Construction of Teaching Metaphors Through the Use of Technology

Construction of Teaching Metaphors Through the Use of Technology

Vivian H. Wright
University of Alabama

Cheryl W. Sundberg
Louisiana Tech University

Sondra Yarbrough
Jacksonville State University

Elizabeth Wilson
B. Joyce Stallworth
University of Alabama

The study of preservice teachers’ development of metaphors as personal conceptions of teaching and learning is important not only to the preservice teachers but also to teacher educators. Such metaphors may provide us with snapshots, or glimpses, of our future teachers and can provide information on how we, as teacher educators, can ensure that methodological theories and pedagogical principles become a part of the preservice teachers’ experiences. This study presents an important framework for the development of teaching metaphors and presents data on four preservice teachers’ development through a general methods course and their subsequent teaching field methods course. Specific uses of text and graphics are examined in the data analysis. Conclusions indicate that text and selection of visuals revealed either a teacher-centered philosophy or a learner-centered philosophy of teaching..

Rationale for Metaphor Examination

The research base supports classrooms that are learner-centered where knowledge is constructed through language-mediated interaction with peers and mentors and through interaction with the environment (Vygotsky, 1979, as cited in Moll, 1990.) Thus, the articulation of the conception of teaching and learning and subsequent sharing of this conception with peers and mentors are critical components of preservice teacher education. One assignment commonly used in many teacher education programs as a method for eliciting reflection on the process of teaching and learning is the metaphor. If a common purpose of this metaphor is to give the teacher educator an idea of what the preservice teacher is thinking about teaching and learning, the teacher educator may find a need to change instruction in order to better connect theory and practice as the metaphor develops and changes. With teacher education programs also searching for ways to effectively integrate technology to enhance teaching and learning for the preservice teacher, this study sought to determine if use of technology to construct the metaphor would enhance the preservice teachers’ construction of meaning and reflectivity.

Theoretical Framework

Metaphors can serve as a coherent and succinct way of “representing and organizing thoughts about particular subject matter, activities, or theories” (Knowles, 1994, p. 60). The metaphors of prospective teachers can be used to provide “glimpses” of the developing conceptions of teaching that are held by these individuals. The metaphors of prospective teachers are determined, at least in part, by their experiences and thus reflect elements of their personal histories.

One researcher noted the process of expression actually assists in cognition:

Finding an adequate articulation for what I want to say about these matters brings them into focus. To find a description in this case is to identify a feature of the matter at hand and thereby to grasp its contour, to get a proper view of it. (Taylor, C., 1985 as cited in Wertsch, 2000 p. 27)

The act of writing text is often reflective; Lotman postulated text acts as a “thinking device” and “a generator of meaning” (1988 as cited in Wells, 2000 p. 77). If writing aids in cognition, analysis of the text should provide a glimpse into the preservice teacher’s conceptualization of teaching and learning. In a study conducted by Surbeck, Han, and Moyer (1991), the researchers coded the dialogue of students’ journals for reflectivity and determined levels of reflectivity that included categories of reaction, elaboration, and contemplation based on how the students connected information back to theory. In a related study, Lamy and Goodfellow (1999) conducted a study of online students in a French course and categorized reflectivity based on whether conversations centered on French (classified as reflective) or centered on social aspects (identified as non-reflective). Thus, analysis of a teaching metaphor via PowerPoint should provide students with a mode for reflecting on the art and science of teaching and learning.

Metaphor as Means of Reflection

The use of analogies and metaphors can encourage reflection. Children’s analogies and metaphors “…often push the children’s thinking to new levels of sophistication and reasoning.” (Gallas, 1995 p. 46) Thus, when preservice teachers develop metaphors of teaching and learning, they, like children, may examine their current views and hopefully, consider carefully the type of teachers they wish to be and become.

A case study by Knowles (1994) revealed that the experiences in the classroom as a teacher are not necessarily congruent with the metaphors that are developed based on the personal history of an individual and experiences as a student. For example, individuals may be drawn to teaching as a result of their experienced success in school and have memories of teachers whose classrooms were conducive to learning and whose actions conveyed a deep sense of care and concern for students. These personal histories may generate teaching metaphors that are not easily maintained in beginning teachers’ classrooms. However, initial metaphors are likely to influence practices as these individuals enter the classroom. For this reason, Knowles suggested that examining an individual’s critical experiences might be a worthwhile task in teacher preparation courses.

