Visual Learning in Science

By Kleiss, Donna | Practical Literacy, February 2016 | Go to article overview

Visual Learning in Science


Kleiss, Donna, Practical Literacy


Visual literacy is integral to the development of scientific literacy. Science by its very nature is intrinsically multimodal, and heavily reliant on a range of visual and representational models and cues (Caralan, Prain & Waldrip, 2008). The discourses of science are a collection of integrated multi-modal texts developed to represent and communicate key scientific concepts and ideas (Tytler, Prain & Petersen, 2007).

Scientists employ a wide range of visual tools--including graphs, diagrams, and tables--to conduct research and communicate their findings (Ainsworth, Prain & Tytler, 2011). Gilbert (2004) suggests that within the scientific community there are many accepted representations denoting particular scientific concepts--such as the 3D ball and stick model used to denote atomic configurations, a 3D globe representing our Earth or a stylised diagram of a cell--which he identifies as expressed models. Pedagogical focus should shift from an emphasis of content delivery to a more integrated and thus representational approach to better reflect the work that scientists actually do (Hubber, 2013). Students should therefore be explicitly taught to interpret and create their own expressed models in order to develop visual literacies within science.

Multiple and multi-modal representations

Students at an early stage in their schooling are introduced to a diverse range of scientific representations, such as life cycle of frogs and butterflies; and arrows denoting the push and pull of force, from which they are expected to decode and then apply their understanding to an additional, often written, context (Caralan, Prain & Waldrip, 2008). Without a visually rich pedagogical framework students are unlikely to develop a conceptual understanding of expressed models, as described by Gilbert (2004). Even at junior levels, students should be introduced to multiple and multimodal representations in science, in order to be able to 'understand, translate and integrate' various modes of scientific understanding (Prain & Waldrip, 2007, p. 1844).

Re-representation of scientific concepts

Student generation of visual representations is integral to formation of student competency in science and their ability to think scientifically (Ainsworth, Prain & Tytler, 2011). Learning new scientific concepts cannot be, 'separated from learning both how to represent these concepts and what these representations signify' (Waldrip & Prain, 2013, p. 17). In science, students need to learn 'how, why and when' to interpret and construct representational modalities, and consequently when and how to integrate these into meaningful scientific texts (Prain, 2009). Allowing students to construct representations either through drawing or construction of 3D representational models assists in the decoding of expressed models (Gilbert, 2004). The construction of discursive representational models, as noted by Ainsworth, Prain and Tytler (2011), deepens students' understanding of the conventions of scientific representation, while also broadening students' conceptual understanding.

Teach science the way that it is practised

Recent literature (Gilbert, 2004; Office of the Chief Scientist, 2013) suggests pedagogical practices in science should be more 'authentic' and better reflect the work that scientists actually do. It is contended that improvement to science understanding and practices should be elicited by teaching science the way that it is practiced, via 'hypothesis, experimentation, observation, interpretation and debate' (Office of Chief Scientist, 2013, p. 9). Further, it is argued, this should commence early in primary school, thus creating a 'pipeline' of scientific literacy from Prep (1) to PhD and beyond (Office of the Qld Chief Scientist, 2013). The purposeful embedding of visual literacies within science pedagogies is therefore crucial for students to develop a deep and sustained scientific knowledge and understanding, and to learn to enact the work of scientists. …

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