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Visual Literacy and Art Education: Review of the Literature

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Abstract

What is currently being done by art and design researchers and educators to engage learners in the pursuit of visual and media literacy? This paper looked specifically at visual arts education and related fields to determine what trends, motivations and criticisms exist that either encourage or dissuade scholars from taking up or promoting visual literacy. Several prominent themes were found under the banner of ‘Visual Literacy’ that are discussed in detail; The Rise in Visual Information and Consumption, The Inseparability of Visual Literacy and Popular Visual Culture, The Importance of Learning to Deconstruct our Visual World and The Role of Technologies and New Media. The major themes are then followed by further discussion on The Benefits of Visual literacy as well as implications for future study.
Visual Literacy and Art Education: A Review of the Literature
By
Scott McMaster
Concordia University, Montreal
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Table of Contents
Preface…………………………………………………………………………………………………...3
Introduction and Rationale………………………………………………………………….…….4
The Rise in Visual Information and Consumption of Images…………………......5
The Inseparability of Visual Literacy and Popular Visual Culture………………...7
The Importance of Learning to Deconstruct our Visual World…………………....13
The Role of Technologies and New Media……………………………...............................19
The Benefits of Visual Literacy…………………………………………………………..……..24
Implications for Future Study ………………………………………………………………….28
References …………………………………………………………………………………………….30
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Preface
Art is a language of visual images that everyone must learn to read. In art classes we
make visual images and we study visual images. Increasingly these images affect our
needs, our daily behaviour, our hopes, our opinions and our ultimate ideals. This is
why the individual who cannot understand or read images is incompletely educated.
Complete literacy includes the ability to understand, respond to and talk about
visual images (Feldman, 1982, p.5).
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Visual Literacy and Art Education
Introduction and Rationale
Visual literacy is under researched, often overlooked and underestimated in its value
to our education and in society in general. Although the concept of Visual Literacy (VL) is
still regarded as controversial and problematic for lack of an agreed upon definition and
explicit focus, it remains actively pursued as many disciplines strive to understand and
integrate it (Avgerinou and Ericson, 1997; Boughton, 1986). Visual Literacy can be defined
as an understanding of imagery which encompasses all forms of visual media and,
"distinguishes between semantic and syntactic conventions and focuses on those
characteristics that most sharply differentiate visual language from other modes of
communication" (Messaris, 1998, p.70). Hortin(1980) defined VL more simply as “the
ability to understand and use images, including the ability to think, learn, and express
oneself in terms of images (p. 169).
In response to the prevalence and influence of visual imagery, what efforts have
been undertaken to analyze and interpret visual language? What impact is or could visual
literacy be having on education today? In particular, how are those in the Visual Arts and
Art Education, whose primary concern is imagery, educating students in visual literacy and
visually based communication? What do current methods of exploration hold for the future
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of educational design? The purpose of this literature review is to explore some major issues
and themes surrounding visual literacy’s impact, or lack thereof, on current paradigms and
the fundamental strategies of how we teach and learn. We are constantly exposed to, and
targeted by media on a scale which may have been unfathomable over a decade ago.
Considering the importance and rapidly expanding influence technology and visual
imagery have, now more than ever, on society, what efforts are being made to educate
students in the production and consumption of our vast, diagrammatic and increasingly
technological world?
Major Issues and Themes
The literature, which has been constrained to mainly Art and Art Education related
publications show several prominent themes under the banner of ‘Visual Literacy’ which
are discussed in detail; The Rise in Visual Information and Consumption, The Inseparability
of Visual Literacy and Popular Visual Culture, The Importance of Learning to Deconstruct
our Visual World and The Role of Technologies and New Media. The major themes are then
followed by further discussion on The Benefits of Visual literacy as well as implication for
future study.
The Rise in Visual Information and Consumption of Images
So what makes visual images so important or worthy of our attention? Our world is
increasingly image based and penetrates almost all aspects of contemporary life; brought
to us by a myriad of media and technological devices which are not bound by
the constraints of physical space and do not meld easily within the ideals of traditional
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literacy paradigms. Images permeate our homes, our cars, our streets, our workplaces even
our pockets; for most people images are both inseparable from and essential for our
everyday lives.
Hudson (1987) points out that as far back as 1936 it was assumed that over 65% of
all our information was attained visually. Hudson then makes the case that with all the
advances made in technology and the supremacy of visual processes he estimates that over
85% of all knowledge is attained visually (1987). “In spite of this, visual training, visual
language and literacy, have not as yet achieved an equal position beside the other
fundamental literacies-verbal, oral, and numeral” (p. 277). This is more recently supported
by others, such as Chung (2005), who describes the environment we live in as drenched in
imagery.
