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.
DEVELOPING VISUAL LITERACY
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.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION
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 Mathematics.
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.