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Using Social Media to Teach Visual Literacy in the 21st Century Classroom

Dave Guymon

Online middle school teacher & educational blogger from Idaho Falls, Idaho

Increasingly, educators are acknowledging and welcoming the relative advantages of social media into the teaching and learning process. From creating school Facebook pages to connecting students with experts via Twitter, social media has taken root as a legitimate classroom learning and communication tool. The highly linguistic nature of social media allows us to create and consume ideas and information unlike ever before. Much attention has been given to composing an articulate blog post and condensing our messages to 140 characters or less. However, effective use of this 21st century technology requires that we not only become proficient in textual communication, but also in our ability to express ourselves and interpret others' ideas through visual literacy.

Why Visual Literacy Matters

Visual literacy is the ability to:

  1. Process and make meaning of information presented in an image.
  2. Communicate our own ideas through principles of design.
  3. Create our own messages that capture our visual thinking in a way that conceptualizes problems to given solutions.

The importance of including visual literacy instruction for our students in the classroom comes from the discovery that students gain a deeper understanding of a concept when they are encouraged and enabled to create a nonlinguistic representation of that concept. When paired with linguistic -- or text-based -- literacy, visual literacy can multiply students' ability to recall and think about what they have learned.

So, what does visual literacy in the classroom look like? If we were to answer this question from our students' points of view, we would likely say Instagram, Emoji and memes. But do any of these platforms offer value to the learning experience? Perhaps that depends on what, or rather, how you are trying to teach.

3 Modes of Visual Communication

As a photo editing and sharing network, Instagram offers much to the educational process simply in its ability to allow students to create and publish original content. But when considered from the context of instructional design, it takes on new dimensions that would otherwise be nonexistent. As stated before, visual literacy includes the ability to create messages that capture our own visual thinking. Imagine what this might look like when issuing students the challenge of capturing what Robert Frost was writing about in his timeless poem "The Road Not Taken" with a single Instagram photo sent to a common classroom hashtag. Not only would this approach encourage students to consider this piece of prose at higher-ordered levels of thinking, it would also free them to do so in the context of their own creativity.

Similarly, Emoji, or ideograms often used in text messaging, have incredible potential in directing our students to effectively communicate through visual designs. At the most basic level, people use Emoji to illustrate their emotions through minute smiley faces and faces with tears. But when utilized as an instructional tool, these otherwise informationally cosmetic accessories could encourage students to consider the emotional tapestry and perspectives of figures from history had they been provided the communication tools and platforms of today. Would President Lincoln have included a smiley face with an ideogram of theater tickets along with his social media update about going to Ford's Theater, or would he have conveyed the premonitions that some have attributed to him having on that fateful evening with something a little more sullen? Whatever it may have been, students empathizing with our 16th president would have to determine the message they want to share and then evaluate the effectiveness of symbols to do so.

Memes require this same level of analysis and application to share one’s intended message with social stickiness. Lending itself more to commentary on a given topic, understanding what a meme is saying requires mature linguistic and social dexterity. One of my favorite trendy meme characters is the Philosoraptor, an animated dinosaur apparently scratching his chin as he ponders the elusive meaning of life. Recently, I saw a meme created with this image that read, "What if math teachers were really just pirates who wanted us to find X just so they could locate buried treasure?" Understanding the humor inherent in this meme not only requires a basic comprehension of algebraic variability, it also asks us to process the demeanor of the Philosoraptor to identify the rhetorical sarcasm in the image. And while viewing and responding to memes requires one set of intellectual skills, creating them based on a current unit of study requires a skillset entirely different.

Embracing a Cognitive Opportunity

That we have evolved our favorite forms of communication is obvious without more than simply watching our students walk through the hallways. It would be easy to demonize social media and each medium that it provides for human interaction. But it would be educationally valuable to embrace it, turning it into an opportunity for our students to develop an appreciation for the advanced cognitive skills they employ on a daily basis. Why not study the highly visual communication models connecting the thoughts that mean the most to them with the social networks where they live their lives?

Dave Guymon

Online middle school teacher & educational blogger from Idaho Falls, Idaho
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Comments (26)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Mary's picture

I appreciate it! I am currently a student getting my graduate certification in teaching, and I am amazed with all of the technological advances since I was in high school ten years ago! I find it all intriguing and beneficial for students this day in age. The brain is thinking in new patterns and reaching those patterns should be the goal of the educator.

McKenzie's picture

i. Visual Literacy makes me think of how we engage preschool and kindergarten students to respond to literacy in ways that captivate them and allow them the opportunity to engage with literacy in ways they are fluent, by drawing a picture. For students who are not yet writers, we ask them to simply draw a picture of the story, how the story made them feel or even ask them to create a new story based on the one read by drawing a picture. Who says this needs to stop once students leave the early elementary level? I believe that our students with special needs might benefit from having another outlet from which to express themselves, their reactions to literature and demonstrate their grasp on the literary content they have just be exposed to. Imagine if you were asked to complete a task that was excruciatingly difficult for you in order to fulfill an assignment. Just imagine if you were asked to sprint in a one mile marathon, but you were born without legs and had to move yourself using only your arms. Though the task is something you can theoretically complete, it would make so much more sense to have you complete the marathon in a wheelchair or other assistive devise. The same can be said for our students with disabilities. There is nothing to say that they are inept at completing the assignment, they just might need a new outlet from which they could create or discuss the literature read in class. That is where visual literacy could come into play. They can use visual literacy as a medium by which they could report on, discuss or evaluate literacy like their peers. Visual literacy offers an exciting glimpse into a new way of interpreting text and meaning for our students everywhere.

