I originally published this January 24, 2007. I’ve updated it considerably…

There is a biological basis for visual communication.

The auditory nerve transmits sound to the brain and is composed of about 30,000 fibers. Contrast that with the optic nerve which sends visual signals to the brain through 1 million fibers (Burmark 2002). Basically, you’ve got a dial-up connection from the ear to the brain and broadband from the eye to the brain. Teach kids to take advantage of the connectivity, and the raw capacity of the brain to process visually, and then teach them that…

Emotion, depicted through visual means, sells the message.

Students must learn how to convey meaning emotionally. That’s why digital storytelling, when done right, can be such a powerful learning experience. Anyone that has seen 4 Generations: The Water Buffalo Movie can attest to that. View that movie…how many of you would pony up $250 after viewing that? And take the video obituary (called the Final Word) of Art Buchwald at the New York Times where he says “Hi, I’m Art Buchwald and I just died” and they go on to tell his life story. Bizarre, yet powerful because of the intersection of emotion and medium. And then teach them that…

The most powerful producer of visual imagery is the individual, its you.

Digital cameras, cell phone cameras, 100 dollar Flip Video cameras, citizen journalism, photos of the London subway bombings, of Saddam Hussein’s execution, and 2,474,956,178 billion photos at Flickr attest to the capability and absolute unmitigated power of the individual to produce visual material and bring the world home. But simply producing this is not enough, because…

You have to share it. Understand Creative Commons. Post content online that others can use, that enable you to connect to other users, collaborate with others, create with others and contribute to everyone. So, teach kids to be able to do that, and in the process emphasize that…

Individuals must be capable of working in multiple mediums to create visual messages, in accordance with the principals of visual literacy.

They have to do something with that visual imagery and it has to be done the right way. Create. Remix. Mashup. Post to YouTube, TeacherTube, SchoolTube, DNATube or create your own “Tube” with StartYourTube.com . Use Google Earth to combine imagery with place. Use the content of Google Streetview in a Web page or wiki; blend this with other media and primary source content to create a mixed-media platform of resources that can be the raw material of learning. Additionally, use online content creation systems like JumpCut and, MogoPop to create messages for the distribution of content on the networks of the Web, and to make content transportable. Why is this necessary? Because…

Visuals, when combined with other multimedia, provide individuals with a competitive voice. One that can be heard. One that can be measured. One that says “here I am, and here’s what I think, here is what I have to contribute. Now what do you think?” Kids have meaningful things to say, so challenge them to produce visual content with purpose and with pride. Help kids understand that the world is more connected then ever, and that producing visual content like this becomes even more powerful in 2008 because…

Networks for sharing and collaboration extend that voice; that voice can contribute to a conversation as a contributing member of a community. 150,000 videos are uploaded to YouTube per day (Wesch 2008). Between 1 and 2 million photos are uploaded to Flickr each day (Flickr main page). Both platforms enable commenting, and YouTube encourages videos to be produced in response to others. Complete conversations around a single photograph occur in Flickr, an idea that is explored by Clay Shirkey in Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing With Organizations. The potential for rich dialog can occur (as well as hateful dialog), so kids need to learn how to be a part of that, and in a positive way…

And then emphasize that in 2008:

Everyone can learn from each other, independent of time, space and place. (Ryan Bretag).


Burmark, Lynell. Visual Literacy: Learn to See. See to Learn. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2002.

Bretag, Ryan. Personal Communication. 2008.

Shirkey, Clay. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. New York, New York. The Penguin Group,

Wesch, Michael. “YouTube Statistics.” Digital Ethonography. 18 May 2008. Kansas State University. 7 May 2008 <http://mediatedcultures.net/ksudigg/?p=163>.

12 Responses to “Towards a Framework For Visual Literacy Learning”
  1. Brian Borton says:

    Since your presentation to the Dayton, OH area in December of 07, I have been immersing myself in all that is out there on digital storytelling–what it is, how it is best presented and taught for students to grasp the concept and make it their own, and what creative pieces are already on the Web as solid examples of good storytelling that pack on emotional punch. This blog piece really shows the process skills from A to Z, and really gives me a big picture of where I want to go with my storytelling units.
    This week my first class of 8th graders will begin their first attempts at creating their own. They’ve watched and thought and considered voice, emotion, and ownership of a story for a week, and now with the tools in place, they can’t wait to get started.
    I am also going to present digital storytelling to our staff in August, and this blog will certainly help me organize my thoughts in moving from why to what to how with these educators. Thanks for all you do for education and its powerful ally, technology.

  2. Dan Meyer says:

    Sturdy framework. Whatever they say about brevity, wit, etc. One comment, one question.

    Most teachers nowadays understand that “emotion sells the message” but few have even a passing understanding of visual literacy. This results in a lot of lame ppt presentations, voicethreads of dubious value, and videos like A Vision of K-12 Students Today with high emotional content but zero visual (or narrative) control. Are there online educational resources you could highlight?

    And second, I’m not sure I follow your concept of the competitive voice. Is this as simple as hits on a YouTube video?

  3. I also find myself pondering how if teacher’s presentations were more effectively and beautifully designed–how much more impact they might have on students’ learning.

  4. DSJ says:

    Carolyn: I would agree, there is certainly much room for growth in teacher presentations, especially when using a presentation tool like PowerPoint or Keynote. It is an opportunity to model for students what constitutes effective design, as well as help them achieve the intended outcomes of the lesson. I watched a teacher the other day give a presentation with PowerPoint that was mostly bullet points and I was left wondering why it wasn’t more image and multimedia-based to take advantage of the platform’s native capacity to support multiple forms of information, as well as help students make meaning of visuals. To many assume that both teachers and students know how to use Powerpoint-they do, but not truly as well as they could.

  5. DSJ says:

    @Dan: haven’t forgotten you, I’m going to devote a post to the concept of a competitive voice, and am working on a list of visual literacy resources. Been busy with changing jobs and presentations…

  6. Visual literacy needs to be a part of our curriculum, both for teachers and students. Design, story, sharing, competitive voice, contribution… These are powerful ideas to develop. I will be sharing and discussing with my colleagues. Thanks for sparking the ideas. You frame it so well.

  7. Corey Tatum says:


    I recently attended a workshop presented by Timothy Gangwer in San Antonio, TX. The focus of the workshop was on visual and media literacy. I found it fascinating and am kicking myself for not having connected with this information sooner. It has definitely changed my educational strategies. I thought I’d share the important points I found on his Web site (www.visualteachingalliance.com): (1) “Approximately 65% of the population is visual learners.” (2) “The brain processes visual information 60,000 faster than text.” (3) “90% of information that comes to the brain is visual.” (4) “40% of all nerve fibers connected to the brain are linked to the retina.” (5) “Visual aids in the classroom improve learning by up to 400%.” The source of this information comes from the book, “Visual Impact Visual Teaching.”

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  9. robin B says:

    I was wondering what the principles of visual literacy are? Thank you.


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