Rigor and Visual Literacy

In education, “rigor” doesn’t (or shouldn’t) mean “toughness” or “strictness.” It’s a much more nuanced term, referencing layers of complexity. Rigorous assignments are those that encourage students to think critically and creatively, to uncover layers of meaning, to make new connections. Since our students live in a highly visual world, it makes sense to incorporate visual elements into classroom and library learning experiences that foster critical thinking.

Visual literacy, defined by the Toledo Museum of Art as “being able to read, comprehend, and write visual language,” requires a skill set that can be practiced and refined through targeted activities. Learning how to critically examine an image is a necessary first step in the process of becoming more visually literate.


Increasing Visual Literacy

There are many excellent sites that provide opportunities for growth in students’ visual literacy and critical thinking skills. The Library of Congress’s “Using Primary Sources” section includes a printable analysis tool that models a structured, rigorous way to examine primary sources. The “Researchers Toolbox” from the Prints and Photographs Reading Room contains resources specifically designed to help with identifying and interpreting images. “Every Photo Is a Story” consists of a five-part video series demonstrating ways to uncover the story in a photograph. It includes "Try It Yourself" exercises that offer students a chance to apply skills they have learned from the videos.

Museums increasingly include interactive opportunities to hone visual literacy, inviting visitors to explore their artifacts both on site and virtually. The Toledo Museum of Art, recognizing “the need for a visual literacy curriculum—not just in art education but across all curriculum,” has created a visual literacy website. Their video collection, archived conference presentations, and educator resource materials, were created to nurture the ability to analyze and interpret images.

Picture This: California Perspectives on American History is the product of the Oakland Museum of California. Students accessing the website are challenged to “Create Your Own Exhibit,” “Match the Objects,” or “Sort the Pictures” of historic artifacts. The “Historian’s Toolbox” explores topics like “Looking for Bias, Perspective, Interpretation & Process” and “Learning from Photographs and Editorial Cartoons.” Included in the “Introduction to Inquiry” section is an activity designed to provide a visual continuation of the KWL chart through observations and questions about collections of images. The “Take a Good Look” exercise poses questions that require the close reading of photographs in order to evaluate their subject matter, time, visual elements, composition, historical and cultural context, original purpose, and the photographer’s intention.

Since a lot of topical information comes via news sources, it is also important to increase proficiency in understanding current events images. During the school year, the New York Times Learning Network blog includes “picture prompts,” daily image-driven writing cues. The Times’ lesson plans include photographs and videos, with related news articles.


Increasing Rigor

There are a number of resources that can be utilized to increase rigor by stimulating critical thinking, as students continue refining their image reading skills. These sites and tools help learners with the organization of data, creation of artifacts, and curation of products while contributing to the development of visual literacy.

Graphic Organizers are handy tools for organizing content and ideas and facilitating learners’ comprehension of newly acquired information. They can also be employed to examine ostensibly disparate facts, make connections, and draw conclusions.

Among the mind mapping options available are bubbl.us (free and paid options; requires an email address) and Popplet (available on both the Web and as an iPad app; must be 13 or older to use).

Read/Write/Think offers simple story mapping tools to assist students in reading and writing activities. Graphic map lesson plans are included for grades 3-12. No signup is required.

Timelines, a variation of graphic organizers, allow learners to arrange text, images, or a combination of the two, in sequential order. Increase complexity by having students construct parallel timelines to compare historical events, novels, or milestones in the lives of individuals.

Timeline, also from Read/Write/Think, offers a simple template that supports both text and images. The timeline can be saved as a draft or final product, printed or mailed. Free, with no signup required.

Capzles is free but requires registration and an email address. Students under the age of 13 may not register. This Web-based tool can generate visually rich timelines that include photos, videos, music, and documents. Capzles is especially useful for conveying the concept of history as storytelling.


Creating Content

In the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy, “putting elements together to form a coherent or functional whole; reorganizing elements into a new pattern or structure through generating, planning, or producing” (Wilson 2016) is regarded as the highest cognitive function. Most students already produce a steady stream of images with their mobile devices. Harness this enthusiasm by incorporating photography assignments into the curriculum. Take photowalks in the library, around the school campus, or on field trips. Add authenticity by collaborating with community organizations to produce a visual history of the town or to interview senior citizens and veterans using the StoryCorps app. Add visual and audio components to book reports by having students create video book trailers, then upload them to YouTube. Copyright issues should always be a concern. Have students become familiar with the Pics4Learning site, where they can find education- and copyright-friendly photographs for presentations and reports.

Content Curation refers to the process of gathering information, or artifacts, relevant to a particular topic or area of interest. A curator must identify, verify, and arrange resources, then make them available for other users. The process of assembling a meaningful collection requires the exercise of judgment and reflection. Students may create portfolios to self-curate their own unique products.

On Flickr, and similar Web-based photo hosting sites, users can put together albums of images, either their own or those shared by others, adding tags to increase searchability.

ClassTools offers a gallery generator that students could use to design a virtual exhibition of images and videos, along with titles and text.

Another way to share information is via an online magazine. Create up to five free interactive flipbooks (paid premium and education options available) using FlipSnack. Users upload content (pdf files and jpegs), select a template, and customize design elements. Once published, the flipbook can be shared with others.

