In the final week of my residency at EuroClio, I delivered a webinar entitled Reading Visual History: Using Digitised History Sources to Promote Visual Literacy and Historical Thinking which was free for EuroClio members. The webinar took place on the afternoon of 13 May and was attended by participants tuning in from all over the world, some of whom were able to join us even whilst travelling home from work. We are excited about offering webinars more often as they are a convenient way to bring our membership together for professional development and discussion and this session formed a first step in this direction.
We began by discussing the importance of visual literacy and some general principles for analysing visual sources in the history classroom. According to Bristor and Drake, “visual literacy is a person’s ability to understand, interpret and evaluate visual messages, and in turn to use visual language to communicate with others.” While we all have some level of visual literacy, it is important that students develop the skills to critically engage with visual sources in their daily lives and in order to improve their historical thinking skills. Visual literacy can aid the development of skills like using sources, contextualising, and taking historical perspectives. It can also spark student interest and provide an alternative way to increase substantive historical knowledge in what is often a text-heavy subject area. Some of the general principles for supporting students to enhance their visual literacy skills include:
- Work from the surface to the depths
- Begin with what stands out in an image and then ‘read’ in greater detail, asking questions of the image along the way. Consider how factors like position, colour, shape, symbols, etc. serve to attract the viewer’s attention and communicate messages.
- Describe and interpret
- Ensure students are making clear links between exactly what they see in the image and what they interpret this to mean. This helps to avoid false assumptions, encourages students to always justify their interpretations and assists them in identifying how ideas and messages are communicated in visual sources.
- Consider different perspectives
- There are three important categories of perspective to consider when working with historical visual sources: the perspective of the creator, the perspective of the contemporary viewer, and the perspective of the present-day viewer.
- Using contextual knowledge and captions
- Contextual knowledge from both your teaching and image captions can support students to make sense of the image and identify the perspectives above. In some cases, it can be useful to withhold these until later in the analysis process in order to encourage more open ‘reading’ or to demonstrate the importance of context.
Using Digital Sources and Online Activities
The second half of the session focused on the use of online learning activities to promote both visual literacy and historical thinking skills. The example activities presented showed how digital sources, coming from Europeana Collections and curated for educators on our own Historiana website, can be used in different ways in the classroom. They were created using the eLearning Activity Builder with a focus on the ‘Analysing’ and ‘Sorting’ tools.
An activity using the Posters from Communist China source collection promoted deep reading of propaganda posters in order to understand the type of society the Chinese Communist Party hoped to create. The image above is an example of one of these posters, and you can see it is a rich source of messages about the ideal Chinese Communist society. The second activity, using The Visual Front source collection of official WWI photography, asked students to analyse and evaluate the strategies used in this photography to make the lives of soldiers look appealing. In presenting these activities, we discussed the advantages of online learning activities and some possible ways to integrate this into the workflow of the classroom.
The webinar software allowed participants to share video and audio and therefore engage in real discussion throughout the session. This was a great way for us to connect and collaborate. EuroClio is keen to make webinars a regular feature for members so keep an eye out for information on upcoming sessions.
Bristor, Valerie J., Drake, Suzanne V. ‘Linking the Language Arts and Content Areas through Visual Technology.’ T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education) vol 22, no. 2., https://www.questia.com/library/journal/1G1-16175245/linking-the-language-arts-and-content-areas-through.
Bridget Martin, EuroClio