As we work through the COETAIL Courses, I find each new set of readings endlessly fascinating. It has been an absolute joy to rethink different aspects of teaching, and doubly so to collaborate with thoughtful and reflective practitioners around the world.
Course 3 has followed this trend, but probably even more so. My mind is buzzing with different ideas about the profession; and also with adjustments to my classroom, activities to empower my students and ideas to share with colleagues.
I particularly focused this week on visual literacy, use of images and critical thinking.
Because so much information is communicated visually, it is more important than ever that our students learn what it means to be visually literate – ISTE, Med Lit Excerpt.
Multitudes of images proliferate our world, in a plethora of different forms, from: cartoons, adverts, films, websites, and many more sources (too many to list). Visual Literacy is the skill of being able to view those images and going beyond a superficial understanding. Those accomplished in this skill are able to interpret the deeper meanings of why an image looks a certain way, and the possible intention of the creator/impact on the audience. Through this process, the viewer can make active connections with their own lives, alternate media and the wider world.
With all of this interpretation taking place, it can be suggested that being literate with visuals is the process of reading an image or film, in the same way that we would read written media. Just ask Martin Scorsese:
…demonstrate the ability to interpret, recognise, approximate and understand information presented through visible actions, objects and symbols, natural or man made – Todd Finley on Edutopia, quoting imls.gov.
Inference, as a process, simply is not possible without a good grasp of critical thinking. This ‘soft skill’ underlies visual literacy, and (quite frankly) the entire education system. Effective educators should be always looking to challenge students with their abilities to think critically, about a range of subjects, but should also consider critical thinking as a process which can be taught (not just something that will naturally develop over time or is simply innate).
Throughout much of my time so far on the COETAIL Courses, I have looked to use the ideas learnt to try and aid my students with the skills that define their ability to learn, beyond simple curriculum content. This week, I hope to help them with their ability to think critically, about images in particular.
What Do You See?
I already use swathes of images in my teaching; from illustrations that bring story writing to life, to photographs that help my students visualize a historical period, to functional diagrams that explain a scientific or mathematical concept. Yet, I think that there is real value in using high quality images at different parts of the school day; with the specific objective of spending some time to discuss the possible deeper meanings at play, to analyse the intention behind the choice of style or shot, or simply to all stop and wonder for a moment or two.
Closely reading any text, whether written or visual, requires that students move slowly and methodically, noticing details, making connections and asking questions – Michael Gonchar on the NY Times.
I aim to utilise a quality image each week in my class, spending a short amount of time looking at it closely each day. Throughout each of these short sessions, I will ask the children open questions and perhaps provide small amounts of information as we go, with the ultimate ‘big reveal’ of exactly what the image is at the end of the week.
As my students are in Year 3 (Grade 2), I will slowly build up this process as the weeks progress, with different quality images as we go. There should be plenty of opportunities along the way to directly teach the children different critical thinking skills to aid them with their visual literacy. Layla Block, on her COETAIL blog, defines a logical plan for this, which has really inspired me in how this process will work (though obviously, I will alter the sessions depending on how the children learn). I particularly like the way that she set out her activities, which I would aim to build up a week at a time.
- Children look at the image and simply say what they see. Do they and their peers have different ideas?
- Define the image based on technical aspects. Why did the photographer choose that angle, colour, etc?
- Can we define our thoughts or feelings about the image? Perhaps we can draw an illustration of our ideas, or make our own images in response to it.
- Blog our thoughts, e.g. Layla would ask her pupils to create a new caption.
I think that this will be so beneficial for children to complete, and will have a tremendous amount of cross-curricular relevance. Though all will benefit from it, it will also be especially useful for students that have low levels of spoken English, general comprehension or life experience. As we look at each new image, I will absolutely take time to stop, look closely and wonder as well:
The courage to teach, then, is the courage to expose yourself as you demonstrate your curiosity and wonder for your subject – Presentation Zen.
High Quality Images
If you are going to use visuals, then for crying out loud, make them insanely great visuals – Presentation Zen.
Indeed! Here are some sources for fabulous images to use in the aforementioned critical thinking sessions:
- What’s Going On In This Picture? from the NY Times – a weekly picture, where the details are hidden to aid interpretation. A brilliant starting point for this activity, if carefully chosen (depending on the age and sensibilities of your children).
- 8 Minute Compelling Mini Documentaries from the NY Times again – if you want to move this activity into moving images.
- Edutopia article on Visual Literacy Strategies – a treasure trove of wonderful resources here, particularly: Five Card Flikr Stories.
- The National Gallery – to include art in the reflections, plus find a host of great resources here.
- This ISTE document also includes many great websites for images, such as: Edupic or images.google.com/hosted/life.
- Pobble 365 – one picture a day.
- Literacy Shed.
However, in most communities, media literacy exists due to the energy and initiative of a single teacher, not because of a coordinated, community-wide programmatic plan of implementation – Renee Hobbs on Media Lit.
Yes, that could well be true and we probably do need to include visual literacy to a greater extent in our wider curricula. But, my view is that such change takes time. In the immediate future, teaching our students directly about visual literacy and critical thinking, even in small distinct chunks, is going to help them in so many different areas. Why would an individual educator pass up an opportunity to make a difference?
Spending time looking and exploring with pupils is rewarded by a depth of engagement and a sophisticated level of understanding about a painting’s (or image’s) context, which provides a platform for confident and committed oral and written work – The National Gallery.