Visual documents (e.g. maps, editorial cartoons, historical photographs, portraits, documentary films, historically-based movies, etc.) are common curriculum resources within social studies classrooms; however, only recently scholars have begun to systematically research ways to more authentically and powerfully center instruction around visual documents. Here, the purpose of this paper is to synthesize relevant lines of inquiry into research-based, wise-practices for selecting and designing visual curriculum materials to help social studies students and teachers think about social phenomenon deeply and in more disciplinary-specific ways.
The authors share recent scholarship that has posited explanations for why visual data tend to afford learners especially powerful opportunities to think critically about the world around them. Throughout the discussion, the authors integrate applicable research-based principles that can guide the selection and design of visual curriculum materials.
Scholars have suggested that visual documents are rarely introduced in educational settings as a means to develop the thinking skills of decoding, interpreting and evaluating pictorial information. The authors argue that these skills are vital civic competencies because the creation and critique of non-written information often mediates modern public issues and social identities.
Informed by strong, consistent research into multimodal learning, visual literacy and the cognitive sciences, the wise-practice scaffolding suggestions the authors provide may help professionals with an interest in social studies education to synthesize theory-based suggestions with practice-based implementations as it concerns visual documents. The authors hope the guidance shared here helps teachers, teacher educators and curriculum designers produce high-quality resources that will engage contemporary students and help them develop civic competence.
First, the authors posit a research-based template, or planning checklist, of wise-practice suggestions to help social studies teachers, teacher educators and curriculum designers select visual documents. The authors then share several digital collection archives that teachers can visit to locate powerful visuals and describe research-based suggestions for designing them for dynamic implementation. Finally, the authors argue for more deliberative space in the social studies curriculum and classroom time for teachers to explore the educative power of centering inquiry-based instruction around visual information.
Callahan, C., Howell, J.B. and Maddox, L.E. (2019), "Selecting and designing visual curriculum materials for inquiry-based instruction", Social Studies Research and Practice, Vol. 14 No. 3, pp. 321-334. https://doi.org/10.1108/SSRP-08-2019-0042Download as .RIS
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In many social studies classrooms, especially where civic education is emphasized, it is not uncommon for students to interpret a variety of primary and secondary documents to better understand social phenomena (see Maddox et al., in press; Passe and Fitchett, 2013). When discussing which documents afford students meaningful opportunities to think deeply, many teachers and teacher educators have advocated for visual documents in both static (e.g. historical photographs, editorial cartoons and portraits) and dynamic formats (e.g. documentary films, historically-based movies, augmented reality and virtual field trips) (Callahan, 2013, 2018; Berson and Berson, 2019; Burke, 2001a, b; Colley, 2017; Chen et al., 2017; Hall et al., 2017; Hwang et al., 2016; Seixas, 2001; Zantua, 2017). And while specific types of visual documents have long been featured in social studies classrooms, especially maps and movies, they can be implemented in ways that afford few critical thinking opportunities for students. In other words, visual documents can be used inauthentically, as unproblematic “descriptive illustrations that simply show what (the world is) like” (Rose, 2008, p. 151). Conversely, visual documents can be used in educational settings dynamically, as a means to develop the critical thinking skills of decoding, interpreting and evaluating non-written information (Callahan, 2015; Giroux, 1997; Marcus et al., 2006).
Recent education reforms, particularly those that concern the social studies, underscore the importance of teachers using visual documents to help students develop skills associated with higher-order thinking. For example, the edTPA Secondary History/Social Studies Assessment; the College, Career and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies Standards; and the new (2017) National Standards for the Preparation of Social Studies Teachers from the National Council for the Social Studies each strongly promote teachers guiding students through the interpretation and evaluation of disciplinary representations, both written and visual, to build and support arguments.
Additional support for using visual documents in social studies classrooms can be found within research of multimodal learning, which has consistently suggested that visual elements often enhance learners’ comprehension, retention and transfer of information (Gebre, 2018; Mayer, 2008, 2017; Mayer et al., 2003). Presenting students with information formatted in both pictures and words tends to be more powerful than presenting words alone, due, in part, to the potential for learners to synthesize multimedia data (Mayer, 2008, 2017). Therefore, critical thinking opportunities occur when learners are supported in making connections between pictorial and textual representations of closely related information (Lindner et al., 2017; Lindner et al., 2016).