Even through written 25 years ago Boughton (1986) notes the decline in the textual
compared with the visual which has become even more prominent today with new media
and increasingly visual gadgets and the web, things which Boughton recognized before
they had come to fruition. He makes the claim that VL has the potential to significantly
impact art education’s content and methodologies. He makes the point, later reiterated by
Avgerinou and Ericson (1997), that there is no clear meaning of VL but instead purposes
three loosely tied but fundamentally different concepts. Boughton (1986) argues that in an
education context that values ‘getting back to basics’ visual education is one of those basic
values.
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Twenty years later Harris (2006) observed that in our homes, in the streets, on
screens, across the web, the visual is primary. Icons erase words from desktops and menus,
textbooks have become drenched in images, information seekers use computers,
televisions, and cell phones, simultaneously, in what seems to be an almost constant swirl
of search-find-post and search again activity; images are both higher in demand and in
circulation than text (p. 213). We turn to our TVs and LCD screens first to get our
information, and while a good deal of this information is still textual it almost never goes
unaccompanied by images.
Harris (2006) remarks that since most students come in contact with millions of
images a year(one might easily estimate that number to be even higher today), which
means lifelong continuous learning is enhanced with a consideration of the multi-textual
and highly visual character of information production, presentation and consumption (p.
214). Despite these realities he points out that few students would actually be asked to
produce an image based essay or to deconstruct imagery in most programs of study. He
also makes the obvious point that words are merely images that symbolize sounds and that
teachers must make way for the increasing influence of visuals in their classrooms.
The Inseparability of Visual Literacy and Popular Visual Culture
Throughout the literature it becomes increasingly apparent that it is very difficult to
separate the need for visual literacy from the call for the study of visual culture. At the very
center of popular visual culture is, rather obviously, visual imagery. The media that deliver
our films, TV shows, news, commercials, ads, magazines and websites are now structured
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around the images which compose the bulk of what we see and convey a great deal of
information; altering the perspective with which we interpret the accompanying text or
dialogue.
Duncum (1993) through his five functions of the visual arts in society demonstrates
the importance of the visual in both our everyday lives and as intrinsically connected with
popular culture. Duncum claims that it is crucial to understand the motives which engage
children and adults in the production of imagery and in doing so it will better inform the
place of the visual arts role in society. Duncum pointed out that in 1993 children are
exposed to many more visual narratives than in the past via TV; this has even more
significance to educators today because of the ubiquity of the internet and access students
have to these narratives. Still Duncum claims there is little focus given to visual narrative
in schools, citing a preoccupation with words.
Allen (1994) suggests that visual narratives and the use of camerawork portray characters
and people in certain ways which can affect our interpretation and opinions of them. He
also includes all forms of mass media communication (including new media) stating, “the
deregulation of broadcasting and the development of increasingly cheap and sophisticated
multi-media technologies for work and leisure make it increasingly important that we can
handle visual information as part of a complex package of ideas and ideologies” (p.134).
Allen (1994) further strengthens his argument by pointing out, as does Aguirre (2004), that
although we would like fine art media to play a more important role in interpreting these
narratives, they cannot compete with the presence of popular mass media as potent visual
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Visual Literacy and Art Education
artifacts of people’s daily lives, further questioning whether painting, drawing and
printmaking etc. can provide an inclusive education in VL. Allen (1994) makes a direct link
between a critical eye and VL, suggesting that attaining literacy means knowing and
understanding the source.
Avgerinou and Ericson (1997) point out, giving strength to Eisners (1986) claims,
that if it is established that the visual sense is the most dominant and therefore the most
central (they see no evidence not to believe that to be true) rationality dictates that as
teachers we should focus and develop the visual sense through the fostering and expansion
of visual literacy. Adding to this Avgerinou and Ericson (1997) also note the ubiquity of
visual mass media and the messages contained within them, reiterating the significance for
generations growing up within this context not be just passive consumers absorbing these
messages.
Addison (1999) proposes, similarly to Knight (2010), that VL has wrongfully been
slotted into a textual perspective of interpretation of imagery which cannot account for the
multiplicity of meanings contained within creatively produced signs/symbols used in our
everyday lives. It is then not too much of a leap to link this idea with popular visual culture
as the dominant force driving and creating these everyday sign and symbols.The types of
things that we read visually on a daily basis include, body gestures, clothes, posture, facial
expressions and reactions are all visual forms that, Addison suggests, should be built upon
in the curriculum. Just as students interact and create meaning with each other so do they
interact and create meaning with images and works of art. Addison also cites the rise of
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multimedia as challenging verbal dominance, gradually displacing it from its privileged
perch.
Addison (1999) contends that semiotics are a more logical starting point for critical
approach to interpreting visual culture and much more closely related to students own
meaning making processes than other privileged studies such as science or math.
Semiotics provides ways of examining the relationship between word, image, sound and
the other sensory modes used simultaneously in multi-media and installation (p.37). This
touches on Eisner’s (1986) plea for inclusion of the senses.
