Saturday, October 29, 2011

Using Visual Language in the Classroom

Most teachers try to incorporate hands-on activities that invite students to use their imaginations. Sometimes these investigations involve technology, but often they rely on everyday pens and paper. If students are drawing political cartoons, diagramming maps, or decorating Greek urns, they often complain that "they're not good artists." Telling them, "it's okay, just draw stick figures," seems like a strange response from an educator. We wouldn't tell a math student, "it's okay if you're not good at multiplication, just use addition." We wouldn't tell a music student, "it's okay if you're not good at piano, just hit middle C again and again." We would ask them to try, right?

Even though we're not art teachers, we like to use visual projects in our lessons. Art is fun for children and excites the mind, so it's worthwhile to build in a few specific tools to enhance the joy of learning. Developing a common language to talk about visual literacy can be helpful in designing graphs, timelines, flowcharts, and PowerPoint slides.

Dave Gray, founder of the Visual Thinking School and writer of Communication Nation, has developed a short lesson in visual language. He offers an insightful overview of forms, fields, and flows -- the specific dots and lines that make up a picture. In a soothing voice and unassuming manner, he presents a terrific video about "the alphabet of visual language."

This basic primer in communicating through drawing has numerous benefits in daily lessons. Students can effectively generate Prezi layouts and decision boxes. They can create organizational charts, map legends, and meaningful spaces. The little skills of perspective and unity lead to larger skills of cause and effect and sequencing. Moving from the literal to the symbolic is a valuable mindset not just for art but also for math, literature, history, etc. In drawing and coloring, students are unknowingly internalizing the techniques of graphicacy.

By the way, Gray's book, "Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers," seems like an interesting read for young entrepreneurs. Gray has experience in starting a business himself with his visual thinking firm, XPLANE.


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