Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Is a Picture Worth 1,000 Words?

The National Day on Writing was inspiring--so many good reasons to write flowed in the Twitter stream and other locations that day. However much we are inspired to write,  my thoughts have turned not to the power of the pen (or keyboard or Siri) but to the way we present our words.Ideas may lose their appeal or power not because we lack elegance to articulate our ideas but because we founder in our choice of how to present our ideas. We teach our students the power of words, that they can change the world through the ideas they communicate. However, are we doing a good job teaching them how best to communicate an idea? Word processing is the "tech tool" teachers cite most often as their most frequently used technology. The 2nd most cited choice is Powerpoint. Really? So word processing and Powerpoint are the awesome tools we are giving our students to present their thoughts to the world.  From random use of clip art to poor choice of graphs, to "Death by Powerpoint", our students seem bewildered by the overwhelming amount of choice when it comes to visually representing data or ideas and I suspect they are not being guided in their choice either.

Let's first discuss image choice. How many students really know how to select or create the best image? Students often turn to the most expedient or the most frivolous image use. Whether choosing the first image that comes up on a poorly planned Google image search, or throwing in a word cloud because using Wordle is fun to use, our students are not choosing wisely. Are word clouds harmful? Do geographic visualizations serve to dumb down or distort data? Can an ill-conceived graph convey the wrong idea? Maybe. I read a great article by Jacob Harris (New York Times senior software architect) on the Nieman Journalism Lab site. Harris advocates against the use of word clouds as data visualization for stories. He argues that word clouds (as opposed to other types of data visualizations which accompany news stories) are misleading, sloppy and open to too many interpretations, "Don’t confuse signifiers with what they signify." Harris, along with  those who contributed the many comments on his story, prodded me to think about the importance of teachers being knowledgeable about the variety of images and presentation tools available to students. Think how much more powerful a student's communication would be if his or her ideas were accompanied by the right images and presentation format.

Teachers should be able to guide their students as to whether an idea is best communicated through an essay, cartoon, Prezi, Glogster, Powerpoint, Keynote, newspaper, blog, video or any combination of those tools. If we limit the choice of tools to what a teacher is comfortable with, we clip our students' wings. Would you expect a carpenter to show up with only a hammer to renovate your kitchen? Teachers need to equip their students with the knowledge of how to find or create just the right image which means they need to knowledgeable practitioners too. Is that asking too much? Probably. However, I'm betting that mechanics know every tool available to fix a car whether it's a wrench or a computer. I'm confident that a surgeon knows when to use a scalpel as opposed to an x-ray. So why would the teaching profession be any different?

While many teachers complain that they do not have the time to learn more than one tech tool, they do work hard to present their lessons to accommodate many types of learners. Therefore, it should be a no-brainer that we need to transfer that knowledge to our students and teach them that when they communicate ideas through a combination of words and images, they need to choose the right tool to ensure that they are communicating their ideas clearly, transparently, and succinctly. Just as a sitcom is not the right tool for satire, a word cloud (while fun to do) may not be the best tool to visually portray data. Many folks (especially since his passing) have pointed out how wonderful Jobs's presentations were because he understood how to marry the impact of words and pictures to communicate his ideas. If you are asking students to create presentations, how much thought do you give to which tool they use? Should teachers "talk through" the pros and cons of Prezi vs. Glogster. Vs. Powerpoint?  How much time do teachers devote to taking about the importance of choosing the right image? If you are assigning a research project, how much time do you spend on the various types of charts and graphs student scan create and embed in a report? Setting the aesthetics aside, the format by which we communicate and the  images accompanying that information are potent ways to deliver ideas and our students need to understand their impact.

Remember, "a picture is worth a 1,000 words?" What if they are the wrong words? The wrong ideas?

What do you think?

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