Teachers at Work

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Visual Impact, Visual Teaching

We caught up with Timothy Gangwer, a pioneer in the field of visual learning and the author of Visual Impact, Visual Teaching, and asked him some hard questions about how teachers can expand their teaching methods to keep pace with the current generation of visual learners.

VT: Timothy, do you think that the current generation of students learns differently from previous generations of students?

Timothy: This current generation definitely learns differently. For one thing, we're not a reading society any longer. Eighty percent of the books published in this country are read by twenty percent of the population. The average American is reading four minutes a day. Books, magazines, newspapers — they're often written at a 5th-grade level. You might ask: why would publishers do that? Why would we want our kids graduating "on grade level" in the 12th grade only to prepare them for a society that requires no more than a 5th-grade reading level?

It's because we have become a visually entertained society. Do you know that the average teenager spends 22,000 hours watching TV by the time he or she graduates? By the time they reach senior citizen status, they will have spent three years of their lives watching commercials. And it's also interesting to note that one out of every four kids under the age of two has a TV in their bedroom.

VT: Oh my.

Timothy: Yes, it's startling. So how does all this affect our students linguistically, in terms of vocabulary? When you look at the numbers, studies show that the vocabulary of the average 14-year-old in the year 1950 was 25,000 words. In 1999, that number dropped to 10,000 words. And by the time our students reach the age of 21, they will have read for less than 5,000 hours. So most definitely, it creates an environment where we have, in many cases in our classroom, old methods of teaching for 21st-century learners and the two don't fit.

VT: How can teachers implement methods that will excite their students in the same way as the visual stimuli that they are used to? Or should we even be doing that?

Timothy: I think we should because the visual learner is not going to go away. If you were going to go on a photographic safari hunt, you would not see one animal the entire day unless you were thinking exactly like those animals. And so it's not what you think will work, it's what you know will work, based on your observations of your students. You have to find their chocolate, and I mean that figuratively.

VT: Can you give us an example of that "chocolate," a visual teaching technique that you have found successful?

Timothy: I was working with a group of 5th graders and I did a visual learning activity. At the time, we didn't have camera phones. This was back in the 80's, so we didn't even have digital cameras, but I did have access to some Polaroid instant cameras. So I said, "All right, each of you, I want you to go out onto the playground, find two images, one that represents 'scary' and one that represents 'happy.'"

They all came back and were showing me the images and talking about them, and their meaning. I then noticed that one student had a picture of a playground bench and labeled it "happy." A different student labeled that identical picture, "scary," which I thought was interesting. I asked one student "Why is this scary?" "Well, you know, that bench is right there by the monkey bars. Every morning when we're playing on the monkey bars waiting for the bell to ring, some junior high school kids cut through our playground on their way to school and they sit on that bench and throw these little pebbles at us and they sting."

I thought, "Interesting." I then asked the second student why she labeled hers "happy." She said, "Well, when we go out to recess, we play on the monkey bars and our teacher sits on that bench and watches us play. Five minutes before our recess period is over, the other 5th grade class comes out. That teacher sits next to our teacher, they start talking. We usually get double recess." So, those two students were looking at the identical photograph, but viewing it from two totally different perspectives. That whole contrast of perspectives wouldn't have been discovered without the use of an image-maker, a camera.

VT: What do you think of the Visual Thesaurus as a visual teaching tool? What might it have to offer the visual learner?

Timothy: I think the Visual Thesaurus's use of color is important. Color-coding the parts of speech is a great idea since the brain's retention level increases with the use of color. We remember color first and content second.

Also, I can see kids being really attracted to the interactivity of the Visual Thesaurus. For me (I'll show my age a little bit), a thesaurus used to be this little yellow pocket book that fit snugly into the traditional teaching methodology at that time. But the Visual Thesaurus is a 21st-century teaching tool. A few clicks of the mouse renders a surplus of information and that translates into an efficient use of time on task, as well as student compatibility.

VT: What do you have to say to those critics who assert that using visual approaches to teaching is "dumbing down" content?

Timothy: It's actually that disconnect between old methods of teaching versus 21st Century learning that is dumbing us down. We can't pretend that we're part of a Winslow Homer painting and expect our students to be prepared. Ninety percent of all the information that comes to the brain is visual, plus the brain processes visual information 60,000 times faster than text. If you consider the implication of that, and then ask yourself how much of our educational system relies solely on text, then you will begin to understand why this whole "stand and deliver" approach to teaching just isn't working any longer. Sixty-five percent of our students are visual learners. Are our teachers visual teachers?

Timothy Gangwer has been a leader in the field of visual learning and a dedicated educator of 26 years. He is an international keynote speaker, educational consultant, and the director and co-founder of the Visual Teaching Alliance. A former elementary teacher of students with learning disabilities, he is also an award-winning digital artist and songwriter. To learn more about Visual Impact, Visual Teaching, please visit the Corwin Press website.