Older students and adults can archive images, videos, documents, and other digital media in a Pathbrite portfolio (free signup required). There are also educator options, which allow students under the age of 13 to add content, with parental permission.

Virtual Bulletin Boards offer another way to curate content.

With Pinterest and Symbaloo, students exercise critical thinking skills as they select websites to bookmark and decide how to group relevant resources.

Pinterest allows users to create “boards,” pinning images that serve as hotlinks to the selected sites.  Although creating boards is limited to those 13 or older, younger students could view and utilize resources pinned by an adult. Older students might make their own boards, singly or as a collaborative project. Some librarians have posted Pinterest boards that support summer reading programs or serve as readers’ guides. It is also possible to post video clips, for example, YouTube book trailers.

Symbaloo is a similar visual bookmarking tool, which uses “tiles” to link users to content. Accounts are restricted to those who are at least 18, or 13-year-olds with parental permission. As with Pinterest, a teacher or librarian could create a page for student use, eliminating the need for copying and entering multiple web addresses during research projects. Both Pinterest and Symbaloo are free, although Symbaloo does offer premium accounts for educators with additional features like classroom packages.

On Padlet, students can post their thoughts on a common topic using electronic sticky notes on a shared digital wall. Once the padlet’s unique address is published, members of a group can add comments, images, files, sound clips, video, or hotlinks. Educators frequently use Padlet to share resources, particularly during conferences and other professional development opportunities.


The Need for Rigor  

A survey conducted by YouthTruth, a non-profit whose mission is to “harness student perceptions to help educators accelerate improvements in their K–12 schools and classrooms,” found a third of students polled feel neutral or negative about whether their classwork makes them “really think.” “According to students across all grade levels, there is substantial room for improvement when it comes to assigning work that gives students a deeper level of understanding about the subjects they are learning” ("Learning from Student Voice" 2016).

Rigor, like critical thinking, is not an extra or an add-on; it is a critical component of the problem-solving mindset. In this complex modern world, our students need to be competent and confident critical thinkers. A curriculum infused with rigor will help them develop the problem-solving skills they need to survive and thrive.


Works Cited

Blackburn, Barbara R. "Common Core State Standards…Only the Beginning!" Eye on Education, 2011.http://www.barbarablackburnonline.com/free-resources/white-papers/

"Learning from Student Voice: How Challenged Do Students Feel in School?" YouthTruth Student Survey, April 5, 2016. http://www.youthtruthsurvey.org/academic-rigor/ (accessed August 13, 2016).

Why Visual Literacy? Toledo Museum of Art. http://www.vislit.org/visual-literacy/ (accessed August 13, 2016).

Wilson, Leslie Owen. “Anderson and Krathwohl—Bloom's Taxonomy Revised.” The Second Principle. 2016. http://thesecondprinciple.com/teaching-essentials/beyond-bloom-cognitive-taxonomy-revised/

Recommended Resources 

bubbl.us https://bubbl.us/v3/

 Capzles http://www.capzles.com/

Classtools 3-D Gallery Generator. http://www.classtools.net/3D/

Flickr https://www.flickr.com/

Flipsnack http://www.flipsnack.com/

Library of Congress. Every Photo Is a Story https://www.loc.gov/rr/print/coll/fbj/Every_Photo_home.html

Library of Congress. Researcher's Toolbox https://www.loc.gov/rr/print/resource/researchertool.html

Library of Congress. Using Primary Sources https://www.loc.gov/teachers/usingprimarysources/

New York Times Learning Network. Picture Prompts http://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/category/picture-prompt/

Oakland Museum of California. Picture This: California Perspectives on American History http://picturethis.museumca.org/

Padlet https://padlet.com/

Pathbrite https://pathbrite.com/

Pics4Learning. http://www.pics4learning.com/

Pinterest https://www.pinterest.com/

Popplet http://www.popplet.com/

ReadWriteThink. Graphic Map. http://www.readwritethink.org/classroom-resources/student-interactives/graphic   30039.html

ReadWriteThink. Story Mapping. http://www.readwritethink.org/files/resources/interactives/storymap/

ReadWriteThink. Timeline. http://www.readwritethink.org/files/resources/interactives/timeline_2/

StoryCorps https://storycorps.org/

Symbaloo https://www.symbaloo.com/

About the Author

Diane Cordell is a retired K-12 teacher librarian who works as a consultant and curriculum writer for CyberSmart Education Company. She earned her BA in English from the College of White Plains, New York, and her MLS from Palmer Graduate Library School, C.W. Post campus of Long Island University. Cordell contributed an essay and photographs to the ebook School Libraries: What's Now, What's Next, What's Yet to Come, edited by Kristin Fontichiaro and Buffy Hamiliton; wrote a chapter for Embedded Librarianship: Tools and Practices by Buffy J. Hamilton; helped to draft a white paper on Educational Technology in Schools for AASL; and served on the committee for the 2012 AASL Fall Forum, "Transliteracy and the School Library Program." She has presented at numerous library and technology conferences and is currently writing a book for educators on the topics of critical thinking and visual literacy.

Diane is also an enthusiastic photographer; some of her Flickr images have been spotlighted on the site’s Explore page, attracting thousands of views. When not traveling, she lives with her husband in upstate New York.

MLA Citation Cordell, Diane. "Rigor and Visual Literacy." School Library Connection, January 2017, schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2243249.

View all citation styles

Entry ID: 2057199

Back to Top