To feature visual documents in social studies instruction is also consistent with contemporary findings from the field of neuroscience that concern how learners’ brains tend to work when making sense of new information. Intentional use of visual documents within an inquiry-based approach can support the conditions often needed for the brain’s information processing system to activate (see Committee on How People Learn II, 2018; Sousa, 2017). For example, inquiry-based, visual document analysis activities integrate several instructional techniques that encourage the brain to prioritize new information into sensory memory, allowing it to pass through the brain’s sensory register system and into more sustained processing of working memory. When the above occurs, a learner’s attention is focused on ensuring new ideas presented through the visuals “make sense,” and are perceived as “relevant,” two factors strongly associated with the formation of long-term memories (Sousa, 2017, p. 55). This sensemaking is accomplished by linking new ideas to students’ prior knowledge and grounding inquiries in real world issues or areas of controversy. Recent neuroscience research also strongly indicates that one’s emotions can play a critical role in learning and neural development (Committee on How People Learn II, 2018; Sousa, 2017). Therefore, powerful learning can be further accomplished by using visual documents as a vehicle to help learners make an emotional connection to the content under investigation.
In this paper, we provide research-based, wise-practice suggestions and examples for implementing visual documents within social studies classrooms in ways consistent with a review of related literature. First, we discuss the initial selection of visual documents for inquiry-based social studies instruction and posit a type of research-based template to support those selections. Then, we discuss characteristics suggested by research that can guide the subsequent design of visual documents for classroom use.
We hope this work supports social studies professionals (i.e. teachers, teacher educators and curriculum designers) in their continued efforts to help learners successfully interpret and evaluate messages communicated through visual documents, which are especially important skills given the seemingly ubiquitous use of visually based social media. We argue that interpretation and evaluation of visual information are valuable skills today, in our age of Instagrams, Tweets, Snapchats and memes.
Selecting visual curriculum
For social studies professionals who seek to design and implement classroom events centered around visual information, the initial selection of curriculum resources can be a daunting challenge (see Callahan et al., 2016; Burns, 2006; Seixas, 1998; Vogler, 2004). What follows is a synthesis of research-based, wise-practice suggestions for selecting visual documents for inquiry-based social studies instruction; it can be thought to posit a type of planning template or checklist. While the following may seem unremarkable to those experienced in designing visual curriculum, it is our hope that novices will find this template useful and experts might refine their approach in light of the suggestions.
When contemplating inquiry-based instruction that will feature visual documents, one’s first consideration should be to discern a topic that warrants an “in-depth” approach (bolded terms correspond directly to columns of a Planning Scaffold we share in Figures A1 and A2). Because social studies curriculum standards are often overcrowded and logistically difficult to cover within the prescribed instructional time, teachers must decide when to invest the time and effort demanded of inquiry-based instruction. The extended planning-time required of teachers to design an inquiry around visual information and the increased class-time its interpretation and evaluation requires suggests teachers should attend carefully to the selection of topics. Better than anyone, teachers know the students they teach and the context of their classrooms, and are therefore well-positioned to select the important topics most likely to appeal to students’ lives and concerns. Likewise, teachers can best determine which topics hold the most potential for students in their contexts to develop powerful social studies skills and content knowledge that inquiry-based instruction can facilitate.
Having selected a topic, teachers then create a topic-specific question sometimes called a central question (Onosko and Swenson, 1996), a compelling question (NCSS, 2013), or an essential question (Wiggins and Wilbur, 2015). This question serves as a backbone to classroom events; it provides cohesion and direction to all learning goals and classroom activities. Students should be able to clearly discern a connection from the question to every learning segment, and as the inquiry concludes, students should make an argument to formally answer the question. The National Council for the Social Studies has recently published statements describing the many benefits of guiding students throughout an inquiry by positing an open-ended question that centers around historical events, yet is relatable (see NCSS, 2013, 2016). Here, we emphasize another, albeit logistical, benefit for teachers: clear instructional purpose. The topic-specific question is a fixed lens through which teachers can quickly filter curriculum resources disconnected from the big ideas contained within it. Without clear instructional purpose, teachers are likely to invest much of their time searching for visual resources and trying to determine their utility (Callahan, 2019). For inquiry-based instruction, social studies standards are often too vague to provide meaningful direction for selecting specific resources; again, a topic-specific question can establish instructional purpose.
