Visual Literacy and the Visual Teacher


Changing perspectives changes lives. As one of the many pioneers in the field of visual literacy, I have travelled throughout the world observing the universal visual expression that crosses all cultural boundaries. Humans are hard-wired for learning and what we learn is not nearly as important as how we learn. By opening our eyes and ears, we open our minds.

When our perceptions begin to change, so too does our ability to change the world. Maestro Arturo Toscanini couldn’t describe what he wanted from his orchestra, so he tossed his silk handkerchief into the air. After its gradual, graceful decent to the ground, he said, “There…play it like that.”

Why Visual Teaching?

Visual literacy is the ability to encode, or create a visual language, and the ability to decode, or understand the visual language. Decoding requires creative/critical thinking skills, as moving and still images often have a conscious and unconscious meaning. Sixty-five percent of the population are by definition, visual learners. This means teachers can expect 65 % of their students to be visual learners. Our eyes can register 36,000 visual messages per hour, yet, how many teachers rely on text for instruction without the support of visuals? Famed film director Martin Scorsese once said, “If one wants to reach younger people at an earlier age to shape their minds in a critical way, you really need to know how ideas and emotions are expressed visually.” Notwithstanding individual differences in intelligence and learning style, this generation of students needs to be taught the way they best learn – with visual stimulation accompanied by active learning strategies. As educators, we need to recognize the nature of our students and prepare them for the world in which they will live and work. We must allow this understanding of the visual nature of our students to influence our teaching techniques and the educational technologies we employ. We need to be visual teachers.

Who Is the Visual Teacher?

I have a three-prong definition I use for a visual teacher:

1. An educator who embraces and models full-spectrum visual literacy:

Understands the effects of visual stimulation on brain development and utilizes visual imagery where appropriate to enhance learning; Actively encourages students to decode still images, such as documentary or advertising photography, and moving images, such as commercials, newscasts, dramatic or comic television programs and films; Explores with students the signs and symbols in art and visual media; Encourages students to encode or make effective still images through an understanding of photography and visual communication.

2. An educator who avoids passive learning experiences by bridging “seeing” and “doing” using appropriate projects, activities, and technologies: Creates lesson plans and activities that reflect the Six Methods of Visual Learning:

  1. Investigate: Using a camera as a tool to observe, study, identify and learn. Seeing through the eye of a viewfinder can often help focus attention and clarify thought.
  2. Chronicle: Using the camera as a tool to help document our world. We judge images by how honest or accurate they are.
  3. Express: Using a camera to create a visual language, expand our feelings into the world and bring our thoughts and emotions into a visual.
  4. Communicate: Using a camera as a tool to exchange information. How much information is being communicated? What quality is that information? Is it presented clearly?
  5. Inspire: Using images to influence others; affecting behavior or attitude through the persuasive power of photography.
  6. Envision: Using the camera to find new connections and new ways of seeing things; using the power of your imagination to envision something new.

3. An educator who utilizes graphic, image-rich technologies in his or her teaching:

Proficient in the basics of contemporary image-making, digital manipulation of images, reproducing and electronically storing images. Understands the advantages and disadvantages of various visual technologies and uses them appropriately.

Key Visual Skills for Students

Visual Perception is the ability to interpret the surrounding environment by processing information that is contained in visible light. It impacts the ability to learn as its information integrates with other senses. The visual cortex has over 30 specialized areas, each communicating with the other to process what has been received through the eyes, then sending it to over 200 linkages. Included in visual perception is:

Form Perception: The sensory discrimination of a pattern shape or outline.

Color Perception: Mental processing of chromatic signals from the eye by the visual cortex where they are converted into symbolic representations.

Gestalt Perception: A series of principles that describe how we visually perceive objects (i.e., symmetry and order, figure/ground, proximity, etc.).

Visual Discrimination is the ability to identify differences in images, which is vital when acquiring early level reading, writing, mathematics, social studies, science and social interactions.

Visual Representation is imagery, such as mind maps and graphic organizers, used for understanding similes, metaphors, abstract mathematical concepts, critical and creative thinking. 

Visual Awareness: Our eyes guide us through a visual journey of our lives enabling us to make decisions on how and what we see. Dividing the subjective and objective ways we see assists us in being more visually aware of our environment.

Visual learning is not a new educational trend that will come and go. It’s been in our classrooms since the mid-nineteenth century. However, we have definitely become much more of a visual society. The current generation of students learns differently. We are not a reading society any longer. Eighty percent of the books published in this country are read by twenty percent of the population. The average American is reading nineteen minutes a day. Books, magazines, newspapers are often written at a 5th-grade level. Why? We have become a visually entertained society. The average teenager spends 22,000 hours watching TV by the time he or she graduates. By the time they reach senior citizen status, they will have spent three years of their lives watching commercials. One out of every four kids under the age of two has a TV in their bedroom. It’s time to embrace the classrooms of America in support of the teachers of the 21st century – those who are immersed in an evolving existence of cutting-edge technology and create a stronghold of what matches everything we have come to know about such important areas as critical thinking, brain-compatible strategies, STEM, flipped classrooms, etc. One thing time has taught us – if we do what we’ve always done, we’ll get what we’ve always gotten.

Timothy Gangwer is the CEO and Professional Development Director of the Visual Teaching Alliance ( A former teacher and University Supervisor at the University of Texas, Austin, he is the author of Visual Impact, Visual Teaching: Using Images to Strengthen Learning, along with 9 other books.

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