Sunday, July 31, 2011

Graphicacy: The Neglected Fourth “R”

With all the visuals in the media today, we assume that most adults bring a certain level of graphicacy to interpret the information they see; however, what about children and their graphicacy skills? Their textbooks, magazines and much of their media world is filled with visualizations of one kind or another. Graphicacy, today more than any other period in history, is crucial to understanding and deciphering information for the 21st century and is often neglected as literacy in schools. As educators, we cannot assume that students can read images, know the language to construct meaning, and interpret visualizations without instruction. Critical thinking is no less a part of graphicacy than it is to any other literacy. It needs to be harnessed by teachers into all content areas beginning at the elementary level as an essential component for deciphering information.

If we stop and think about it, one of the first things children come across in a graphical form is a picture book. Perhaps this is why picture books are so important for children. They help them develop critical thinking skills to make connections between words and images as well as to wonder, anticipate or predict what happens next. Take the book One, by Kathryn Otoshi; it is perhaps the simplest in terms of graphics, but one of the most powerful books about bullying. It's clear, strong message about standing up for oneself and others through the use of simple colored dots for characters visually holds the reader’s attention to convey a strong message. Read this to a group of middle school students and what begins as laughter turns into a powerful WOW. Graphically, it is simple, but just like any advertisement, the carefully constructed relationship between size, shape and color are deliberate. Why is the character of Red the bully and not green, or why is Blue the bullied and not yellow?

In their work, “Graphicacy: the Fourth ‘R’” (2000), F. Aldrich and L. Sheppard point out that graphicacy is rarely taught explicitly and it is often assumed children will pick it up along the way. They make a strong case for teaching it as a learned skill, just like any other skill that needs to be taught. With the current craze in using visualizations, particularly infographics, the need to incorporate graphicacy as an important facet of learning is even more vital. Without it, students will not develop a discerning eye to interpret the flood of visualizations in the media. Infographics by definition are supposed to represent complex data and information quickly and clearly, but not without the learned skill to decode them. Moreover, they may not be able to critically analyze the data for accuracy, make connections without prior knowledge, or verbally express how the graphic is unclear or confusing. By integrating graphicacy into all content areas of the curriculum, children will acquire the skills they need to understand the ever-growing mounds of information designed to engage the eye.

See also:
Graphicacy Resources
Designing Information: The Need for Graphicacy
Other posts on graphicacy

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