Fig 1 Use of pictures in learning: pictures before words or words with pictures?


When is a surface with marks on it a “picture”? How do pictures carry meaning? What kinds of meaning can pictures carry? Is there a grammar of picturing? Is picture perception essentially innate, or is it a skill that must be learned? Questions such as these have provoked conjecture from philosophers, psychologists, art historians, and computer scientists. It is a fascinating, disputatious literature: one with implications for researchers in educational communication and technology—although widely neglected.

Although less research has been conducted on visual learning than on verbal learning, there are many indications of the power of pictures as visual instructional aids. There are two ways to use pictures in education. They can be used to start the learning process in picture-led learning: or to illustrate a textual exposition. These two systems are illustrated in Fig 1.

Learning with pictures shares many of the rewards of teaching with objects. The chance to learn from primary sources catches learners’ interest, they experience the excitement of participating in detective work, and they discover that they already have the skills and knowledge to learn from these items.

Unlike objects, though, most of the information in pictures is gained from studying the image rather than the physical aspects of the picture. Engaging with pictures thus offers an excellent opportunity for learning the challenge of accurate description. How can you put into words what you see with your eyes? Working with images also adds another layer of complexity to the learning experience, because every picture was created at one point in time, in a particular place, of a chosen subject, by a particular person, for a specific purpose, and using a particular technology.

Let’s examine each of these elements and see why they can be so important to understanding an object.

Time. The time the picture was made includes the year, season, time of day, and whether there is special significance to any of these. Is it the date of a historical event, such as the end of World War II? Is it a special occasion for people in the photograph, such as a wedding, birthday, funeral, or anniversary? Does the photo record a ceremony such as a Fourth of July parade or Cinco de Mayo festivities?

Place. The place a picture is set is also a broad category. The continent, country, town, particular building, the room in the building can all have interpretive significance. Dramatic examples are the famous photographs of President John F. Kennedy and his young children in the Oval Office; the location adds an essential layer of meaning to the pictures.

Subject. Some pictures are true “snapshots” of a moment in time, but even these pictures are not random. First, the imagemaker deliberately chose the angle from which the subject is seen, the moment, and what to include and what to leave out of the image. Some pictures are very much “composed” by the maker, who might arrange props or instruct human subjects on their positions, what to wear, how to sit or stand, what kind of expression to assume, how to act in relation to others in the picture, and so on.

Maker. The training of the imagemaker can have a decided influence on the picture. The relationship of the maker to the subject is very important. If the maker is from outside the culture of the subjects, the images can reflect his or her ideas about that culture which may differ from indigenous attitudes.

Fig 2 Learning from objects or pictures of objects


Is a picture worth a thousand words?

Role of animated and static graphics

The Twitter experiment

Fig 3 Use of Twitter for picture-led learning


The general area of preference for particular pictures has been the focus of extensive research and writing in visual arts education over the past three decades, with the term preference traditionally referring to behaviors indicating like or dislike for one particular work of art, or a set of visual stimuli, over another. Use of reproductions is generally specified in such working definitions because slides, prints, and postcards, rather than original works of art, have been used as stimuli in preference studies. Preference for visual stimuli is important theoretically because preference has been linked to per­sonality development, exploratory behavior, and adaptive capacity.

Preference for degree of realism as a dimension of visual preference also is important to understand for several reasons. First, degree of realism is a criterion that is inclusive of all art work. For example, two-dimensional and three-dimen­sional works of art, across cultures, all vary along the dimension of realism. Second, preference might reflect the most basic of many responses to a work of art. Finally, students may be more likely to become engaged and their learning facilitated, when the focus is on materials they prefer.

This particular investigation of picture preference is based on comparing tweeted pictures of shells of land and sea shells It is running alongside another twitter account which is comparing preferences to pictures of trees .

Internet references

Measuring People's Responses to Pictures