The use of metaphors can enable teachers to represent their personal understanding of the teaching process, themselves as teachers, young adults as learners, and schools as systems in a way that can be beneficial in exploring the complexity of teaching (Earle, 1995). However, it is this complexity that makes the use of a single metaphor limiting in examining teacher’s understanding. Furthermore, teaching metaphors may give only the perspective of the teacher and fail to acknowledge the learner’s viewpoint.

Metaphor as Means of Change

One researcher insisted there should be a shift in the conceptualization of the classroom as a business to the view of the classroom as a new country to be explored, to “go where no one has gone before” as quoted in a popular television show. Wheatley (1991) indicated the “workplace metaphor was commonly used by teachers to describe the activity in classrooms and wrote, “Teachers can be heard saying, ‘My students don’t work hard enough’” (p. 13). Wheatley postulated a shift in the classroom metaphor from a “workplace” to a “learning place” would more closely describe a constructivist paradigm on learning. The students would be “explorers” and “inventors” rather than “workers.” Wheatley described learning as a “co-construction” through social interaction in the classroom. Thus, a shift in the metaphor could encourage preservice teachers to embrace the constructivist paradigm more closely.

Bullough and Stokes (1994) examined the metaphors of 22 secondary preservice teachers enrolled in a yearlong certification program. The authors established the need for the study by providing a rationale for metaphor analysis by examining the literature on: (a) images of self, (b) self-narratives, and (c) personal metaphors. Over this period the preservice teachers were asked to develop and refine their teaching metaphors. The researchers concluded that, initially, the preservice teachers’ metaphors were similar, particularly in regard to their view of the “teacher as expert”. Within the group, there were some who viewed teaching as nurturing as well. The researchers found that there were three themes that emerged from the data during the course of the study: change, loss of innocence, and rhythm. Within the group there appears to be individual differences which the researchers categorized as (a) never got it, (b) got it, but didn’t like it, (c) went along, but didn’t work at it, and (d) got it and used it. The researchers noted that levels of critical reflection were achieved by some of the student teachers and concluded that metaphors should continue to be explored for use in teacher education while noting that limitations exist.

Earle (1995) found that there were differences in the metaphors of novice teachers and experienced teachers. While there were apparent differences in novice teachers’ metaphors they seemed to have the common attribute of focusing on managing the classroom. Experienced teachers, on the other hand, presented metaphors that focused on their approaches to instruction.
Metaphors can be used to conceptualize beliefs about the multiple roles of teachers. It has been suggested by Tobin (1990) that prospective teachers’ beliefs can change significantly in the process of becoming a teacher and that metaphors can be used to examine these changes. The use of teaching metaphors along with a reflective process can help inservice and preservice teachers identify conflicts between their beliefs and their roles as teachers. Because teachers often view themselves as having multiple roles or that they change roles according to the teaching context, teachers in Tobin’s study commonly used several metaphors to describe their roles.

Metaphor as Means of Visualization

The visualization of the metaphor via the selection of pictures and graphics in the production of a PowerPoint presentation may produce a more mature conceptualization of teaching and learning. For example, Einstein visualized Maxwell’s writings about light waves. He viewed himself riding on the motions of the gas molecules (John-Steiner & Meehan, 2000). The process of selecting pictures and graphics could, in fact, allow the preservice teacher to actually visualize the process of teaching and learning, much like Einstein rode the waves of the gas molecules in the development of his theory of relativity. Perhaps the visual aspects of the PowerPoint are important components in the development of the metaphor. Like a painting, the metaphor via PowerPoint might grow and develop as the preservice teachers “paint” a picture of the metaphor with the technology. In fact, if the use of PowerPoint indeed triggers the creativity of the preservice teacher, the metaphor should grow in the same way a painting grows and develops. Shahn noted: “Thus an idea rises to the surface, grows and changes as the painting grows and develops.” (as cited in John-Steiner & Meehan, 2000)

Technology’s Role in Metaphor Development

Can technology contribute to the process of constructing a teaching metaphor? How does the use of a media such as PowerPoint aid or inhibit the reflective conceptualization of teaching and learning? In a study of the graphing skills of 125 seventh and eighth grade students, Mokros, and Tinker (1987) concluded that use of the technology may be a “bridge between concrete and formal operations” (p. 381). In addition, the technology provides a multi-modal approach to learning thus, addressing learning style differences in students. Other researchers also concluded the use of technology aids in cognition (Auberry & Nakhleh, 1999; Beichner, 1990; Brasell, 1987; Friedler, Nachmias, & Linn, 1990; Nakhleh & Krajcik, 1991).