Stankiewicz (2003, 2004) posits that being visually literate means that people are
able to interpret the constructs of visual culture within the context of their lives (Aguirre,
2004) this includes a better understanding of multimedia technologies surrounding them
which are intrinsically visual. Teaching students to understanding and critically examine
these constructs, she suggests, is the task of future art educators. Aguirre (2004) discusses
art as a cultural system emphasizing links between art and our social structures.
Stankiewicz (2003) argues that this social relevance calls for more social constructivist
methods to be used in art education, to draw upon the mammoth power of visual culture,
merging creation, understanding and critique within contemporary life. Ultimately her
position examines how aesthetic experience or interpretation of an art work, whether it is
fine or pop art, positioned within our lived experience? Cultural, social and political aspects
construct our everyday lives and aesthetic comprehension should position us directly
within these influences without a concern with titles of fine or popular art.
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Chung (2005) states that in contemporary society people, particularly children, are
heavily influenced by various types of popular media and in turn the things people talk
about, lifestyles they live and products they consume are directly related to what they see
portrayed or advertised in these media. Through the combination of visual and textual ads
and slogans companies not only convince people to buy certain products but also construct
false or misleading ideals and realities surrounding the use of these products. Chung points
out that activist art, like that of Barbra Kruger and the Guerrilla Girls use the same methods
as advertisers capitalizing, “the power of mass media in contemporary society and the
ways in which images and language from television, films, the Internet, newspapers, and
magazines serve as key conduits through which modern citizens learn about the world”
(2005, p.21). This emphasizes the importance of being visually literate and being able to
thoughtfully process the sometimes overwhelming sources of visual media.
Herne (2005) highlights how visual and media literacy can be developed through
hands on image production and group activities which draw on lived experience and
popular culture. A literacy project similar to that of Chung’s (2005) in that images
(postcards) were deconstructed and then narratives for these images constructed by
groups of young students relating to Duncum’s 3rd and 5th functions of visual art. The
activities described in this study demonstrate children’s ability to adapt to the use of
technology and their willingness to take on the conceptual role of assigning meaning to
images though the use of captions which according to some of the investigators reflected a
development of student’s visual vocabulary and enhanced their interpretation of imagery.
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Visual Literacy and Art Education
Hernes (2005) results support more careful consideration of visual literacy learning
beginning at a very young age.
Children and students in school increasingly present a tacit understanding of media
literacy drawing on their regular media consumption, albeit as consumers rather than
producers. All this has a pressing influence on the school curriculum and educators are
posed the challenge of reflecting these changes (Herne, 2005, p. 7).
Almost everyone sees, immersed in imagery , signs and symbols most of their
waking life (even in dreams) , but, “may rarely encounter an eight-page essay written in
MS Word with an APA bibliography” (Harris, 2006, p.214) and most people do not do
algebra or physics or encounter equations 
 as they walk down the street.
Despite this reality Harris (2006) insists out that few students would actually be asked to
produce an image based essay or to deconstruct imagery in most programs of study.
Yet even though the average student may not be asked to produce imagery during
their studies Spalter and van Dam (2008) contend that the ease at which images can be
produced, spread, altered and accessed worldwide, almost instantaneously, makes the
interpretation, production and consumption of our visual world all the more critical.
Spalter and van Dam (2008) state the tremendous rise in visual communication is
due to computer graphics being able to not only represent our world but allow us to
interact and manipulate it. Spalter and van Dam (2008) note that unlike previous visual
innovations in technology like the printing press, telescope or microscope, computer
graphics and new technologies can be used, manipulated and altered (as well as
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disseminated)by just about anyone who can dedicate the time. They claim that visual
perception, contrary to popular belief, is a complex intertwining of moving, static and
contrasting stimuli. Factor in all these technologies and new media and merge them with
the motives, agendas, placement of everyday images, objects, even architecture and the
distinct principles which we may consciously or unconsciously associate with them, makes
visual literacy all the more interesting and imperative.
Knight (2010) argues that, it is a common acceptance that contemporary
schoolchildren live in a world that is intensely visual and commercially motivated, where
what is imagined and what is experienced intermingle” (p.236). Rogoff (as cited by Knight
2010) suggests that a failure to acknowledge mass-media’s visual influence may leave
students unable to make connections to their lived experiences (Aguirre, 2004) when
confronted with European masters so far removed from their own reality. Knight, like Allen
(2004), also calls for a more interdisciplinary approach to visual culture and a pluralistic
examination of popular and postmodern culture.
Ultimately it is important not to wear blinders when consuming the images all
around us; we need to critically examine the source of visual information which penetrates
our everyday lives and the intentions of its creators. In order to do this we need a
structured and well devised arena to deconstruct and learn the basics of visual literacy.
