Visual literacy isn’t an excuse for lazy teaching.

Yesterday an opinion piece written by a teacher was published in a national newspaper. You can find the link to the article here. The basic premise of the article was that new Australian Curriculum places too much evidence on the study of visual literacy and went on to say that this just gave an excuse for ‘lazy teachers’ to “…sit at the back of the classroom, send emails, answer texts, pay their bills or surf the Internet; sleep even.” The author gave many examples of what this might look like and how it might happen. Unfortunately for the reader, and the teaching profession, none of these examples were based on evidence.

I’ve just written a paper for a university course, no one will read this apart from the marker, yet I was bound to provide evidence to support my views and analysis, I had to support this evidence by referring to existing research and documents. Why then, in an article that is published online and in print, available to anyone and everyone to read is there no such standard imposed? Oh that’s right, it’s because it’s his ‘opinion’. I wonder though how many people will identify that this is merely the opinion of one person and how many will unconsciously afford it the status of fact merely based on its publication in a national paper. This is what worries me; how opinions, no matter how unfounded, become facts. How many people had conversations yesterday about those lazy teachers sitting students in front of movies so they could catch up on their emails?

Just in case that is what happened, let me provide some counter evidence to the views expressed in the article. The Australian Curriculum is available for everyone to access online. You can find the English curriculum here in all its detail. A quick scroll through should assuage the authors concerns about the ‘skewing’ of the curriculum in favour of visual literacy at the expense of ‘language-based literacy skills’. Out of 33 content descriptions, references to screen, film, image or visual understandings are found in only 3 in the Foundation content (the first year of school). At the other end of the spectrum, the Yr 10 content, out of 31 content descriptions 7 refer to media or visual elements. Hopefully this goes some way to reassuring the author.

If he still feels concerned about even these references to media and visual knowledge let me pose this question: what sort of texts are our students exposed to most? What sort of texts are they required to make meaning from, interpret and analyse. What texts must they deconstruct critically if they are to stand a chance of engaging actively in society, of making responsible decisions or of reading without being influenced by the maker’s choice of images, colour, words, size, music. Books? Shockingly, no. Our students need to be able to interpret the myriad of messages presented to them in advertisements, television shows, movies, magazines and online. They need to read visually, they need to understand the power of a choice of image, of position, of camera angle, of colour, of actors and all the other aspects that are used to sway opinion, to create emotions and convey messages. Even if the author thinks there’s an emphasis on visual knowledge in the English curriculum, why doesn’t he see that as a strength, as a response to a changing textual landscape that students today need to navigate? And if he’s not teaching this to his students then he’s the one doing his students a disservice.

Finally, the aspect of the article that saddened me the most was the author’s willingness to throw his colleagues under the mainstream media bus. I wonder how many classrooms he’s been into where he’s seen a teacher sitting at the back of the room checking emails or asleep while students watch a movie. I can honestly say I’ve never seen that happen. Where teachers are showing students a film they are actively engaged in the analysis of this as a text, students are asking questions, interrogating choices and developing an understanding of the elements used to create an effective text. This is empowering learning, learning that provides students with skills relevant to their lived experience, learning that enables students to engage actively in the world around them as critical and discerning citizens. Perhaps some teachers in Melbourne might like to invite the author to their school to show him what visual literacy is all about. He’s welcome to visit my Year 1/2 class any time to hear them analyse all manner of texts. Or perhaps he just needs a hug and some reassurance that really it will all be okay, that teachers are working hard for the best of their students and the Australian curriculum is not the latest in evil government strategies to dumb down the population. Perhaps he needs to spend some time on twitter to see all the amazing things educators are doing. Let’s send a little educator love his way.

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