In previously cited studies, research revealed technology can act as a cognitive bridge. Traditionally, the metaphor assignment used text only. However, studies by Cuban (1993) and Harper (1994) indicated analysis of photographs of classrooms provides a glimpse into the teacher’s conception of teaching and learning. Cuban (1993) and Harper (1994) analyzed photographs of classrooms for evidence of constructivist teaching principles. A classroom was described as using a constructivist approach if there was evidence of approaches such as students working in cooperative groups, a variety of materials being used, and projects displaying a variety of media.

In other studies, researchers have found that the use of the computer to mediate communication encourages reflection. Bos, Krajacik, and Patrick (1995) indicated telecommunications provided a radical means for teachers to collaboratively reflect on practice and noted that “ . . . for most teachers, reflecting on their practice is a crucial step for enacting meaningful innovations” (p. 190).

Metaphors Into Practice

Rodriguez (1993) outlined the hazards of not discussing personal metaphors before practice teaching. Rodriguez supported more connection between theory and practice, and perhaps metaphors are one method to help bridge the chasm between the two. The researcher also stated that teacher education programs need to do a better job in discovering the students’ beliefs earlier in the program in order to help them find a connection between theory and practice.

Tobin (1990) found that teaching practices often correlate to teaching metaphors but in some instances a desired metaphor, such as teacher as facilitator, is not implemented in the classroom due to a variety of reasons. In other cases, teaching practices that are viewed as possibly constraining the learning process of students can be related to the teacher’s metaphor. A possible use of metaphors suggested by Tobin is that teacher change can be initiated by introducing different, more appropriate, metaphors.

Bullough (1992) used teaching metaphors to examine the struggle that beginning teachers had reconciling their personal metaphors with an established curriculum. The belief that a pre-determined curriculum and personal teaching metaphors were, at least at times, contradictory was a central focus of the study. While Bullough did find that the teachers in the study struggled to negotiate the conflicting ideas between their personal metaphors and the adopted curriculum, other factors such as classroom management, were not identified as being additional sources of conflict between actual classroom teaching and theories taught in teacher education courses. The cooperating teachers were also seen as influential in reconciling the differences between metaphors and classroom teaching by allowing (or not allowing) the individual to explore the implementation of their own ideas in the curriculum.

Studies such as Bullough’s serve as a reminder that the process of becoming a teacher is unique for each individual (Bullough, 1992). The personal dimensions of becoming a teacher need to be given more attention but need to be viewed within the context of classroom teaching and implementing an established curriculum

Research Design

The research focused on how technology mediates the development of a teaching metaphor. The researchers used psycholinguistic analysis and coded data for emerging trends (Patton, 1990) and compared the themes in this study with those articulated previously in the literature. The data sources consisted of the preservice teachers’ PowerPoint presentations of their metaphors. Triangulation was achieved from collecting data at two points in time and examining the text and the pictures of the PowerPoint presentations. In examining the data, the researchers looked for evidence of constructivist principles, reflectivity in the text and pictures, connections to theory, and a learner-centered focus (Surbeck, Han, & Moyer, 1991; Lamy & Goodfellow, 1999; Cuban 1993; Harper, 1994).

Data were collected from two required teacher education courses at one southeastern research institution during two consecutive semesters. The first course is a required pre teacher education course that gives an overview of the teaching profession and requires 24 hours of field placement. The second course, which many students take the subsequent semester (although not required to do so), is the content methods course and requires 90 hours of clinical experiences. With the infusion of technology in this institution’s teacher education program, the course instructors implemented additional media to both of these courses, one of which was the required teaching metaphor to be developed using PowerPoint. The researchers collected the metaphors during the fall, 2001 and spring, 2002 semesters. Those students who completed the prerequisite and the methods course during two consecutive semesters determined the convenience sample. Four students were determined to have PowerPoint metaphors from both semesters and these metaphors were examined. Few studies in metaphor analysis have examined the role of technology in metaphor change and development. Therefore, this study provides an additional method for investigating metaphors in preservice teacher education.


