Don't Just Teach Writing, Teach Visual Literacy

How do we handle the information bombardment? We can't escape it. We adapt.

David McCandless draws and eloquent picture with how much data is taken in by the senses. Visual images take the lions share but most are unconscious that we look at and dismiss unknowingly. We are unaware of how our brains are filtering images and input. Humans have done this since the beginning of time, but how to search for, find and dismiss the exponential amount of information that comes up with the click of a mouse?
We've become a culture of skimmers and headline grabbers. We've done so unknowingly by deciding if the title, thesis statement and opening paragraph are worthy enough of our interest. I've learned this the hard way.    

Image courtesy of CC
Image courtesy of CC
Youtube Copyright Battles Lost to Bad Titles
During the summer, I posted a culmination of my ongoing copyright battle with youtube. I do like youtube, and I hope that they continue to allow me to upload videos. However, the title was "Navigating Copyright Infringement with Youtube and the Creative Commons". I thought it would make a good read for people that used youtube with students and for personal use. However, the title is long and cumbersome and although the title had elements of what I thought would draw in people, it had only a handful of reads. In retrospect, I was writing for too specific an audience. Fast forward to a note-taking script post on The title was " The Best Flipped Classroom Tool Ever?" This went viral, getting hundreds of hits within days. The success of this post was not merely the content, but the title. Flipping your classroom is a buzzword in education and people are looking for tools to make this job easier. Also, it's in the form of a question which intrigues the reader. In short, it hit on three of the four characteristics that also make infographics appealing: Controversy, newsworthiness and educational applications. The one it didn't hit was humor.

"If we don't teach tactics to draw the reader in, student writing will be confined to dusty shelves of the blogosphere."

To write and build an audience in this age, we must be aware of, and teach our students "curbside appeal". I've written some extremely informative posts that have gone unread by many people. We as educators think that teaching writing skills is the most important but if we don't teach tactics to draw the reader in, student writing may be confined to dusty shelves of the blogosphere.    

The Rule of Thirds and When to Break Them
As someone who enjoys underwater photography, I often use the rule of thirds when composing media images. Presentation Zen writes a fabulous expose of this comparing an Australian and New Zealand travel promotion. They outline how many of the images in the New Zealand one are slightly better, which may give an unsuspecting boost to tourism in that region which may in turn result in better return on an investment from a marketing perspective.

Image Courtesy of
However, sometimes the rules are meant to be broken. We tell students that a sentence should be a complete sentence, roughly ten words long. Yet, we read passages from professional authors that are run-on sentences and short 2-3 word ones as well and chalk it up to their trade craft or eccentric writing style. Take this picture of a shark fin on the right for example. It follows the rule of thirds perfectly. It fills up the space and there are elements of the subject that touch each node of visual interest. However, it's a bit boring. Although the shark and it's impending fin are signs of anxiety, panic and danger, the picture is not really worth looking at. In fact, I have done this on purpose after having cropped it from a larger image.  

Shark Fin
Image Courtesy of
This is the original image and although the fin has been photoshopped on, it seems to tell more of a story. From a rule of thirds perspective, the fin is too small and it's not a good composition. However, in this picture, the fin is not the only subject; the calmness of the water is suddenly one as well. The reader scans the calm water around the fin, looking for signs of the sharks size and type. The calmness is also a nice juxtaposition next to visions of a shark attack with a hapless victim which suddenly make us curious to see if any swimmers or prey is near by. Questions race through our heads: Will it attack? Are we a safe distance? Has the shark seen us? The caption "horrifying" with it's small text size draws the reader down into the abyss as we wonder if our fear of sharks is self preservation or unwarranted paranoia.

"All teachers can teach visual literacy"

I could blather on about this, but it does merit an important point. All teachers can teach visual literacy. From how to interpret a picture like this, to how to craft a good blog post title, to how a make a nice visual display, or how to take pictures for the school year book. Some schools have media studies classes that teach students to weave such strategies into their work, although if students are more aware of such design elements in all of their classes, they begin to see how composition can permeate into different contexts and domains. This discussion becomes not about being write or wrong, but was is more effective and which is not. We stretch our thinking through contructivism and artful interpretation. We teach student's subjectivity and interpretation. Discussions become fun and intriguing. Isn't that what being a well educated person is all about?    

Teach Students Visual Literacy By Practicing it Yourself
John Medina mentions in his post that we "remember images and we tend to remember information with a 65% recall rate three days later as compared to remembering 10% of what we just heard". I think of the trite images of clipart that I used in my heyday that didn't say anything at all but were merely filling a visual hole for the sake of putting in a picture. Medina reccomends destroying these.

It makes me wonder what is the most effective media for teaching something to someone. Instead of blogging last week about my experience using the student response tool "Socrative" perhaps my time would be better spent by recording a screencast of a tutorial while using it online. A screencast is much faster to do upload and share, so perhaps that would be a better use of my time. But with so many videos out there already of how to use software tools, what's the point? Because it's fun. It teaches how to do something new and Vicki Davis, the Cool Cat Teacher famously said: "If you don't innovate, you depreciate".

Creating Infographics that Humanize Data
I decided to use an infographic for my lesson next week on classification and taxonomy. There are monster target vocabulary terms to understand and the organizational matrix is quite complex. Not to mention that the multitude of living things on earth is too big for one person to fully grasp. The closest one that I've seen goes as far as starting by domains and going down to the classification level of "family".

Image courtesy of
Image courtesy of

It's exhausting to look at. To look at this, you almost need to rotate your computer screen 360 degrees while reading and the center is unclear about what questions are causing data to diverge and spread the way it does. Still, some people like this complexity and have even gone so far to have tattoos made of this "tree of life". For my average sixth grader, I decided to start with some of the big questions and then move on with facts that make living things in this diagram easier to understand. I decided to start by making a taxonomic key that used "Piktochart"

Infographics are tiresome to make, but they really are fun to look at. I think that this one is pretty effective as it starts with some of the "big" questions and progresses down to smaller levels that went with fun facts along the way. I had to think laterally for some of the icons, for example I couldn't find a picture of a rod-like bacteria so had to improvise with a picture of a medicine pill. If we can create a community of educators that all have a hand in making such media, it will make all our lives easier; more interesting to look at, and hold our attention for just a little bit longer.

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