Next, teachers can brainstorm types of depictions that might be captivating for students and powerful for helping them think deeply, and from different perspectives, about the topic-specific question. These depictions would not be considered illustrations of content already learned or conclusions previously derived. Instead, the depictions would be evidence students need to interpret and evaluate as they develop their own notions. It is useful for teachers to “plan backward” (see McTighe and Thomas, 2003; Onosko, 1991; Wiggins and McTighe, 1998), asking themselves questions such as “What types of evidence do students need to begin answering the topic-specific question?” and “What differing voices and perspectives must be present to foster an authentic understanding of the content?” Again, this step is designed to help narrow the teachers’ search through the many potentially useful visual documents they encounter; they can quickly disregard any image that does not meet the established criteria.
When teachers choose powerful visual documents, they afford students powerful learning opportunities because visuals often encourage a personal connection with viewers, especially when the representations are surprising, strange or in some way involve cognitive dissonance. Scholars have called this phenomenon related to this: “evocation” (Rose, 2008, p. 155), “aesthetic conflict” (Garrett and Kerr, 2016, p. 515), “learning as crisis” (Smith and Elliott, 2007, p. 525) and “dilemmas of interpretation” (Sandlos, 2009, p. 66). The names above describe a similar aspect of many learners’ overall experience with novel, discomfiting visual data: interpretive efforts often mediate personal connections to content. Accordingly, working through “strangeness” can enliven and intensify students’ sensemaking. Rather than supporting a preconceived argument, well-chosen visual curriculum can disrupt familiar narratives and afford students the opportunity to create new understandings.
A final step before searching for visual documents could be for teachers to consider the logistics of a potential classroom activity: what tasks will be asked of students? How will students be assessed? It may be helpful to recall that information presented visually tends to be most powerful when experienced collaboratively, because it creates occasions for learners to engage the social world together. In other words, students can experience a type of social engagement or collective rationality: “a cooperative effort, involving linguistic exchange, to answer a question or solve a problem confronting a group” (Townley, 2008, p. 190). Nested within an inquiry-based approach that features visual documents, students can collaboratively answer questions about visual data. The questions could begin simply (i.e. “What do you, as a small group, think are the messages communicated by this image?”) and work toward more complexity, such as the topic-specific question. Thus, visual documents can provide occasions for interactivity where learners and their collective social experience of interpretation comprise a key component of learning (Garrett and Kerr, 2016). Used this way, visual information has the potential to “connect people […] in meaningful and transformative ways” (Thomsen, 2015, p. 1). Furthermore, teachers may ask themselves, “Will each student be asked to explicate several visual documents or could a more interactive method work?” and “Are students familiar enough with thinking critically about pictorial information to begin immediately or do they need modeling of the required skills?” Finally, teachers can ask themselves “How might students use these visual documents to think more critically and begin to answer the topic-specific question?”
The steps described above purposefully occur before teachers begin to search for visual documents. This intentional and methodical approach might be unfamiliar to teachers accustomed to quickly preparing multimedia presentations featuring visuals, but is critical in fostering an effective inquiry-based learning experience. These research-informed steps culminate in a refined lens, or template, through which teachers can thoughtfully sift through the voluminous reservoirs of visual documents they will encounter during their (very likely online) search. Figure A1 is the front side of a potential scaffold that organizes the first four planning steps as described above (see Appendix 1 and https://jayhowellblog.files.wordpress.com/2019/10/appendix_1_ssrp.pdf).
With a purposeful lens, teachers can next search for captivating and powerful visual documents. Many teachers are fortunate to have the use of digital technology that has “expanded access to a wealth of resources stored in archives” (Berson and Berson, 2019, p. 103). The digital collections from The Library of Congress (www.loc.gov/collections), the National Archives (www.archives.gov), the United Nations’ Digital Library (https://digitallibrary.un.org) and the Digital Public Library of America (https://dp.la) are just a few examples of potentially helpful resources for social studies professionals who seek visual documents for inquiry-based instruction.
Once teachers have selected visual documents that meet the criteria established prior to the search, they should finalize the classroom activity. As teachers revisit the activity drafted earlier during their planning, they can ensure classroom events feature the tenets of inquiry-based instruction and a meaningful assessment of student learning. Figure A2 is the reverse side of the planning scaffold that organizes the final two planning steps as described above (see Appendix 2 and https://jayhowellblog.files.wordpress.com/2019/10/appendix_2_ssrp.pdf).