The Importance of Learning to Deconstruct our Visual World
The fundamental nature in which we interpret the world around us, first and
foremost is through our eyes, this has both socio-cultural relevance as well as educational
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value. How we see, rather than what we see, determines the views of our surroundings, our
social interactions with other people and how we respond and react to a world of signs and
symbols woven into all aspects of our culture. The imagery within our environment
saturates our neighbourhoods, institutions and communities; deconstructed, analyzed,
reconstructed and stored in our minds as representations of our reality but is it a conscious
process or are we just passively absorbing this information?
Boughton (1986) advances three concepts (or categories) of VL and although
underdeveloped they do provide some guidance:
Visual literacy via Communication: The broadest of the three it encompasses
all ‘human made visual signs other than written language’ (p.128), with an
emphasis on image making technology.
Visual literacy via the Artistic: To encode and decode meaning in various art
forms with an emphasis on unlocking the meaning contained within.
Visual literacy via the Aesthetic: A focus on how we view, respond and assign
meaning and value to aesthetic works, which are discipline specific.
He concludes that Artistic VL is the most appropriate concept to help develop
literacy and within its boundaries multiple VL needs to be enacted to span the styles and
codes contained across our multicultural visual world. To be visually illiterate is to
potentially be more exposed to and fall victim of the persuasion and rhetoric of popular
media.
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Further methods of deconstructing the visual arts are proposed by Duncum (1993).
Duncum lists five functions (categories) of the visual arts which are helpful both in
analyzing specific use of visual art as well methods of pinpointing the importance of the
visual within each context.
1) Substitution: a need for pleasurable looking and recreating the world through
representation to better understand it. This dates back to cave paintings (Read, 1954) and
ancient Egypt, images provided concrete examples of reality at the time as well as records
of progress and change, which could be considered the most primitive form of visual
literacy.
2) Narration: also provides pleasure, it instructs and informs, creates identity, and
helps to construct what is socially acceptable and dealing with both humorous and serious
issues. Both educational and commercial purposes use this method.
3) Embellishment: “Embellishment provides visual pleasure and thus enhances the
quality of life, but it can also obscure ideas” (1993, p. 219). Other forms of embellishment
include design and decoration as well as adorning funerals and weapons with pleasing
characteristics in order to disguise their purpose. An example of this would be fighter jets,
sometimes beautifully sculpted aerodynamic flying machines which children might equate
more closely with racing cars than instruments of destruction. This design makes the
unacceptable purpose palatable and attaches meaning or special significance to certain
events according to Duncum.
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4) Commitment/persuasion: “Totalitarian regimes are notorious for using visual
images to suppress dissent, while the history of visual artists acting as social critics is long
and laudatory” (1993, p.221). This example is especially poignant with the recent events in
North Africa and the Middle East, as the world looks on it is the broadcasting of images (or
in some cases the lack thereof) which have the highest impact on our consciousness and
consciences. Duncum discusses how images are used to persuade and reinforce certain
ideas and ideological commitment in societies so that they become the status quo, the
messages within these images becoming second nature or common sense to us. He states
that “Providing students with the critical skills required to resist attempts at visual
persuasion which are not in the students’ best interests are perhaps the most important
skills formal education can deliver” (1993, p.222). VL in the art curriculum is a good place
to start providing such skills.
5) Personal expression: Although it is often seen as a means of differentiating an
individual from others and promoting ones uniqueness, Duncum claims that even within
these individual forms of self-expression and personal achievement people are
“constrained by media, available techniques, prevailing ideas, and the pressures and
process of a stratified society. Even the basic notions of individualism, of personal
expression and response, should be seen as social constructions serving dominant interests”
(1993, p.223). This again relates to the importance of the visual in socially constructing
our realities and making sense of the realities of others. Only by recognizing what these
interests are can we begin to understand how they influence us.
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Although Duncum does not campaign specifically for VL his examples of the
important roles that visual arts and imagery play in society and our everyday lives, cross
culturally and throughout history certainly support an increased focus and concentration
on students awareness of embodied meaning disseminated by visual media and ultimately
a literacy of images and the media through which they reach us.
One of the reasons for the perceived lack of support for VL, according to Avgerinou
and Ericson (1997), is because many educators believe that VL is self-evident and that the
process is learned through direct experience, which they concede as true but only for the
most basic skills meaning the more complex ideas and subtle underlying concepts need to
be taught in order to be identified. Avgerinou and Ericson (1997) state that students need
to be taught the basic skills of visual interpretation that will allow them to discern between
real and superfluous, necessary or gratuitous, ultimately being able to better determine the
validity of information that they are seeing and assess its value. Whether or not a
traditional visual art course teaches this is questionable.
