Friday, August 12, 2011

Graphicacy in the Primary Grades

Whether graphicacy is the “fourth R” or the “third skill” as Howard A. Spielman refers to it, the format for representing data and visuals is much more complex today. Data visualizations such as infographics and the myriad of designs used in their creation are arguably more complex in many cases. This is quite the opposite of what infographics are by definition, which is to present complex information quickly and clearly. They often combine images and data in ways very different from standard graphs, charts and maps in most elementary textbooks, thus prompting a need for graphicacy in education. To quote Spielman:
Appropriate skills build upon a foundation of graphic symbols and a system with rules and syntax, assuring clear graphic input and output communication, just as literacy and numeracy represent similar linguistic and quantitative skills.”
For Spielman, graphicacy should be considered a core competency just as literacy and numeracy, and  children need to formally learn these skills in the primary grades to give them competitive advantages in a world full of graphical information. Building a foundation in these skills into the curriculum will help children develop a common language for graphic communication, an understanding of design, and a way to more accurately represent data. The daily use of graphical devices and images to create visualizations will not be as readable without having learned the skills to do so.

As it was mentioned in an earlier post on graphicacy, authors F. Aldrich and L. Sheppard, like Spielman, maintain that if there are gaps in understanding the various symbols for interpretation or if they are not explicitly taught and reinforced, then gaps in knowledge, misinterpretation of data, and confusion of meaning increase. It should also not be assumed that children have the skills to construct meaning of views, forms, and commentary without being taught these skills explicitly. Things we take for granted as adults, such as cross-sections, changes in scale, or distant views, are not necessarily viewed the same way by children. At a young age, their views are much more literal, leading to misunderstandings of what they see.

Source: Aldrich and Sheppard (2000)
Commentary objects, too, such as lines and arrows, can also be misunderstood by young children to be part of a graphic, especially if they are not given prior knowledge explaining why they are included. For example, drawings showing emotion, such as trembling or excitement, often include commentary lines to help express those emotions. You cannot actually see these objects radiating from a figure expressing emotion, and children learn that early on reading in picture books. Likewise, when viewing graphical information, lines can indicate movement, sound, or light, and arrows can label, indicate direction, or show sequencing. Aldrich and Sheppard point out that without instruction to learn how commentary objects are used, young children take them to be a literal part of the graphic and do not see them as separate. We have only to look at the various types of graphic information in children’s textbooks to see the variations and inconsistencies to realize how these could cause confusion if not given graphicacy instruction.

As teachers, there are a host of resources for designing graphical information, such as ManyEyes or Chartle.Net to name a few. Our resource page has many helpful links. The most important thing, however, is to include as many possible types and variations to teach children. For Aldrich and Sheppard, it was CLEAR, their mnemonic form for remembering the criteria for selecting graphical information as a teaching aid. Looking at more examples and inviting children to think about them harder would invariably pay off in developing their graphicacy skills. Check out our other posts about graphicacy education.

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