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Visual Literacy

Mary Alice White, a researcher at Columbia Teacher's College has found that young people learn more than half of what they know from visual information, but few schools have an explicit curriculum to show students how to think critically about visual data.

In a society where powerful interests employ visual data to persuade (what Alvin Toffler calls "info-tactics") schools must show students how to look beyond the surface to understand deeper levels of meaning and tactics employed to sway their thinking. There is a danger that these images will serve as decoration rather than information unless we show them how to interpret (make meaning of) the data.

The Library of Congress is busily digitizing its collections so that you and your students can explore great pictures and documents from our nation's past. One collection of photographs from the turn of the century, the Detroit Publishing Collection, supports powerful inquiry with a search engine.

1. Go to the search engine (a white box half way down the page where you may type words) on this page to find a picture about "coal breaker boys." Type the words "coal breaker boys" into the search box.

2. Once you find the picture, enlarge it by clicking on the thumbnail and then point your cursor into the middle of the photograph. Hold your mouse button down or right mouseclick until a menu appears which includes the option "Copy." Select the image, and then paste the photograph into a word processing file.

3. Now join with your partner to probe beyond the obvious and infer psychological content. Who is the leader of this group? Write down your choice and then make a list of at least 8 reasons why you selected that one person over the others. Make your reasons as specific as possible, supplying the visual data, details and evidence to build your case.

4. Having many great pictures is not especially valuable unless students can interpret the information. In your learning log, write your thoughts about the following:

a. How might you use these kinds of resources in your classes?
b. How can we teach our students to see the deeper meanings implicit in visual material?

Explore other collections in The Library of Congress


Other visual literacy resources:

Museum Victoria
Excellent collection of photographs and other digital resources.
The Thinker
A collection of more than 60,000 works of art from the San Francisco Fine Arts Museum.
The Web Museum
A very rich collection of paintings from hundreds of artists well supported with text passages.
The Smithsonian provides an extensive array of images and artifacts.
The National Gallery of Art offers a rich and varied online collection of paintings and other works of art.

Photographs at the Library of Congress

Diego Rivera Virtual Museum

Spanish Painters

Mexican Museums (in Spanish)

Diego Rivera - Mexican Muralist - Project Pathfinder


© 1998, Jamie McKenzie,
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