FETC 2013 | Q&A

Picture Perfect: Teaching to Visual Literacy

Visual Literacy proponent Lynell Burmark explains why the use of images is so important in the classroom and how it can help teachers meet the challenges of getting through the curriculum and engaging students in skills and content they'll actually remember and apply after the test.

Lynell Burmark's decades-long promotion of "visual literacy" continues gaining fans, particularly now with so many free, high-quality, easily accessible multimedia materials available to teachers who are trained on and outfitted with computers and projection devices to exploit those visual resources.

In this interview, Burmark explains what visual literacy is, how it works in the classroom, and why it can accelerate the efforts by teachers to get through daunting volumes of required curriculum.

Dian Schaffhauser: A lot of your focus is on visual literacy. What's that mean?

Lynell Burmark: Everyone knows what literacy means--reading and writing words. Visual literacy is reading and writing images. The "reading" is that when you see an image, you understand what's being communicated by that image. The "writing" is when you find appropriate, compelling images and put them into materials to communicate, teach, or learn.

Schaffhauser: Graphics have always been around. Students have always had eyeballs. Has visual literacy never existed in a big way in education?

Burmark: I think it's been there more in the elementary grades. When I was a kid, we had Dick and Jane. Almost a full-page image and four, five, or six words on the bottom. As we got older, the pictures went away, and we had all text. It was like when you grew up, you didn't need pictures anymore, which is a huge mistake. We process images 60,000 times faster than words.

All teachers say, "I don't have time to get through the curriculum." One way to speed it up 60,000 times is to go back to using the images. So I think we have matured our way out of doing what was right. Education has gone backwards by having so much inefficient text. We spend 45 minutes describing an okapi when we could spend 45 seconds displaying one with the LCD projector and asking students to describe the features they see on that strange looking animal! Of course, today, within five seconds of our mentioning the okapi, every student in the classroom is on Google, looking for the image. They understand intuitively that it's more efficient to start with the image and then overlay the words to connect that image with prior knowledge.

Schaffhauser: Why does visual literacy need to come to the forefront now?

Burmark: It's needed to be at the forefront from day 1. It's just that now we have a gleeful marriage between what's right and technology. One of the examples I love to use is when I took the history of art as a freshman at Stanford University. We had to buy the textbook that was $45 at the time, and it was mostly black and white. Monet's Poppies, which is one of my favorite paintings--a glorious field of wild red poppies--was reproduced as a full-color poster on my dorm room wall. I opened Jansen's History of Art, and there it was in black and white, which I thought was a real travesty, until I did the math and realized that a textbook that was about $45 would have been about $450 had all the images been in color.

Now images are free. Color is free. We have an opportunity to do it right without the excuse that we can't afford it. Now color in all our reference materials is an option. With LCD projectors you've got a six-foot high by eight-foot across image on the wall for all the students to see at the same time in blazing color. We have the tools to do it right for free. How amazing is that? I know; the kids take it for granted, but I'm thrilled every time I power up the projector!

I get a little misty-eyed about this, but I truly believe it's a wonderful time to be in education because we can take advantage of the ways that people learn with the tools that we have to teach.

Schaffhauser: Can you give an example of teaching to visual literacy versus teaching to text?

Burmark: The example I give when I'm doing a presentation is to have people look around the room, and then I say, "Okay, describe everyone in the room." There's maybe 200, 300, or more people in the room at the time. How long would it take you in words to describe everybody? And from another room could I read that description and really have a clue what anyone looked like? Compare that to whipping out your iPhone and hitting the camera button. You've got the whole room in a recognizable fashion instantly in the palm of your hand!

Or let's say you want to talk about snow, and you're in Africa where few people have seen it. I talk about this in my newest book, They Snooze, You Lose. The more senses you can get involved, the better. Vision is the sense that trumps the other four. It's the most powerful. If you wanted to describe snow to somebody who has never experienced it, you could show a picture, but obviously feeling the cold in the snow would be another way, or tasting it. The more senses you can get involved, the more vivid the experience will be. But many times we don't have the option of experiencing it in a tactile way. So vision--the image--is the easiest.