Of the four preservice teachers, two were male and two were female. To protect anonymity, pseudonyms are used in data presentation. Additionally, in the data presentation, many of the metaphors are stated in the form of a simile, which was allowed in the assignments.

Savannah’s metaphor in the pre-education class and the methods course was “teaching is like flying a kite.” The metaphor was teacher directed and the PowerPoint changed minimally between the two semesters. Savannah articulated in her first metaphor “a kite must have good structure and balance, as a teacher must also have in the classroom.” She re-worded this sentence in the second metaphor presentation to read, “the kite flyer must have knowledge of how to construct (sic) kite.” The pictures Savannah selected to visually represent her conception of teaching and learning consisted of single clip art images such as a singular kite flying or a singular teacher teaching (Appendix A).

Butch approached his metaphor development in the pre-education class as a baseball game and also articulated a very teacher centered approach. In the second metaphor Butch developed for the methods class, he re-defined his metaphor from a coaching perspective, but maintained the political aspects of playing the game. For example, in Butch’s first metaphor, he stated, “Teachers are just like baseball coaches in that they must motivate their students to learn each and every day.” In his second metaphor, Butch stated, “Teachers should always be in control in the classroom. Never let the students know that you feel uncomfortable. Further, he wrote: “A coach should be in control on the field. The players should never be allowed to tell the coach what type of scheme to use.” Throughout the first PowerPoint, Butch had references that teaching, much like playing baseball, should be fun. For example: “Teaching is like the game of baseball because it is a challenge, yet it is fun.” In his second metaphor, Butch appeared more serious: “As a coach, the fate of your team depends upon your preparation.” Butch did not use any pictures to illustrate his first metaphor, which might indicate that he could not visualize himself as a teacher. In the second metaphor, he selected one picture for his opening slide (Appendix A). The picture was a baseball player catching the ball which might indicate that Butch sees himself as omniscient and again very teacher centered.

William did not express a clear metaphor for the pre-education requirement, but he instead articulated his philosophy of teaching and grounded his approach with theory and briefly mentioned that teachers should be like “road maps.” In this first attempt, William stated, “Education is a process in which students gain knowledge of a subject, develop social skills, and learn problem-solving techniques.” For his second PowerPoint in the methods course, William articulated his metaphor as “Teachers are like road maps” and took a learner-centered approach. For example: “A teacher should offer a path to choose without choosing the path for the student.” He also made references that the teacher should not be the only source for information and should offer feedback throughout the learning process. William discussed that our job is to make the students life-long learners to teach them how to learn, “Teachers need to show the student how to function without a map available.” William did not have any images in his first metaphor but in his second, used a variety from clip art to web images. In each image, a sole person was showing how to learn (teacher illustrating the map) with the exception of the map image (Appendix A). While most images appeared teacher centered, the teacher is showing how to read the map, and the text indicated support that the teacher is showing the students how to learn, or in William’s words, “Teachers must also teach students how to use the MAPS effectively.”

April’s metaphors illustrated the most change between the first and second metaphor. In her first metaphor, April stated, “Teaching is like making stir fry” and was very teacher centered in her approach. She articulated that she was the one to decide the recipe, what ingredients to use, and how long to cook it and stated, “next, you need to chop up the ingredients just like you need to chop up the information you are going to teach your students.” Further, she wrote, “All the food you have prepared should be served together.” And, “All of the information you have given your students should be put together for a test.” It appeared that April, in her first metaphor, also believed that testing drives the curriculum. “Eat and enjoy your finished product just like you will grade and enjoy seeing all of the information your students have learned.” Images used in April’s first PowerPoint did not articulate her metaphor in many cases and focused on singular items. In April’s second metaphor, she re-focused and designed a new metaphor, “Teaching is like growing flowers.” She stated, “Students, just like flowers, are delicate subjects. They require preparation, care, nurturing, determination, and dedication to grow in strength and knowledge.” Themes relating to learning as a process, multiculturalism, and using multiple strategies were evident. In analyzing the pictures in the second metaphor, April used a picture of herself to introduce the PowerPoint, which might indicate she views herself as a teacher. Her pictures of flowers varied from singular flowers to gardens, possibly indicating more of a student view of teaching and learning. The text supported this, such as “All flowers, like students, come in different sizes, colors, and types. This requires that teachers have multiple strategies to help all students learn.”