Aguirre (2004) advocates a ‘trans-disciplinary’ approach noting that many in the art
ed. field are trying to situate their work in a more interdisciplinary academic context
including visual studies and visual culture including popular culture. Due to this shift she
suggests a dismissal of art education that deals only with the traditional skills of production
and technical ability and a focus more on the interpretation and decoding of art works
leading to the development of visual literacy. Chung (2005) also urges that art education
play a central role in giving children the critical tools necessary to properly understand
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what is being visually conveyed and thereby aid them in making informed decisions in an
“image saturated environment” (2005, p.19).
Chung (2005) conducted a small scale study with junior high school students and
had them analyze, deconstruct and refurbish cigarette ads. She found that the students
were aware that the ads contained positive and encouraging messages despite not
immediately recognizing the ads were for cigarettes. Later by refurbishing the ads with
Photoshop the students injected what they thought the actual use of cigarettes entailed,
relating them to death, aging, depression etc. instead of the original intentions of the ads to
deliver light, happy, warm feelings and a sense of belonging. This type of activity shows
how including popular visual culture, particularly ads, in art education can bring about a
more heightened awareness of what is being said and how they are being targeted as
consumers. This is in essence what one of the key benefits of studying VL would be, being
able to look at one’s visual environment critically instead of indiscriminatingly.
Harris (2006) also remarks on the placement of photos or images in newspapers,
magazines, novels etc. and how these affect our opinions and interpretations of the
accompanying texts. He contends that teaching students how to evaluate the various design
elements that shape a text and attribute different perceptions, is not as labour intensive as
it may seem. Abrahmov (2008) describes some fairly simple methods of deconstructing
images to gain a better understanding of them. He supports the notion that there are three
levels of meaning; Factual, Interpretive and Conceptual. The Factual levels are the literal
objects which are immediately recognized: people, appliances, building products, foods etc.,
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basically regular everyday objects. Next is the Interpretive Level, composed of common
associations we have with the objects pictured: meanings of colours, domesticity,
urban/rural, hot /cold, spicy/bland. The final Conceptual Level is the hidden or underlying
connotations of the pictured images/objects which; convey values, cultural and ethnic,
positive or negative emotions etc. Here we have a straight forward methodology for
analyzing images and a good foundation for a VL curriculum.
Despite the seemingly common sense approach for art education to handle VL
Knight (2010) views VL, in its present state, to be more of a passive form of informing
students of the contextualization of visual materials. She notes that VL is often placed
outside the art curriculum in courses such as English, noting that those outside visual arts
may not possess the same ability to properly decode or deconstruct the understated and
hidden meanings rooted in contemporary works.
The Role of Technologies and New Media
Viewing visual literacy in a contemporary context it becomes self-evident that
consideration must be made as to the placement and integration of new media and
technologies. As Kurzweil (2005) predicts we are moving exponentially towards a
technologically dependant society where technology is not only essential to our daily lives
but where we might begin to merge with these technologies. If we take this rather
overwhelming predication into consideration, even if at less than face value, technology’s
influence on visual media needs to be examined under VL.
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Boughton (1986) clearly describes the importance of the use and understanding of
what he calls visual technologies, citing that technology and the media have a tremendous
influence on children and that the proper use of these tools can be motivational for
students. Boughton (1986) claims that VL is learning to use these technologies skilfully to
communicate information and ideas, thereby expanding other literacies.
Hudson (1987) takes this idea even further by asserting that the interpenetration of
art and technology within communicative systems is carrying on briskly and regrettably
the results, as witnessed in the media, are often appalling, because practitioners and
patrons are equally aesthetically underdeveloped and functionally visually illiterate.
Hudson maintains, “We now have new needs stemming from a wealth of ideas, languages,
systems, information-communication disciplines and technologies, new concepts, the
information explosion, and technical change may leave traditional education in disarray
unless we recharge and redirect it (p. 272). Duncum (1993) under his fifth function of the
visual arts remarks that society is driven by utilitarian, economic as well as what he calls a
‘technological omnipresence’ (p.222). Allen (1994), supporting Boughton’s (1986) aims,
views VL as being able to use these new image making technologies to express ideas, citing
the ubiquity of new media technologies as comprising an important part of how we
conceive and convey complex information.
Prensky (2001), although not an art educator puts forth a good deal of reflective
information and illustrates the potential visual technologies have for learning over more
traditional textual models. Prensky suggests that today’s educators may not only be
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‘visually illiterate’ but also ‘digitally illiterate’ unable to cope and understand the visually
based technologies in which their students are fluent. Students are now part of a born
digital generation, arriving at school already adept in navigating all the latest technologies
and devices. Delacruz (2009) also notes that recent studies show youth use a magnitude of
multimedia technologies for numerous goals, in widely creative ways and with ease but
what do they actually ‘see’?