Schaffhauser: You're constantly referring people in your sessions to great Web resources. So what makes a Web resource valuable enough to share with the educators who are tuning into your presentations?

Burmark: I only put them in touch with things that are free. There's no barrier to using it that way.

I especially look for sites like the Morgue file, for example, for illustrations. That's one a lot of people don't know about. It's wonderful high-res photographs. The photographers ask you--if you wish--to give them credit. But there is no fee. Some people will say, "If you use my photograph in your work, let me know how you used it." Whenever I've written to someone, I explain how I've used their image with educators. They're just delighted. I've done that with Flickr too. People have been so gracious, so delighted that they can do something to help educators.

And then too it has to be high-quality. I don't send anybody to clipart collections. I don't send them to low-res images. I'm kind of a perfectionist. I've been called a type A-plus. My co-workers have said, "Type A doesn't come close."

Schaffhauser: I've heard you say that you don't use text in your presentations. Is that true?

Burmark: That's true. On the opening slide I have the name of the presentation and my name, so people know they're in the right room. On the closing slide I have the words, "Thank you," and my contact information, and that's it.

Schaffhauser: You've got no words to remind you about what you were supposed to say to those folks at the moment.

Burmark: What happens is that when I see the picture, not only does that bring back to me the content that goes with that picture, but it also triggers in me the emotion. My teleprompter is the image itself. And all the images I choose are not decorative frou-frou; they're the essence of what I want to communicate. I work very hard on finding just the right image to stick in somebody's mind for that concept.

When you see that image later anywhere, all my words will come back to you. That's making education stick. The words get velcroed to the image.

Schaffhauser: Give an example.

Burmark: Okay, here's an image. It has a maple leaf on one side and a daffodil on the other.

 sample image of flowers

This is illustrating [Robert] Marzano's No. 1 instructional strategy: identifying similarities and differences. When you have a wide-screen projector, you can put two vertical images side by side. What the memory holds onto is the comparison: not the leaf, not the daffodil, but how you compare the two. That's what goes to long-term memory. You just put two images side by side and then have kids work in small groups to decide what's similar between these two objects and what's different. They learn more about each object than if you just put one up and then put the other up.

Schaffhauser: Education seems like it's in a world of hurt right now--all coming down to money. Is it possible for educators to get beyond the money obstacle and achieve what they want in the classroom?

Burmark: The short answer to that might be that there are many things that you can do that do not cost money. I think we need to examine very carefully before we put huge dollars into systems or programs or where we commit a big part of our budget when what we need is a change of vision and some strategies that are free.

You need the basics. You need a computer and you need an LCD projector. But those are so cheap now. You can do so much with a projector.

Then the kids are bringing their own devices. That's one of the things we'll be talking about at FETC for sure: Use the rockets that are already in their pockets. How many devices do you actually need to buy for every student to have one in the classroom? It's getting to be very, very few. And technology is getting cheaper and cheaper. The technology is becoming very affordable.

Look for Webinars with free ideas for project-based learning. That's how you engage kids. They're doing the learning, instead of us doing the teaching. We point them in the right direction. I think it's an exciting time for teachers to try to understand that, and not worry that we can't buy this or that. If we can get a projector in the classroom and we can get kids using devices themselves that they're comfortable with, learning is definitely going to happen beyond anything we could have dreamed or imagined. Be sure to take some videos. These are transformational moments in the history of education, and we are blessed to be involved.

Lynell Burmark

Burmark, popular presenter and author of several books--most recently, They Snooze, You Lose: the Educator's Guide to Successful Presentations--will be presenting three sessions at FETC 2013, which starts Jan. 28, 2013 in Orlando:

  • Rockets in Their Pockets: Launching Learning Potential;
  • Making Education Stick: Veni, Vidi, Velcro (I came, I saw, it stuck); and
  • The Naked Truth about Full-Frontal Presentations.

In these sessions, Burmark tackles, respectively, the use of the iPad in the classroom, how to offer instruction that makes learning "stick," and how to give presentations with impact--in the classroom or elsewhere.