Discussion and Recommendations

The research base supports the use of analysis of text and photographs to reveal a glimpse into the teacher’s conceptualization of teaching and learning. However, caution must be used in drawing conclusions about the extent to which the metaphor actually represents the views of the preservice teacher on teaching and learning. The selection of clip art, for example, may have been based simply on available resources and not on how the preservice teacher views teaching and learning. In a similar manner, the text may be the result of an Internet search for teaching metaphors. Thus, the preservice teachers used little or no reflection in completing the assignment. On the other hand, this research and previous research indicates the metaphor is useful in providing some information about how the preservice teacher visualizes teaching and learning.

The questions for future research are:

1. What insights does the analysis of the metaphor offer the teacher educator into how the preservice teacher conceives teaching and learning?
2. What types of remediation activities should be considered for preservice teachers that “just don’t get it.”(Bullough & Stokes, 1994)
3. Previous research in teaching metaphors used analysis of text only. How does the selection of clip art and photographs reveal the thinking about teaching and learning?
4. In what manner does the technology act as a cognitive bridge in the development of a metaphor?

In conclusion, we found the use of PowerPoint for the production of a metaphor offered a unique view into how preservice teachers conceive teaching and learning. Both the text and selection of visuals revealed either a teacher-centered philosophy or a learner-centered philosophy of teaching. What is not clear is how closely aligned the metaphor is to the preservice teacher’s conceptualization of teaching and learning. As noted by Knowles (1994), the metaphors of preservice teachers can provide a glimpse to the developing conceptions of teaching. These glimpses should not be ignored, but examined closely, in order to help teacher education programs discover students’ beliefs earlier in a program find connections between theory and practice.


Vivian H. Wright, is an Assistant Professor of Instructional Technology in the College of Education at The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. She works with teacher educators on innovative ways to infuse technology in the curriculum to enhance teaching and learning and has helped initiate and develop projects such as Electronic Portfolios for the Preservice Teacher, Master Technology Teacher, and Technology on Wheels. Her research interests include asynchronous education, specifically Internet and E-Learning, and K-12 technology integration.
Cheryl W. Sundberg, Assistant Professor, Louisiana Tech University

Sondra Yarbrough, Assistant Professor, Jacksonville State University

Elizabeth Wilson, Associate Professor, University of Alabama

B. Joyce Stallworth, Associate Professor, The University of Alabama


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Visual Literacy in Teaching and Learning: A Literature Perspective

Visual Literacy in Teaching and Learning: A Literature Perspective

Suzanne Stokes
Troy State University


Research reported in educational literature suggests that using visuals in teaching results in a greater degree of learning. The basic premise of this body of research is the concept of visual literacy, defined as the ability to interpret images as well as to generate images for communicating ideas and concepts. This paper provides an introduction to visual literacy and includes a review of studies that investigate the effects of instruction that incorporates varying degrees of visual components including no visual support, still visual aids, and animated visual sequences. The purpose of this literature review is to stimulate interest in using visual enhancements in teaching and to promote the development of learners’ visual skills in combination with their development of verbal, reading, and mathematical skills.


During a rehearsal of Debussy’s La Mer, Toscanini found himself unable to describe the effect he hoped to achieve from a particular passage. After a moment’s thought, he took a silk handkerchief from his pocket and tossed it high into the air. The orchestra, mesmerized, watched the slow, graceful descent of the silken square. Toscanini smiled with satisfaction as it finally settled on the floor. “There,” he said, “play it like that” (Fadiman, 1985, p. 548).

Visual Literacy from a Historical Perspective

The presence of visual elements in today’s teaching and learning is increasing as the integration of images and visual presentations with text in textbooks, instructional manuals, classroom presentations, and computer interfaces broadens (Benson, 1997; Branton, 1999; Dwyer as cited in Kleinman & Dwyer, 1999). Although the educational community is embracing visual enhancements in instruction, the connection of visual and verbal information is evident throughout history. According to the poet Simonides, “Words are the images of things” (as cited in Benson, p. 141); similarly, Aristotle stated that, “without image, thinking is impossible” (as cited in Benson, p. 141). Characters in alphabets began as pictures with meaning (West, 1997). These symbols portray a man-made language with no distinction between words and pictures, just as musical notes convey the language of music. Only after the printing press was invented were illustrations and type separated, with illustrations often falling by the wayside. Recent history shows a reversal in this separation with greater reliance on visually oriented approaches to information presentation. The results are leading to a visualization movement in modern computing whereby complex computations are presented graphically, allowing for deeper insights as well as heightened abilities to communicate data and concepts. Visualization helps make sense of data that may have seemed previously unintelligible. Leonardo da Vinci, in recognizing the impossibility of recording volumes of data, translated words into drawings from different aspects. As history repeats itself, we may find that a great deal of information is better presented visually rather than verbally.

