If the five senses of the human body were to compete for the Most Important Sense Award, I’m sure the eyes would get the trophy. All the other senses would be on a close second place, but vision would triumph. Perhaps it’s the direct connection with the brain, perhaps it’s the high sensitivity of the eyes… No matter the reason, we all perceive sight as a little more important than hearing, smell, taste or touch.
Being able to see played a crucial role in the evolution of humankind. It helped our ancestors find good sources of food, avoid predators and was useful even for reproductive purposes. What’s more, sight was at least as important as the ability of making different sounds in the communication development process.
Just think about the Lascaux Caves and the paintings inside them. Writing had not been invented at the time those artistic creations were made, yet the pictures still transmit messages of humans sharing the land with animals. The Egyptian symbols and hieroglyphs are another example of ancient communication through pictures.
Fast forward to today’s world. We now have more advanced and diverse ways of communication, but a smiley face emoticon means the same to people from different countries and cultures around the world.
We are surrounded by visual elements in our daily lives: TV, magazines, billboards, movies, videos, the entire Internet. Wherever we turn, our eyes find a message in the forms of lines and colors — in other words, images.
In search for visual elements in schools
Our kids are also surrounded by visual messages in their daily lives. They live in the same world we do, after all.
Except, maybe, when they go to school. There are significantly fewer visual elements in schools than there are at home, in their free time, or online.
School means learning and learning means a lot of textbooks and homework. The latter two mean a lot of words to read and write and remember.
Why is that? Because tests are rarely graded based on how well a student can doodle or draw a concept. They are graded based on how well a student remembers to say or write many words in a particular order at a certain time. Little emphasis is put on how well they retain the learned concepts after a while.
If in kindergarten and primary school all textbooks have at least one picture or diagram on almost every page, in senior years of high school and then in college, visual elements in textbooks and other learning materials become a rarity. The more complicated and serious a subject, the fewer visual learning aids, usually.
And when they do exist, they are often too small, too complicated, too simple to explain a complex concept, or sadly just plain ugly. There are exceptions, of course — I still remember being fascinated by pictures from my Biology or Geography textbooks over the years — but unfortunately, these are just that: exceptions.
A call for more visual learning elements in schools
Avoiding to include visual elements in classroom or virtual instruction leads to lost opportunities in creating learning materials that attract students’ attention, raise their interest and help them better understand and remember what they learn. Even after they have passed the test.
The learning styles theory may still need more empirical data and evidence in order to be conclusive, but no matter if it will become accepted or not, the basic idea should not be ignored. Vision and visual elements do play an important role in the learning process.
Students learn better when they can visualize new concepts. No matter what they have to learn, nor how efficient they are in remembering what they read, a great picture, graph or other visual element inserted at the right place in a learning material can do wonders.
Perhaps a picture is not worth exactly a thousand words, but it’s definitely worth more than one. The cavemen from Lascaux could back me up on this idea if they were contemporaries, I’m sure.
Visual learning is a hot topic in education. Even though it’s not an exact science, teachers that opt to weave in visual elements with other types of information within their learning materials see improvements in student performance.
There are many ways to incorporate visuals in learning materials, as these come in various shapes and sizes, and I might add, colors and lines. That’s why in the next post I’ll dive into some techniques teachers could use to include visual elements in their instruction.