Dave Guymon's picture
Dave Guymon
Online middle school teacher & educational blogger from Idaho Falls, Idaho

McKenzie, you have added to great point to the ongoing discussion of including visual literacy in our current pedagogy. As I read your thoughts about using pictures to teach language skills to emerging readers I thought about how I consistently rely on drawing pictures of my own when engaged in math problem-solving. Pictures support new learning in all different content areas and at all levels of formal and informal education. Thank you for helping me to reflect on this idea. The thoughts you shared here are very insightful and valuable to a continued dialogue.

Kym's picture
Year 4/5 Teacher

This blog got me thinking about how my own class could use social media to explore visual literacy. I'm wondering how my school leadership would feel about me using Instagram in the classroom. I wonder whether I would be able to do this effectively with the 6 computers we have in the classroom? I think I'll take a leap of faith and explore this further. Thanks for the article!

Kristin Osiecki's picture
Kristin Osiecki
Designer + Educator + Maker

As a visual art and design educator I think these are strong arguments for the growing importance of what myself and my colleagues do in the classroom every day.

Social media has increased access to art and design and provides incentive for students to create work of their own. It also encourages them to critique their own work and the work of others, helping them develop a sophisticated eye.

In addition to helping them decode meaning in visual media, it also helps them gain a stronger grasp on technical aspects of art and design.

I teach both digital and darkroom photography and feel that Instagram has helped my students learn how to successfully crop images to enhance composition. My first darkroom photography assignment this year involved applying a black and white filter to a variety of different photos in Instagram and analyzing why some images work better in black and white than others. Through this activity students gained an understanding of value and contrast and how these things work when color is taken out of the mix. It made for a more successful first roll of film.

Dave Guymon's picture
Dave Guymon
Online middle school teacher & educational blogger from Idaho Falls, Idaho

Kristin, thank you for sharing your expertise on this topic with me. I love that you utilize Instagram in your photography classroom. I'm not a professional (or skilled) photographer. However, Instagram serves as an access point to allow me to creatively enter the world of photography and memory capturing. I love what you're doing in your classroom with your students. I wish I could be a fly on the wall, or better, a student in a chair. Thanks again for taking the time to read and share my post.

Dave Guymon's picture
Dave Guymon
Online middle school teacher & educational blogger from Idaho Falls, Idaho

Kym, Instagram serves the classroom, school, and district well by bridging the gap between learning and the community. Make sure you check with your building/district policy before taking pictures of your students. You can also get creative with the angles of your pictures to avoid capturing students' faces if need be. If you would like to see some great examples of educators using Instagram in the classroom themselves, be sure to follow Tim Lauer and Eric Sheninger.

Rachel Esco's picture

I have always valued media literacy as many students need visual aids to enhance their learning. For instance, once I devised a character study project, allowing the students to create a Facebook page for their favorite character. This was engaging because the media aspect was part of their everyday activities. For more teaching strategies, you may refer to www.thornhill-tutor.com

Amy Burvall's picture
Amy Burvall
IB Theory of Knowledge teacher from Kailua, Hawaii

This is an extremely valuable post- thank you! You address more than one "big issue":

1. The increasingly visual nature of our communication, and the wane of text-domination
2. The necessity to "go where the kids are" and embrace the tools they are comfortable using, while helping them leverage those tools and maximize their effect
3. The need and desire to cultivate "new literacies" - many of them related to media literacy itself.
4. The participatory nature of our new media landscape, and need for students to practice creating media- visual elements in particular.

I'm a big fan of the "Gutenberg Parenthesis Theory" which draws from Marshall McLuhan's philosophy and Walter Ong's "second orality". It basically states that our new technology has brought us "back to the past" in many ways, and that the text/print domination of the Gutenberg era was a mere parenthetical blip in history's timeline. That being said, students should be exposed to visual literacy skills, and in particular those associated with social media, like memes, photographs, and emojis.

The big bonus is that any time you work with metaphorical thinking - such as creating an icon or making sketchnotes - you are honing critical thinking skills as well.

A few ways to incorporate visual thinking I've tried:

- all slideshows must be primarily, if not entirely images - with one discussion-prompt or provoking question at the end
- incorporate a curriculum-related "photo challenge of the week" and ask students to tweet their work out and / or collect in a digital gallery
- demonstrate sketchnoting skills and ask students to sketchnote during lectures, presentations, or films
- play "Disruptus" - a wonderful game based on divergent thinking that asks players to draw ideas
- study Infographics and ask students to analyze, remix, and create original
- explore the phenomenon of "selfies" and what images and how they are edited say about a person..then have students analyse their own.

Amanda Whitley's picture
Amanda Whitley
primary teacher from South Carolina

Embracing social media in the classroom is a way to connect with and motivate students. So many times we hear that students don't feel that what they are learning in school relates to what they are doing in their personal lives. Using Instagram, Emoji and memes gives students an outlet to create while analyzing and interpreting what they have learned. The use of visuals in social media today is reminiscent of the use of political cartoons in the past. Students are much more involved through social media than we might otherwise notice. Having students exemplify these involvements visually will allow the students to share their ideas. As you note, memes can be quite sophisticated. In order to create a meme, a student must internalize the literacy issue and create a personal connection. Visual outlets can also be a more natural way for many students to express themselves. Along with using social media to teach visual literacy, the use of Emoji is a terrific way to get students to code text. Students can use the Emoji to connect with each paragraph or section and make that literacy issue personal to their own experience. The ideas that you have shared have motivated me to try to add social media into my own classroom!

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