A culture’s predominant mode of literacy depends on the technology and mass media it embraces (Sinatra, 1986). In education’s continuing mission of meeting the needs of learners, an apparent shift from the long-standing process of reading, writing, counting, and text memorization skills that may have been appropriate for the medieval clerk, are giving way to skills of analysis and innovation that are considered desirable in today’s modern cultures (West, 1997). Proficiency with words and numbers is insufficient and must be supplemented with additional basic skills as new and emerging technologies permeate activities of daily living. Viewing change with fear and skepticism often accompanies shifts such as these that can revolutionize society. Even Socrates portrayed the new technology of the written word as dangerous and destructive, artificial and rigid, and unresponsive and insensitive. As more visual elements are incorporated to achieve an optimal balance between verbal and visual cues in education, interdependence between the two modes of thought will be fostered. Kellner [1998] proposes that multiple literacies are necessary to meet the challenges of today’s society, literacies that include print literacy, visual literacy, aural literacy, media literacy, computer literacy, cultural literacy, social literacy, and ecoliteracy.

Learner Differences

Learning through orderly, sequential, verbal-mathematical, left-hemisphere tasks is a pattern seen frequently in education (West, 1997). Those whose thought processes are predominantly in the right-hemisphere where visual-spatial and nonverbal cognition activities rule frequently may have difficulty capitalizing on a learning style that is not compatible with their abilities. Liu and Ginther (1999, Introduction section, p. 2) define cognitive/learning style as “the individual’s consistent and characteristic predispositions of perceiving, remembering, organizing, processing, thinking, and problem solving” and note that cognitive/learning style is an important factor in individual student differences. Instructional materials as well as teaching styles should be matched with cognitive styles for greatest learner benefits. However, the extent to which individuals are polarized in their brain’s abilities to deal with verbal and visual modes of thought is not fully understood, although it is rare for individuals to deal equally effectively in both modes (West). Most people have a tendency to think in words rather than in pictures, yet the use of visualization in thinking appears to be increasing. Tuckey and Selvaratnam (as cited in Chanlin, 1999) propose that most visualization skills can be developed by practice. Even so, both Cate (as cited in Chanlin, 1997) and Richardson (as cited in Chanlin, 1997) emphasize that students with limited domain knowledge may regard graphics as excess complexities and incomprehensible information if the connections with the concepts are not obvious to them. An additional variation in learners is present in those who may have difficulty with comprehending the spoken or written language, particularly those with language barriers, learning disabilities, and hearing disorders (Flattley, 1998).

Visual Literacy Defined

Wileman (1993) defines visual literacy as “the ability to ‘read,’ interpret, and understand information presented in pictorial or graphic images” (p. 114). Associated with visual literacy is visual thinking, described as “the ability to turn information of all types into pictures, graphics, or forms that help communicate the information” (Wileman, p. 114). A similar definition for visual literacy is “the learned ability to interpret visual messages accurately and to create such messages” (Heinich, Molenda, Russell, & Smaldino, 1999, p. 64). The ERIC definition of visual literacy is “a group of competencies that allows humans to discriminate and interpret the visible action, objects, and/or symbols, natural or constructed, that they encounter in the environment” ( Robinson (as quoted in Sinatra, 1986) describes visual literacy as “an organizing force in promoting understanding, retention, and recall of so many academic concepts with which students must contend” (p. v). And lastly, Sinatra defines visual literacy as “the active reconstruction of past visual experience with incoming visual messages to obtain meaning” (p. 5), with the emphasis on the action by the learner to create recognition.

The use and interpretation of images is a specific language in the sense that images are used to communicate messages that must be decoded in order to have meaning (Branton, 1999; Emery & Flood, 1998). If visual literacy is regarded as a language, then there is a need to know how to communicate using this language, which includes being alert to visual messages and critically reading or viewing images as the language of the messages. Visual literacy, like language literacy, is culturally specific although there are universal symbols or visual images that are globally understood.