The average college grad has read less than 5000hrs but spent 10,000hrs playing
video games and 20,000hrs watching TV. Add to that another 10,000 hours (probably
much more at present) on computer and the net (Prensky, 2001); now the importance and
potential influence of the visual [over the textual] is compounded. People in all sorts of
professions have come to rely on visual interactions and communication. This is probably
one of the reasons motivating Prensky’s involvement with the development of game based
(visual) learning such as the ones found at Social Impact Games. Students can learn a
variety of subjects from algebra to science, history and geography all through game based
platforms. It is worthy of noting that the only discipline, whose voice is curiously absent (at
least on this platform), is that of art education.
This potential for digital technologies to foster creativity particularly in the visual
arts is also noted by Loveless (2003). Although not speaking of visual literacy per se she
does advocate digital literacies and the nature of her project with secondary students and
artists created a space for deeper conceptual and creative understanding as well as
collaboration and pedagogical dialogue through the use of technology. Loveless (2003)
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noted student’s frustration with not have enough opportunity to develop a deeper
understanding of ICT in their curriculum and put it to more creative use.
Herne (2005) has also affirmed that technology is under used in the art curriculum.
Through the use of scanners and photo-software Herne helped his students not only learn
the use of new technologies but claims the process also allowed them to construct identity
and understand the identities of others. His article reveals that while contemporary art has
embraced new technologies and mass media the art classroom has not been as welcoming
a site for exploration. Through Herne’s (2005) postcard construction project he concluded
that the use of technology fosters both visual and media literacy as well as aiding the
construction of meaning through student’s own lived experience.
Harris (2006) affirms that practical reading literacy, print literacy, media literacy,
visual literacy, and the new “multimodal” literacies tackled in some disciplines all interact
along with information literacy strategies. While what he calls ‘information literacy
training is restricted to certain faculties and an understanding about how information
works, it must remain open and adaptable as technologies and their users change and
advance (p. 214). As Stankiewicz (2003) observes Art education has a more intricate
affiliation with technology than many other disciplines. Not only has art education been
shaped by the managerial technologies that have contributed to the formation of graded
classrooms and articulated school systems, but the visual arts also contribute to the
generation of new technologies and the replenishment of existing ones. Both art and
technology are grounded in the same kind of nonverbal thinking.” (p.320)
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Stankiewicz (2004) makes an important argument for the inseparability of VL and
technology dating back to our ancient ancestors technologies of cave paintings. She even
goes so far as to remark that art education can be a component of power becoming a
‘virtual technology for social control’ (p.88), this is why it is crucial to understand its
capabilities. She also argues that technology for mass media reproduction would have had
little impact without the development of tech. for the dissemination of images (magazines,
postal service, and advertising). “The visual arts were, and continue to be, means to the end
of technological development” (2003, p.320).
Abromov (2008) also notes the important relationship between art and technology
yet that despite the phenomena of the digital age making the transmission of visual objects
via technologies and the web instant and proliferative he observes that visual disciplines
seem to be late in adapting and taking advantage of these new opportunities (p.281).
Abromov (2008) asserts a shift in the ontology of the photographic image in the digital age
that will noticeably influence all contemporary images both in production and the
effortlessness (and instantaneous) manner with which they can be used to globally
communicate. He further claims that traditional boundaries between different art media
are dissipating which makes the teaching of and the creation and reading of these images in
all areas of art, design and visual communication valuable in both traditional and new
media (p.288).
Spalter and van Dam (2008) take further notice of the oncoming digital age and
state that the lower cost and super-saturation of technologies and computer graphics
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present in everyday life are promoting educational institutions to finally begin to assess the
crucial role of visual literacy in society. This is because images can add to deep and complex
cognitive understandings of our world from the vastness of space (Hubble) to endoscopic
journey through the body, to virtually walking down a street on the other side of the world
in Google Earth.
Delacruz (2009) claims that in response to these new technologies there has been
an important shift in art education technology pedagogy; a concern with cultural
citizenship relevant to an age of global media and if taken into the art room it can forge
connections between art, technology, common good and justice (p.263-264). However
Delacruz (2009) is pessimistic about the present state of the majority of ‘veteran’ art
teachers, at all levels of education, in integrating the necessary changes to allow art
education to embrace the innovations and creative possibilities provided by new media.
However she does acknowledge the potential for change in the near future, from the next
generation of art educators. Still she does believe that technology will transform art and
education but only after a born digital generation of teachers have taken over bringing
their plethora of technological tools and bridging connections to everyday lifestyles.
As evidenced by much of the literature technology and visual imagery have an
intimate and intricate relationship which one might call symbiotic. It seems that in order to
fully understand one you cannot discount the other, instead it may be the best course of
action to explore the two simultaneously.
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Visual Literacy and Art Education
The Benefits of Visual Literacy
Besides the numerous rationale mentioned already some may still ask why visual
images or visual literacy deserves such attention, what are the more palatable benefits
outside of understanding pictures better? Well some of the literature, in addition to
supporting the crucial role visual images play in our daily lives also stress that visual
language and communication play an essential part in our cognitive development and can
increase our capacity to learn in all subject areas.
