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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
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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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EHSMrsJ's picture

Love this--thanks so much for sharing your insight. We've been using Emoji Vocab in class for a few years (just a modern/updated way to draw a representation of a vocabulary word) and are trying Emoji Stories (story summaries) this year some, too. Even 5th grade in my district is experimenting with re-writing a favorite poem using only emojis. There are just so many applications for the ELA classroom! My how-to guide for emojis is here:

Kee-Man Chuah's picture
Kee-Man Chuah
A passionate educator, a selfless friend and a life survivor.

Interesting sharing Dane. Thanks for your social media tips. I use images to generate stories and words as well. A single picture somehow can produce a very interesting story. It begins as a attempt to create incidental vocabulary learning via visuals. A picture of a car, can produce more than just the word "car", when students can also describe its appearance, e.g. colours, size, design, etc, spurring their interest to pick up more words. That's the project that I've been working on and I call it LexiMinds, learning lexicons through mental representations (mental image).

Mary's picture

Great article! The reason I really enjoyed this is that you incorporated social media taboos that are thought of as not beneficial to education. A lot of teachers see Instagram as a distraction in class, and I see it used all the time. If students are enjoying the app, then we as educators need to see that and find ways to incorporate it into higher learning. The examples you provided jumpstarted some ideas in my own head. Photo-visual literacy and thinking in creative patterns is essential for students to grow in a multidimensional way. Technology is only growing, so to be effective, educators need to find ways to keep the students engrossed in the content.

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

Mary, you are very right. As educators, we have the choice of seeing social media and mobile devices as distractions or as tools. Which choice we make depends on our willingness to think creatively and empathize with our students. If I had the infrastructure and permission to do so, I would make Instagram an integral part of my daily classroom interactions. For some great ELA ideas for using Emoji, connect with @EHSMrsJ on Twitter. She recently shared with me how she gives students the option of using the SMS symbols to create vocabulary lists and create literature summaries.

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

Kee-Man, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts about my article with me. I like what you are working on with LexiMinds. Obviously, I agree with you about the importance of visual learning with students, especially in the language classroom (English or otherwise). Even as an adult, when I learn new words, I remember them better when I can associate them with an image. Why not let our students create their own images for this?

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

Mrs. J, I know that we've interacted a bit on Twitter since this comment, but I wanted to take the time to thank you here for sharing your ideas with me. In the past few days alone, I have shared how you are using Emoji vocab and literature summaries with nearly every educator I know. Keep up the creative work that you are doing with the students in your classroom. It is teachers like you that make school meaningful, especially in a connected world.

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