We need to start seeing the world in different ways if we hope to make effective use of the tools of the digital age. However, our educational institutions are still locked into profoundly text-based paradigms that have limited our capacity to use and teach visual and multidimensional problem-solving skills. I see the effects of this in my students and in my colleagues. Our industrial education model is designed to teach visual thinkers to think textually. It is baked deeply into the system and starts from an early age. It profoundly limits the way we perceive the world to artificially linear tracks.
Textual thinking leads us into dead ends in everything from web design to complex problem solving to deciphering our very democracy. The world is a far more complex place than it ever was. In less than a century our challenges have escalated from the local to the national to the global at a staggering rate. Our conceptual ability to cope with these challenges has not kept pace.
What passes for visual storytelling today in education often takes the form of technologies like PowerPoint and its derivatives. These actually make the problem worse because they oversimplify linear, textual narrative modalities, usually without grasping visual opportunities.
I recognize that it is ironic that my voice is coming to you through the very medium that I am criticizing and that I have no idea what you will get out of it or where it will take your thoughts. You also have only a limited conception through this text of the complex mélange of thought that led me to its conclusions – or whether the word “conclusion” is even appropriate to an ongoing conversation.
This graphic only begins to demonstrate the complex interconnections of even this simple narrative:
Text is the essential tool that has brought civilization to where it is today and I am not arguing for its elimination. Far from it. However, we must recognize the limitations it puts on our thinking. It is a one-dimensional medium. Textual narratives imply a beginning, middle, and end. Our problems today have multiple dimensions and often lack simple narrative pathways. The roots of our critical thinking failures frequently lie in text-based perceptual blinders. We fail to effectively entertain alternative viewpoints and perspectives because they don’t conform to the linear narratives we’ve been trained to follow.
Non-linear thinking has usually been left to art. Marshall McLuhan remarked in The Gutenberg Galaxy, “The serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity because he is an expert aware of the changes in sense perception.” We live in a world dominated by technology. It is time we started approaching it like artists. The digital revolution has given us an unprecedented set of tools for acquiring, storing, and analyzing data but we consistently fail make effective use of them because of our ultimate reliance on a textual paradigm.
Systemic change is impossible unless we leverage these tools. The most difficult leverage point to achieve in Donella Meadow’s system of Leverage Points is not the paradigm shift (that’s #2 on the list) but the ability to surf paradigms. Textual thinking limits our ability to do this because paradigms imply multiple interlocking sets of narratives, not a single, coherent narrative. Leaders don’t create paradigm shifts; they perceive them and exploit them to advance critical conversations. We are in the midst of a vast array of paradigm shifts ranging from our perceptions of global ecology to what it means to be educated to the very foundations of democracy. We limit our capacity for innovative change through our reliance on linear thinking.
Our students, despite living in a rich media world, are extremely unsophisticated in how they approach it. This is because we have been teaching them using methods from a textual paradigm that increasingly doesn’t function well outside the Academy. Their inability to operate at a sophisticated level in their approaches to media makes them susceptible to manipulations by those who are. In the past two decades the manipulation of media has proliferated thanks to technology. If our students don’t master visual literacy, they will never master digital literacy, or any other future literacy for that matter.
Teaching visual literacy faces significant systemic hurdles even for visually sophisticated instructors. As a teacher, I have always used writing as a mechanism for getting students to think critically. About 10-15 percent of them are capable of expressing higher level thinking through writing by the end of the semester. As access to visual tools has expanded, I have added a multimedia assignment to my classes. What I have discovered is that a much smaller percentage, maybe 1-3 percent of my total enrollment, are capable of effectively expressing their thoughts visually even after two class periods of workshopping the concept of visual communication. Most of the time, I get the video equivalent of a bad slide deck presentation.
None of this should come as a surprise to us. Most faculty were raised in a textual world and are ill-equipped to create visual media, much less teach others how to do it. There are exceptions, of course, but they tend to be confined to the art and design worlds. We can no longer afford to segregate skills in this manner. Institutions should either create interdisciplinary opportunities to teach design or make it a mandatory foundational course.
The visual deficit is extended throughout our society because the students of today become the thinkers of tomorrow. It takes a lot to become a sophisticated textual thinker because text is a level of abstraction that is hard to process. Unfortunately, visual thinking is frequently seen in education as unsophisticated because it doesn’t conform to the dominant textual paradigm. This creates a natural handicap when it comes to producing everything from conceptual maps to emergent design concepts. Visual thinking needs to become a core competence. Otherwise we will walk blindly through our digital landscapes missing opportunity after opportunity.
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