Eisner (1986) makes a case for the role of the senses in the interpretation of our
environments and our ability to build versatile concepts and translate them from abstract
perception to concrete experience; arguing that words such as justice, category, nation or
infinity are “meaningless noise or marks on paper unless their referents can be imagined”
(p. 59). The visual arts are in a prime position for the handling of these abstract concepts as
they have been our chief form of representation since the dawn of civilization and
intuitively linked with our senses. Among these senses and forms of representation the
visual clearly dominates “In the beginning there was the image, not the word” (p.60),
however Eisner also notes the importance of transferring ideas between the senses for
which, he claims, we invented analogies.
Duncum (1993) suggests, evidenced in his five functions, that the visual arts are
rooted in the very nature of human cognition and societies. Although this idea is not
absolute he contends it is a certainty that in our society children, even the very young, are
motivated instinctively to create images for motives which closely correlate with the role of
26
Visual Literacy and Art Education
images in our society. This supports closer study of the links between images and literacy
as well as the effects images have on human cognition, development and perception.
Sinker (1996) realized the value of visual methodologies, in her teachings, for aiding
new citizens (immigrants) in adjusting and assimilating into new cultures; photographs can
become tools of expression and communication, they personalize students’ everyday lives
in visual representation. She mentions that current systems of evaluation do not accurately
consider the implications of these visual studies; therefore they are often dismissed. She
asserts, “A combined application of media education in art and English and ideally other
subjects too, allows for deeper explorations of … fundamental communication issues and
presents a cross fertilization in the curriculum which more accurately represents
contemporary culture” (p.64-65).
Avgerinou and Ericson (1997) point out that Ausburn and Ausburn’s (1978) list of
potential benefits of developing Visual Literacy are just as pertinent in the 1990s:
1. Increase in all kinds of verbal skills
2. Improved self-expression and ordering of ideas
3. Increase in student motivation and interest in subjects of all types and at all levels,
4. ‘Reaching’ students not being reached in traditional ways. Students such as the
educationally disadvantaged, the truant, the socially underprivileged, the
emotionally disturbed, the intellectually handicapped, the ethnic and bilinguals, the
dyslexic, the deaf, those with speech pathology problemsall respond and have
been helped in terms of both interest and achievement,
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Visual Literacy and Art Education
5. Improved image of self and relationship to the world
6. Improved self-reliance, independence, and confidence
Last but not least, the authors emphasized that the development of VL will also
result in increasing the ability to better comprehend today’s world (p. 295).
This list continues to have relevance thirty years after it was written maybe even
more so today with ever advancing technologies and as noted above not only does VL help
the average student in cognitive and perceptual ways it can also improve the learning of
those who have difficult learning in traditional (textual) ways. This idea is further
supported by Gardner’s (1982) Multiple Intelligences Theory, in particular Visual-Spatial
learners. A prime example of this is the life of Temple Grandin, an autistic woman who
learned in a primarily visual way and was able to overcome many of the hurdles autistic
people face by embracing her visual way of learning and using it creativity (Grandin, 2010).
Harris (2006) is also aware that visual information can benefit those whose primary mode
of communication may not be verbal or written, stating that it can aid people learning with
dyslexia, hearing impairments and functionally illiterate adults.
Hsiao’s(2010) research with children’s picture book creation also supports the idea
that visual awareness can come from art appreciation and image production and can
increase creative thinking, as well as allowing children being able to link visual similarities
between different cultures, this is also in line with Eisner’s (1986) ideas.
Consequently VL and the study of visual communicative processes seem to have a
wide range of benefits from childhood development, cross cultural understanding, cultural
28
Visual Literacy and Art Education
integration, aiding those with learning disabilities improving ones cognitive ability and
self-confidence and above all can lead us to better understand the world in which we live
and our place in it.
Implications for Future Study
In the pursuit of VL it has been revealed that visual learning, unfortunately, often
takes a backseat to the privileged and dominant stature of textual learning and literacy. VL
learning even when it is present, too frequently must conform to the standards and
methodologies of text (Hudson, 1987; Addison, 1999; Aguirre, 2004). Allen (1994) and
Sinker (2006) advocate for a multi-disciplinary approach to undertake the issues of VL and
extend visual education to embrace other disciplines, creating a cross curricular concept of
VL which can accommodate multiple interpretations according to culture. Allen states that,
“new studies of literacy emerge ‘at the interface of anthropology, cultural studies, social
linguistics and literary theory” (1994, p.141).
