ERIC Identifier: ED463945 Publication Date: 2000-11-00
Author: Lowe, Richard Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for
Science Mathematics and Environmental Education Columbus OH.
Visual Literacy and Learning in Science. ERIC Digest.
In our visually oriented age, science and technology education rely heavily
on the use of pictures to present technical information. Today's students live
in an information environment saturated with visual images, and educational
materials are no exception. Because educational materials must compete for
attention in this rich visual environment, all types of teaching resources from
traditional textbooks to the latest educational technologies contain a wealth of
pictorial representations. In science and technology education these pictures
are very diverse, ranging from realistic drawings and photographs to highly
abstract diagrams and graphs. The educational emphasis on pictures reflects the
widespread use of technical pictures by practicing scientists and technologists
across many different fields.
The use of pictures to represent technical subject matter is not new. Ancient
pictures from many different countries show that visual information has long
been an important means of communicating ideas about our world and how it works.
However in more recent times, there has been an explosion in the number of
specialized types of graphics developed to represent scientific and
technological information. These specialist representations can provide critical
information about the state of our world that may have enormous social and
economic implications for its peoples. For example, the science of meteorology
relies heavily on traditional weather map diagrams as well as more modern remote
sensing imaging techniques.
Technological advances, particularly in computing, continually increase the
range of imaging techniques that are available to the scientific community. The
burgeoning use of pictorial representation has implications for science and
technology education. The capacities to both understand and generate technical
pictures are fundamental to scientific and technological literacy for students
at many levels, from school to university. We could describe these capacities as
a form of visual literacy that involves the "reading "and "writing "of technical
pictures. It is just as important for students to develop this visual aspect of
scientific and technological literacy as it is for them to develop the general
literacy required to understand the specialized verbal and mathematical
languages they encounter in science. Successful reading of a highly abstract
scientific diagram requires very different skills from those required for
reading ordinary pictures of everyday content such as photographs in a newspaper
or illustrations in a shopping catalogue. This means it is essential that
today's students develop the general visual literacy skills required for dealing
with scientific graphics, but they must also learn about particular types of
scientific pictures that actually form part of the content of a specific field
of scientific or technological study.
The ways pictures are used in everyday life
can give the misleading impression that visual language is somehow generally
much easier to understand and more universal than verbal or mathematical
language. For example, international airports all around the world use various
graphic symbols to present information to people from many different language
groups. By avoiding the need for multiple translations, these graphics greatly
simplify the task of conveying fundamental information. However, this
information concerns basic, everyday matters that people in general are familiar
with and represents them in a very straightforward way. In contrast, the forms
of visual information that scientists and technologists use are far more complex
and esoteric. The specialized nature of scientific visualizations means that
people do not learn to deal with them as an incidental result of their normal
interaction with the everyday environment. Rather, they must engage in specific
learning activities that help them to develop the knowledge and skills required
to interpret these very particular types of visual representation. Part of the
reason for this is that the content depicted in these visuals is quite
unfamiliar to everyone except specialists in the scientific field concerned.
However, there are also aspects of how content is depicted that make these
visualizations challenging for the uninitiated. In particular, the depiction of
the subject matter in scientific visuals is often not meant to be taken
literally. Rather, diagrams and other technical illustrations depict their
content using a host of specialized graphic conventions that extensively
manipulate and even grossly distort literal reality. To interpret these pictures
properly, the viewer must know about these conventions and be skilled in
decoding them in an appropriate manner.
DEVELOPING VISUAL LITERACY
Teachers must develop students'
capacities to understand and properly interpret specialized technical visuals.
Teaching of the necessary knowledge and skills should begin when children are
quite young, even before they begin formal studies of science and technology.