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Comments from our users:

Monday December 21st 2009, 8:45 AM
Comment by: Betje K.
Good summary of the disconnect between instructors and target audience that suggests perhaps that some skills of today's students might be superior to previous generations. The playground bench provides an expressive example perhaps less intended to illustrate the thesis than to motivate inquiry. Could you please cite the source of the information "the brain processes visual information 60,000 times faster than text." Had you said "100,000 times," I would have taken that as a metaphor, but "60,000" implies scientific data which interests me. Thank you, bk
Monday December 21st 2009, 11:13 AM
Comment by: Timothy G. (Round Rock, TX)
That information comes from research conducted at the 3M Corporation.
Monday December 21st 2009, 5:54 PM
Comment by: Larry S. (Savoy, IL)
As someone who works in advertising and understands the persuasive power of the image I'm concerned that visual teaching will not help a child think critically enough about what's being presented. You mention that they process information faster visually, but are they really thinking about what they're seeing? How could they if they're suffering from a 15,000 word deficit compared to kids from the 1950's?
Monday December 21st 2009, 7:10 PM
Comment by: Steve V.
It's a good point (visual teaching not as effective for critical thinking). Perhaps a dual-pronged, balanced approach would be the most effective, each half complimenting the other.
Monday December 21st 2009, 7:49 PM
Comment by: Timothy G. (Round Rock, TX)
Critical thinking skills are priority. I believe the "balanced approach" is the core of media literacy. The persuasive power of the image can be biased, perhaps manipulative to the student/viewer who lacks critical thinking skills. In other words, it requires more than visual decoding. Part of being a Visual Teacher is teaching the 5 questions of media literacy:
- Who created this message?
- What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?
- How might different people understand this message differently than me?
- What values, lifestyles and points of view are represented in, or omitted from, this message?
- What is the message being sent?
Tuesday December 22nd 2009, 9:16 AM
Comment by: Lisa C. (Brattleboro, VT)
"When you look at the numbers, studies show that the vocabulary of the average 14-year-old in the year 1950 was 25,000 words. In 1999, that number dropped to 10,000 words. And by the time our students reach the age of 21, they will have read for less than 5,000 hours."

The third number--hours spent reading--has nothing to do with the first two--vocabulary size. I'm not above complaining about what my students don't know, but I find this vocabulary data dubious at best. Determining size of vocabulary is notoriously difficult. Please cite the studies that document this drop.
Tuesday December 22nd 2009, 10:39 AM
Comment by: Timothy G. (Round Rock, TX)
Bleed, Ron (2005), "Visual Literacy in Higher Education" Educause Learning Initiative, Maricopa Community Colleges:
(1) "... studies show that the vocabulary of the average 14-year-old in the year 1950 was 25,000 words. In 1999, that number dropped to 10,000 words." - "What Research Tells Us About Generation X" Center for Teaching and Learning, Western Michigan University.
(2)"...by the time our students reach the age of 21, they will have read for less than 5,000 hours." - "Touch the Future Projects," from the Science, Story & Creativity PBS Series.
Tuesday December 22nd 2009, 2:13 PM
Comment by: Lisa C. (Brattleboro, VT)
Thanks for the references. I'm trying to track down the Western Michigan article. I look forward to finding evidence for the claim.
Monday December 28th 2009, 11:18 AM
Comment by: Grace M. (Saskatoon Canada)
An interesting read on this subject is "The Alphabet Versus the Goddess - The Conflict Between Word and Image" by Leonard Shlain. There are other good books on the subject, but this thinker in particular presents some provocative thoughts on the impact of the "word" and alphabetic literacy in the course of events that have taken place in Western history. He ends with the thought that perhaps the use of visual image as it is developing in today's world may re-wire the way our brains process information, and thus, perhaps return to us a more balanced perception of life. The author does state in the beginning of his book that his thoughts amount to an hypothesis; a reminder to keep the mind open while reading the pages.
Monday January 4th 2010, 2:12 PM
Comment by: Jane M.
I've been teaching high school English since 1999. I have noticed a downward trend in reading in my students; now, most students read books only when coerced. My few readers will read vampire fantasies but not what we would call literature. Only the most privileged have a newspaper to read at home. Yes, they have online sources of news, but they do not do the process of reading an article to the end unless guided by a teacher. Our approach is to do much more guided reading instruction during class. Visual learning and kinesthetic learning are also in our bag of tricks. If our California school could afford Visual Thesaurus, I would try to get it.

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How words can function as "gateways" to student knowledge and academic achievement.
The VT gets props from the highly creative Blue Man Group.