Much of the literature tends to be in agreement with that statement. Visual literacy
should not be isolated within Art; we need to draw from other disciplines to develop a
more comprehensive paradigm for learning visual imagery. VL is not ours to claim as our
own, although we do have a much higher stake in visual imagery visual arts and art
education do not have a monopoly on its use, imagery is and should be an integral part
across the disciplines (Eisner, 1986; Duncum, 1993; Allen, 1994; Prensky, 2001; Aguirre,
2004) and partnerships need to be formed to exploit a variance of perspectives and
creatively explore VL.
29
Visual Literacy and Art Education
Throughout this literature, the majority of which is art based, there is an almost
alarming absence of visual imagery. How are we as art educators to thoughtfully
investigate topics like VL without a thorough look at images? Goin (2001), a geographer,
has also noticed the exclusion of images (photos) in social science journals. His appeal for
the inclusion of photographs is also a plea for the understanding of fact and fiction in
imagery by implementing VL.
It has also become apparent that there appear to be significant gaps in the hands-on
study of images and how students create and deconstruct them. More effort needs to be put
into the teaching and classroom application of VL to draw on students lived experience,
framed within popular visual culture, to observe how they handle and react to the
production and interpretation of imagery as Chung (2005) and Harris (2006) have done.
We need a unified front to undertake the interpretation and creative production of
imagery as it is an ostensibly crucial yet underdeveloped and underemployed component
of learning. This means cross-curricular collaboration and an expansion of VL, rather than a
narrowing down, to include all visual imagery; moving, still or otherwise and an additional
focus on sub-structures like media literacy (Duncum, 1993; Prensky, 2001; Herne, 2005;
Harris, 2006; Spalter and van Dam, 2008) to include the examination of popular visual
culture. By doing so I believe that educators and students will eventually be able to
properly define, implement and garner the benefits of visual literacy.
30
Visual Literacy and Art Education
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... Area, discipline Author/s Advertising Besser 1987;Forceville 2017;Green, 2000;Griffin and Whiteside 1984; Ketelaar, Van Gisbergen andBeentjes 2012; Kim and Park 2019; Lefler 2014;Velders 1996Aesthetics Bakony 1983Bamford 2003;Fellman Fattal 2012;Metallinos 1991;Mooney 2020;Valanidou 2011;Seward Barry 1994;Velders 1996;Zettl and Kelly 2020 Adult education Kissick and Grob 1989;Velders 1995 Anatomy Metallinos 1994 Anthropology Arnheim 1969Arnheim , 1986Coman 2004;Curtiss 1987;Emanuel and Challons-Lipton 2014;Gonsalves 1983;Hassall, 2011;Hortin 1994;Seward Barry 1994;Spalter and van Dam 2008;Velders 1996;Yenawine 2008; Williams 2014 Art education Dondis 1973;Flemming 1960;Mackenzie 2012;McMaster 2015;Yerlikaya 2016 Art history Bamford 2003;Emanuel and Challons-Lipton 2014;Garoian 1989;Hill 2003;Velders 1995Velders , 1999 Astronomy Cognitive style Hanson, Silver, and Strong 1988;Lampe 1983Communication Bamford 2003Bratslavsky et al. 2019;Csillag 2010;Curtiss 1987;Felten 2008;Gibbs 2006;Hirsch 1987;Müller 2008;Roth and Roth 1998;Schallert-Lawrie 1990;Wisely 1994;Wisely, Kennett, andBradford 1989 Comprehension Pruisner 2012 Computer graphics Bodzin and Cirucci 2009;Chang, Quintana, and Krajick 2009;Spalter and van Dam 2008 Computer science Griffin and Whiteside 1984;Ragan 1988;Whiteside 1983 Computer Çam and Kiyici 2017;Ferrari 2012;Flood, Heath, and Lapp, 2015;Luce-Kapler, 2007;Metros, 2008; Trail and Ackerman 2012 Education Avgerinou 2011; Bedward et al. 2009;Bertoline, Burton, and Wiley 1992;Bleed 2005;Dondis 1973;Evans, Watson and Willows 1987;Fee and Fee 2012a;Feinstein 1994;Finson and Pederson 2011;Hill 2003;Kędra 2018a;Kocaarslan 2013;Levie 1978;McVicker 2018;Miller 1987;Moline 1995;Muffoletto 1983Palmer 2011;Pedersen and Finson 2009;Sadik 2009;Schwartz 2008 Bennett 1989;Braden 1994;Dondis 1973;Dzokoto et al. 2018;Hardin 1983;Hoffman, White and Aquino 2006;Pettersson 1989;Strand 2006, 2018;Pettersson, Strand and Avgerinou 2009;Pruisner 2009Pruisner , 2010Pruisner , 2012Seidman 2009 Graphicacy Drucker 2014;Kazmierczak 2001;Stafford 2004History Aagard 2009Coventry et al. 2006;Fee and Fee 2012a;Leahy 1991;Schiller 1987 Human Rights Valanidou 2012 ...
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