The Eyes Know It? Training the Eyes: A Theory of Visual Literacy

Article excerpt

Introduction

All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things.

--(Aristotle, 2001a, p. 689) Our ability to comprehend the visual world is much like learning to hear; we rarely think about either and assume that the sounds we hear and the scenes we witness are perceived with an inherent amount of expertise. While it is true that the mechanics of hearing and seeing are physiological "gifts" of an evolutionary past, neither is refined in the absence of a particular cultural context, a context which necessarily conditions not only how we hear and see but also what and when we hear and see. Since Education may be defined as the refinement of this process, educational researchers in the field of Social Studies education are using visual representations to gain insight on how cultural assumptions inform historical thinking. For example, in such studies, participants are asked to organize photographs in chronological order or to portray historic figures lsuch as pilgrims and Hippies (Wineburg, 2001). Such renderings offer a quick study in how people think about the past and the implicit learning that informs their thinking. With this evidence in hand, it is easy to see that thinking with images is no easier or more generative of mind-altering insights than reading through written texts. With or without text, it seems that our "default psychological state" is to seek the least challenging option to our own thinking (Wineburg, 2001, p. 19).

As educators, it is obvious that allowing the least challenging option to define the dimensions of our teaching, and the potential for student learning, severely limits the prospects for engaging creativity and critical thinking. In this paper we offer an analysis of the nature of perception and its relationship to thinking, using the psychology and epistemology of C.S. Peirce and John Dewey. It is our contention that the cultivation of creativity and critical thinking are hampered by a false epistemological dichotomy between perceiving and thinking and its attendant pedagogical dualism of education/training.

Likewise, there is a growing awareness among many researchers, reflected in popular works such as Malcolm Gladwell's (2005) Blink, that clearly point to the continuity between thinking and perceiving. Gladwell's book, subtitled The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, explains that snap judgments are forms of thinking that get embedded into our perceptions. He illustrates how these perceptual judgments are used both with great skill and benefit in some cases and grave consequences in others, and that the difference between these uses has everything to do with training. Experts tend to know what to look for and what to screen out; non-experts might be confused by too much and/or irrelevant information present in the perceptual field. Our purpose is to explore this research, explicate this continuity and to suggest some prescriptions for teaching visual literacy. To this end, we shall propose and conclude with a "taxonomy of training" with special focus on visual imagery. This taxonomy will provide a graphic and image-based representation of the relationship between training, critical thinking and visual literacy.

I: The Historical Dichotomy of Training vs. Thinking

Educators interested in critical thinking typically bemoan the fact that students come to them with years of training but little ability to think for themselves. They have learned things by rote and have learned to repeat what they have heard from the teacher, but shrink from the task of sorting out the data and connecting the dots. …