One approach is to introduce young children to graphic conventions that are
widely used in depictions such as scientific diagrams by having them devise
simple drawings that actually use these conventions. However, rather than
illustrating unfamiliar scientific topics, this should be done in the context of
everyday subject matter. In other words, the content of the visuals would be
very familiar to the students, but the way it is to be depicted would be highly
diagrammatic. For example, teachers could guide students through a number of
stages to help them develop their own diagrams of a simple commonplace object
such as a piece of fruit. Starting with the real object, the teacher could show
students how to use a range of diagram techniques to devise a picture that
communicates information about the object in a scientific manner. So, if a
teacher decided to use an orange as the subject matter for a diagram-drawing
exercise, one of the things that could be done is to introduce students to the
idea of a cross-sectional view. This is a technique widely used in scientific
and technological diagrams as a way of indicating internal structures that are
normally hidden from view. It is a simple matter to cut the orange in half,
place one of the halves cut-face down on a photocopier to produce a photo-like
image of the inside of the fruit. This photocopy could be the starting point for
students to gradually modify the image in order to produce a more diagrammatic
depiction. This would involve processes such as simplifying the image into a
line drawing, omitting unnecessary detail, removing natural irregularities to
produce a more 'geometric' result, and identifying key parts of the structure by
means of shading or color coding. Initial activities of this type could be
followed by using objects for which dynamic change as well as structure must be
depicted. For example, a simple device such as a plastic garden irrigation tap
could be dismantled and its functioning represented diagrammatically. This type
of exercise could be used to show how other diagram conventions such as arrows,
dotted lines and sequential pictures can be combined with the cross-sectional
convention covered in the previous example. Where aspects of the subject matter
would be artistically difficult for young students to draw by themselves,
teachers could provide partly-drawn pictures so that students have only to add
simple lines and shapes to complete the representation. Alternatively, teachers
could provide a "kit" of pre-drawn pieces for the diagram which students would
then assemble into a finished product.
Having children devise their own "technical pictures" requires a significant
change in the way drawing is typically treated in elementary school. In most
classrooms, children either copy pictures provided by the teacher or textbook,
or draw their own pictures as a means of self- expression, Rarely are they asked
to produce original drawings that provide the type of clear and precise visual
explanation that is found in technical diagrams. However, it is unreasonable to
expect students to acquire all the required capacities for dealing with
technical diagrams by such drawing exercises alone. As students move into formal
studies of science, there are occasions when the teacher needs to present them
with ready-made diagrams as well as other forms of scientific image. In these
cases, students' capacities for dealing with technical pictures are more likely
to be developed if extensive scaffolding is provided by the teacher. For
example, instead of requiring students to copy down a finished diagram, the
teacher could gradually build up the depiction piece by piece in a way that
emphasizes the logic of the subject matter. The value of this sequential type of
approach would be further enhanced by accompanying the drawing process with a
suitable commentary and questioning that emphasizes key aspects of the subject
matter. On many occasions, students are faced with a technical picture in a
textbook or other resource that is intended to explain the to-be-learned
content. However, these pictures are often quite difficult for students to
interpret effectively because they do not know how to read such pictures
effectively. Just because teachers have no trouble reading a picture, we should
not assume that it is equally comprehensible to students. Teachers should
consider providing quite explicit guidance to direct their students through the
information that is depicted so they explore the picture in detail and develop
an understanding of its internal logic. Supplementary exercises based on an
existing picture but which require students to analyze, elaborate or modify the
original in various ways can also help to improve comprehension.
Visual literacy is an essential component of
science and technology education today. However, it is an aspect of learning
that is relatively neglected by teachers. One reason is that teachers generally
assume that pictures are self-explanatory and always function to make their
subject matter easier. Unfortunately, comprehension of the specialized pictures
used in technical fields requires knowledge and skills far beyond those required
for everyday pictures. In order for teachers to address this neglected aspect of
science and technology education, they need both a better appreciation of the
demands of technical pictures and a knowledge of teaching strategies that will
help to develop students' visual literacies in this area. Science teacher
education should cover this topic, but support is also needed for experienced
science and technology teachers. At present, resources to help teachers develop
visual literacy are limited, and there is a great need for further work to
develop practical teaching strategies and resources.
Lowe, R.K. (1993). Scientific diagrams: How well can students read them? In
B. Fraser (Ed.), "Research implications for science and mathematics teachers,"
(Vol. I, pp. 14-19) Perth: National Key Centre for School Science and
Lowe, R.K. (1996). Pictorial information design for schools. "Information
Design Journal," 8, 233-243.
Lowe, R.K. (1996). Les nouvelles technologies, voie royale pour ameliorer
l'apprentissage des sciences par l'image ? ASTER, "Recherches en didactique des
science experimentales," 22, 173-194.
Lowe, R.K. (1997) How much are pictures worth? "Proceedings of the Putting
You in the Picture Symposium," University of Newcastle, 20-24.
Please note that this site is privately owned and is in no way related
to any Federal agency or ERIC unit. Further, this site is using a
privately owned and located server. This is NOT a government sponsored
or government sanctioned site. ERIC is a Service Mark of the U.S. Government.
This site exists to provide the text of the public domain ERIC Documents
previously produced by ERIC. No new content will ever appear here
that would in any way challenge the ERIC Service Mark of the U.S. Government.