The role of visual literacy skills in design thinking and STEM education

29 October 2019
  • For this blog I am going to explore the role of visual literacy skills in design thinking and STEM education. As a teacher and designer, I am super passionate about this topic and believe visual literacy plays a vital role in enhancing learning and innovation. Why? Because the digital world is a visual world. To construct knowledge and to innovate, we must be able to visualise since most information is initially processed through our eyes. As STEAM specialist, Kate Mason (2016) argues, ‘visual literacy is a mode of thinking that helps us understand and navigate the world around us and is a vital tool in an increasingly visual and digital age’.

    Globally, the rise of visual content reflects our physiological thirst for imagery and visual knowledge. In schools, the need for visual assets in teaching continues to transform the educational landscape,(full stop) with students needing to increasing read visual instructions and represent their ideas as part of design thinking and engineering processes. As a result, it is necessary for educators to rethink traditional understandings of literacy.

    The Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) recognise the multimodal nature of literacy. As a general capability, literacy supports the need for students to develop the knowledge and skills to competently understand and create written, visual and digital forms of expression (NESA, Science and Technology K-6 Syllabus, 2017, p. 40).

    Visual literacy, like visual-spatial thinking, is also multifaceted and develops from the way in which we observe our world visually (Gardner, 2011). Research supports the link between early development of visual-spatial abilities and STEM/STEAM innovation (Lubinski, 2010). Thinking and communicating visually can stimulate critical and creative thinking in any discipline. It is essential for conceptual understanding, spatial reasoning, ideating, rapid visualisation, divergent thinking, problem solving and expressing ideas (Tytler, 2016).

    A wide range of outcomes and skills across the curriculum (K-10) support the development of visual literacy for communicating ideas. Key terms – including draw, sketch, generate ideas, represent and model. 

    ‘Drawing is not just about representation, it’s about thinking. Trying to understand what you are looking at… The brain sends a signal to the hand and the hand sends one back and there is an endless conversation between them’ (Milton Glaser, 2008).

    Short instructional videos, like the ones available on our YouTube channel and via our ‘5 for Design’ program, could also be used to guide students through visualisation exercises for design. While professional level (advanced ??) design skills are not essential for classroom teachers we do encourage teachers to;

    • Define visual literacy as part of the success criteria for students
    • Guide the engineering design process to ensure the focus is on acquiring and developing design skills vs the end result. 
    • Collaborate, willing to reach out and partner with other teachers, specialists and professionals to maximise learning opportunities for their students.
    • Document and showcase visual assets produced during the process, as evidence of thinking (for example, rough drawings, note taking). It makes students more likely to value seeing their thinking represented on paper.

    Designers, engineers, scientists and mathematicians encourage sketching multiple iterations of ideas. For example, the video on How drawing is used for maths and science by Sir Roger Penrose (3 min 51 secs) from The Big Draw explains how drawing can represent complex mathematical and scientific equations and improves visual literacy. There is often a rush to complete in education which limits students basic need for skill mastery to genuinely progress in their learning. Structuring design thinking activities so students can go deep with their learning and produce more than one iteration of their idea should be a core consideration when designing the task.  

    Ultimately, visual literacy offers a wide spectrum of opportunities to enhance STEAM-based learning. Imagery truly is universal, and through acknowledging and valuing the potential of visual literacy across STEAM related areas, we can equip our students with the tools they need to mine their imaginations for innovation.

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