Visual Literacy and Instructional Technology

Branton (1999, Abstract section, p.1) proposes the questions, “Does technology necessitate the need for Visual Literacy skills? Can this same technology be used to enhance our Visual Literacy skills?” Branton links visual literacy with constructivist learning through the role of each in acquiring knowledge in the information age. The ERIC definition of visual literacy given above and the ERIC definition of constructivism learning as a “viewpoint in learning theory which holds that individuals acquire knowledge by building it from innate capabilities interacting with the environment” ( are merged by Branton as she explores the possibility that the visual arts taught in a constructivist learning environment can enhance visual literacy skills. Technology, particularly the graphical user interface of the World Wide Web, requires skills for reading and writing visually in order to derive meaning from what is being communicated.

Two major approaches have been suggested for developing visual literacy skills (Heinich et al., 1999). The first is to help learners read or decode visuals through practicing analysis techniques. Decoding involves interpreting and creating meaning from visual stimuli. The second is to help learners write or encode visuals as a tool for communication. Students develop their visual abilities through use. Sinatra (1986) compares the creation of visual messages to writing word messages, in that visual messages have a combination of objects, space, light, angle, and mood to suggest a particular message or effect just as the writer uses words, sentences, and paragraphs to achieve a particular style.

The use of visual literacy ideas and strategies to enhance verbal learning is important (Flattley, 1998; Sinatra, 1986). Because visual literacy precedes verbal literacy in human development, it is the basic literacy in the thought processes that are the foundations for reading and writing. Berger (1972) explains, “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak” (p. 7). The Dale Cone of Experience model is based on the concept that learning evolves from the concrete to the abstract; visual symbols are nonverbal representations that precede verbal symbols (Sinatra, 1986). Action activities provide the concrete base for the abstract use of symbols in defining and explaining the action activities. These activities of action progress to activities of observation which then are followed by abstract representations, a process that facilitates reconceptualization and understanding of the experience before describing it verbally. Because pictures or illustrations are analogs of experience and are only one step removed from actual events, these visual representations may be able to capture and communicate the concrete experience in various ways.

Visual Literacy Research

“A good picture is equivalent to a good deed” (Van Gogh, as cited in As studies show success in thinking and learning visually instead of or in addition to traditional lectures and verbal description, a shift in technique is required. Students need to learn visually and teachers need to learn to teach visually. West (1997) conveys an innovative mathematics approach whereby students “do” mathematics rather than “watch” mathematics. The technique emphasizes learning through interactive graphics without words. “The words go into an idea only after the idea has already settled in our mind”(West, p. 275).

Research suggests that using visual treatments in lessons enhances learning with varying degrees of success. Chanlin [1998] reports how lessons with no graphics, still graphics, or animated graphics influence students with different prior knowledge levels as they attain procedural and descriptive knowledge. When prior knowledge is low, graphics, either still or animated, are better for learning descriptive facts than lessons with text only, yet learning procedural facts does not appear to differ with the use of text or graphics. However, students with a high level of prior knowledge of the subject responded better with the animated form of graphics in learning descriptive facts, but responded better with still graphics when learning procedural knowledge. Chanlin’s [1998] study suggests that students with different prior knowledge levels respond differently to contrasting presentation forms for achieving learning tasks, and that the effectiveness of visual design in learning is related to the prior knowledge of the students. Animated graphics are not superior to still graphics and may even be distracting to learning if the motions are inconsistent with how students process the visual information. An additional study by Chanlin (1999) suggests that providing visual control of animated graphics enhances learning, particularly in males.

Kleinman and Dwyer (1999) examined the effects of specific visual skills in facilitating learning. Their findings indicate that the use of color graphics in instructional modules as opposed to black and white graphics promotes achievement, particularly when learning concepts. An earlier study by Myatt and Carter (as cited in Heinich et al., 1999) suggests that most learners prefer color visuals to black and white visuals, but that no significant difference in the amount of learning occurs except when color is related to the content to be learned. In addition, the study indicates that young learners prefer simple visuals and older students prefer complex visuals, yet simpler visuals are usually more effective regardless of the age group. Additionally, students do not necessarily learn best from the kinds of pictures they prefer to view.

