning, analysing and deconstructing and meaning making. Building as a strong learning mindset and confidence when encountering new information or challenges.
- Nurtures Design Sensibilities
Visual literacy includes recognition of the importance of use of visuals, knowledge of principles of page and screen layout, use of colour and font, appropriate line spacing, and selection of applicable images based on intended message and social context and the ability to implement that knowledge.
- Encourages Laughter and Play
Humour can increase retention in even boring subject lectures. Because of their hyper-responsive dopamine reward system, adolescents may be uniquely primed to react positively to educational humour (Henderson, 2015).
- Develops Creative Thinking skills
Siu-Kay Pun from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore demonstrated how a visual literacy course was able to nurture creativity in business students. A phenomenon observed across several studies describes a reduction in original thinking in children ages 9–10 years compared with younger and older children—the “fourth grade slump.” The social pressures on young adolescents toward being part of the crowd often lead children to lose their capacity to think “out of the box.”
- Connects learners to contemporary digital creators
By profiling the creators behind the images, we can start to build connecting between educators, students and visual communicators, and create a platform for virtual residencies, workshops and talks.
- Bridges the digital and physical
Digital fabrication tools such as 3D printers or laser cutters have both digital and physical components. Children can design an object using a computer graphics program, create the object with the associated tool, then hold it in their hands to explore its size, weight, texture, and shape. With the information they gather by touching the physical object, they can decide how to use it or change it.
By using digital art and animation themed around complex and sensitive topics, supported by a visual literacy approach to spark questioning, critical thinking and creative problem solving, we can pave the way for students to communicate with a level of visual sophistication that will carry them through the multimedia-dependent future. At the same time, we can start the bridge the gap between educator and students, incite group sharing, peer-to-peer commentary and create a safe space for students to voice concerns or anxieties about the digital world we are living in.