A picture has always been worth a thousand words, but in this digital age picting is becoming its own form of literacy.

On a typical day, our students are bombarded with hundreds, if not thousands, of images. Most of these images are on a screen, and may only be viewed for a fraction of a second. Social media in particular has become driven by these images, both as form of communication and as advertising. Not only are students viewing these images, but they are also creating them. Students utilize platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and Facebook to share content using their cameras to tell a story. Even the captions to their images are visual in nature, utilizing emojis instead of words. The result? An emerging type of literacy called picting.

pictingPicting is the exchange of photographs or images to communicate instead of using text. As a form of literacy, picting includes the ability to “read” a picture and gather meaning from it. While this term is new, the idea behind it is not. Picting is visual literacy for the digital generation. By harnessing this expression through images, we can help develop much needed skills in our STEM classrooms.

Visual Literacy in STEM

Social media isn’t the only place where images are used to portray ideas. Students will come across images throughout the STEM classroom every time they open a textbook. Visual literacy is both the ability to read and interpret an image, and the ability to create images that communicate information. The unique nature of picting is that students now seem to be able to read and interpret images at a much faster rate. Unfortunately images can still confuse our students if they do not have strategies to access the information within the picture. All images they come across, especially in the classroom, are there for a purpose. Students must determine this purpose and interpret the text or concepts within that context.

To develop this skill, students need to be given ample opportunities to analyze and interpret images, and then create images of their own. Too often students skip over a chart, graph, or image in the textbook because they deem it to be less important than the words on the page. Teachers need to actively teach students to read and evaluate the information communicated through images within their classrooms.

Begin by displaying a photograph or image at the start of a lesson. Have your students do four things:
1. Make observations of the image. What do you see? What is happening? What do you know?
2. Draw inferences. Why do you think this is happening? What assumptions or conclusions can you make? What do you think?
3. Make a prediction. What will happen next?
4. Ask questions. What do you want to know to get more information?

This can open into a class discussion that will drive your lesson. Come back to the image again at the end of the week to see how their analysis has changed. Students will slow down and look for clues within the image to help them gather information and understanding.

Pros and Cons of Picting in the Classroom

In this fast-paced world, bringing picting and visual literacy into the classroom can have its benefits. Photographs and images can be used to foster the development of 21st century skills, including communication and creativity. In addition, some struggling learners express themselves better using images and animations rather than writing. Creating images allows an opportunity for students to demonstrate their understanding in a way unique to them. There is no obvious “right or wrong” way to express their ideas like in a written response. In their oral explanation of their image, students can more easily provide evidence of mastery than they could otherwise.

pictingOn the other hand, if we allow students to create images rather than write, are we adequately preparing them for the workplace? Many careers center on writing skills and being able to communicate in this fashion. Even within our classroom walls, numerous content standards cannot be adequately assessed with an image, and picting certainly will not be found in end of course exams or tests.

There is a happy medium. Picting is great to use as formative assessment. Students can summarize key ideas, brainstorm, or collaborate using images. For example, have students create or find an image to express a concept. In pairs, have students then interpret the meaning of the images created and evaluate their effectiveness. This becomes a form of classroom Instragram!

For summative assessment, picting can also be used as an option during performances or portfolios. This will allow students who view visual literacy as a strength to express themselves in this visual format. Be sure to assess the image using the same rubric as other performances in order to meet content objectives. Students should also be provided an opportunity to orally explain their image if needed.

Picting with a Purpose

Regardless of how you bring this form of visual literacy into your classroom, picting can be given purpose. Images are powerful tools that students can use gather and express information. Though they may not think twice about a picture on Snapchat, providing them opportunities to analyze an image for more than ten seconds can be valuable in and out of the classroom.

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