Mayer, Bove, Bryman, Mars, and Tapangco (1996) compared the use of a multimedia summary comprised of a sequence of annotated illustrations depicting the steps in a process, with a 600-word text summary of the process. Also compared were the multimedia summary plus different amounts of text in knowledge retention and transfer. Results suggest that the multimedia summary is more effective than the verbal summary, and that the multimedia summary alone is more effective when it contains a small amount of text rather than a large amount of text. Their conclusions are that students can learn more effectively from a more concise summary, particularly when words and illustrations are presented together. However, the subjects in this study had a low level of knowledge of the subject; the researchers note that they would not have expected the same result with experienced learners. The results of this study parallel those of Chanlin [1997, 1998] in that the effect of visual treatment is more evident in students inexperienced in the subject domain, and that integrating visual and verbal elaboration strategies facilitate mental connections in learning.

McKay (1999) considered the learners’ cognitive styles as well as their experience in the subject matter in a study comparing the use of text-only instructional materials with text-plus-graphics instructional materials. Subjects categorized as novice learners with verbal cognitive styles performed best with text plus graphics, while the novice imagery participants did better with the text only material; these findings were contrary to the expected outcomes. However, learners as a whole showed more improvement in test scores when using the text-plus-graphic format. Furthermore, novice learners from both learning style categories showed a greater improvement in scores than the experienced learners. The differences in responses by the novice and experienced learners are similar to reports from other studies (Chanlin, 1998; Mayer et al., 1996).

Variations in the types of still graphics used in instruction were investigated by Roshan and Dwyer [1998] who found no significant difference in achievement by students exposed to different graphic mapping strategies. However, the time that students were exposed to graphics-enhanced instructional treatments affected learning outcomes. Students who were exposed to self-paced modules performed better than those who were involved in a structured time frame format, even though the self-paced group required less time to progress through the modules.

Variations in Visual Elements

Many forms of graphics for instruction and enhancing understanding exist. Visual organizers that incorporate illustrations and text to depict patterns of concepts and ideas serve as organizational frameworks to promote thinking and learning (Tarquin & Walker, 1997). Frameworks assist learners in visualizing how ideas may be related to prior knowledge, subordinate ideas, and information from other sources. Story maps that can be depicted as vertical or horizontal flow maps, Venn diagrams that prove useful in analyzing similarities and differences between two or more concepts, and frameworks for webbing that encourage thought regarding the whole and its parts are examples of visual organizers. KWL frameworks link prior knowledge with what the learner wants to know and with what the learner has learned; the framework can be expanded to address what the learner still wants to learn, serving as a catalyst for further research. Feature analysis frameworks use a grid design to represent the relationships of concepts within a category.

Problematiques use graphics as a language to identify complex and challenging problems by expanding the linear style traditionally used in teaching and learning to a non-linear format that expands the processing of information in a way that minimizes cognitive overload (Warfield & Perino, 1999). Other visual organizers include cause and effect frameworks, flow charts, and various types of charts such as checklists and scoring tools (Tarquin & Walker, 1997).

The use of visuals in education, although consistently shown to aid in learning, must be carefully planned. The use of visuals that steer the learner to the exciting or entertaining aspects of presentation rather than encouraging thoughtful analysis of the underlying meaning may interfere with the intent of the lesson (Sherry, 1996). In addition, Dwyer (as cited in Williams & Dwyer, 1999) suggests that visuals must be properly used in the educational setting since visualization alone does not function to maximize student achievement. The study by Williams and Dwyer of the effect of metaphoric strategies in the achievement of learning objectives indicates that the use of verbal and visual metaphors to complement visualized instruction is not always an effective instructional strategy.


The literature suggests that using visual elements in teaching and learning yields positive results. In order for visual enhancements to be used most effectively, teachers should possess skills that include the language of imagery as well as techniques of teaching visually; therefore, guidance in the area of visual literacy for instructors is warranted. Results of the impact of visual literacy in the classroom can be explored further through teachers examining their current use of visual elements and comparing visual content of lessons with student achievement. Additional research to develop tools that measure an individual’s degree of visual literacy, including skills of creating and interpreting visual language, is important in evaluating the overall impact on student learning. Additionally, the identification of possible relationships among other factors such as learning styles and demographic characteristics is desirable for a comprehensive study of the concept of visual literacy.


Suzanne Stokes, Ph.D., is Associate Professor in the College of Health and Human Services at Troy State University in Troy, AL. Also a registered dietitian, Dr. Stokes teaches nutrition classes in the School of Nursing at TSU and is the Coordinator of Instructional Technology for the School as its nursing programs adapt instructional delivery for the digital learning environment.


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