We try to remind ourselves that even though our students are bombarded with visual stimuli, they don’t always grasp how to parse the incoming images. We’ve cautioned before against assuming that students can intuitively “read” pictures and graphics.
If graphicacy refers to the roster of skills necessary to comprehend optical inputs, then we can communicate these skills by teaching the decoding and encoding of visual data. For us, decoding means judging, evaluating, challenging, or knowing the message underlying a cartoon, chart, or corporate brand. Encoding, on the other hand, is often the overlooked sibling in education. Encoding in many ways is the truer test of internalization, because it involves the ability to produce unique representations that reveal the layered skills of graphicacy. For us, encoding means creating, drawing, writing, or designing original and meaningful graphics.
Balchin and Coleman (1965) first introduced the term graphicacy to refer mostly to geography education. They meant to emphasize a spatial understanding that could not be conveyed solely by words or numbers. In his noteworthy paper, “Graphicacy As A Form Of Communication,” P.D. Wilmot (1999) of South Africa’s Rhodes University builds on Balchin’s, Coleman’s, and other scholars’ work to argue that an inclusive curriculum in graphicacy must be added to national standards.
Wilmot posits that graphicacy is equal to other literacies of oracy, literacy, and numeracy. Everyday encounters with pictorial representations, such as infographics, matrices, maps, logos, diagrams, word clouds, and icons, all require a “symbolic language” to translate ideas about “spatial relationships.” (p. 91)
Wilmot explains that specific mental skills are necessary to understand (decode) and to create (encode) graphic items. As he notes, “because perception involves both a physical process of ‘seeing’ and an intellectual one of interpreting, it is bound up with the development of cognitive skills.” (p. 93)
Most interesting in Wilmot’s thesis is that in scrutinizing early papers about information saturation (Fry, Gillespie, Glasgow, Van Harmelen & Boltt), he in many ways presages the modern harbingers of information overload (Palfrey & Gasser, Gleick, Weskamp, ASIDE). If the verdict is in about visual strain, then we genuinely “can no longer afford to neglect graphicacy as a form of communication.” (p. 92)