Having posited a research-based planning template to support the selection of visual documents for inquiry-based instruction, we now provide guidance for the design, or formatting, of visual documents for powerful implementation.
Designing visual curriculum
Scholars have recently attempted to explain how visual curriculum materials can be more effectively designed to afford learners especially powerful opportunities to think critically. Building from a review of the relevant literature, what follows are composite descriptions of research-based design principles to guide the construction of visual curriculum materials to promote critical thinking for social studies students and teachers. Specifically, the authors share an original curriculum resource, called an educative primer (see Appendix 3 and https://jayhowellblog.files.wordpress.com/2019/10/appendix_3_ssrp.pdf), for helping social studies teachers implement visual documents. The example we include here concerns the historical photograph “Packard Dump Truck” (see Plate 1).
The educative primer is intended to help teachers make substantive connections between visual and written representations of closely related social studies phenomenon. It contains multimedia – accentuated portions of an image and pithy summaries of disciplinary content – intended for teachers to integrate into a robust personal understanding. This personal understanding, in turn, informs the teacher’s facilitation of student inquiry.
Scholars have suggested when visual data accompany written data, they tend to positively influence learning (Lindner et al., 2016, 2017). This positive influence may be due, in part, to the potential for learners to make connections between written and visual representations of related data (le Roux, 2014; Mayer, 2008, 2017). There is a pedagogical complementarity to the visual and written data on educative primer shared in this space. The educative primer models dual-channel learning (i.e. pictorial and verbal), precisely the type of learning that teachers who use it are attempting to facilitate with students (see Clark and Mayer, 2016; Mayer, 2009). Making the educative primer multimodal immediately positions it as a heuristic for teachers’ synthesis of visual and written information (see Lindner et al., 2017). In other words, the educative primer supports teachers’ development of mental representations (i.e. schema, mind-maps) regarding the content being explored, which can then be used to facilitate student inquiry and the development of mental representations.
Many cognitive theories suggest learners develop a deeper understanding when information is presented in small, logically grouped segments, called “chunks” (Chambers and Associates Development Team, 2019; Mayer, 2008, 2017). Learning in segmented chunks has also been shown to significantly increase learners’ capacity to transfer knowledge to new situations (Mayer et al., 2003). And while there is no universally accepted “precise definition of a chunk” (Surprenant et al., 2009, p. 7), it is generally thought to be the result of a process of clustering (i.e. chunking) individual pieces of information together into a meaningful whole (Chambers and Associates Development Team, 2019; Neath and Surprenant, 2003). For six decades cognitive psychologists, learning theorists and curriculum designers interested in effective chunking have followed implications from Miller’s (1956) seminal work, The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two. The paper explores the limits of a learner’s storage capacity for information and, furthermore, a learner’s ability to process information within a brief time period. Miller (1956) argued most learners are likely to comprehend, retain and be able to use information when it is presented in approximately seven chunks. While some have challenged Miller’s work (see Brady and Alvarez, 2015; Cowan, 2015), seven remains the accepted “magic number” for chunking. Therefore, our educative primer chunked both visual and written information into segments of about seven. Relatedly, when designing curriculum for use with students, it may be best to confine each stand-alone resource to a single page (Nielsen and Loranger, 2006), limit the overall number of paragraphs – perhaps to about seven – and also limit the number of words per paragraph (see US Department of Health and Human Services, 2019).
Formatting decisions made by experts in explicating and communicating visual information can also inform curriculum designers as they chunk visual data. There are two common techniques for chunking visual information. One is to present an image and superimpose onto it either lines-ending-with-arrows or lines-ending-with-dots, which can draw viewers’ attention to specific details (see Cumming, 1995; Stevenson, 1997; Strickland, 2007; Lynch, 2003). Another technique is to present the picture in a monochromatic format and superimpose onto it, where they match perfectly, portions of the original color picture; the effect is to accentuate the colorful areas (see Hagen and Hagen, 2005a, b; Beckett, 2000).
With our educative primer, we purposefully combined both techniques for chunking visual information (i.e. superimposed lines-with-dots and monochromatic-with-original picture portions) with the above suggestions for chunking textual information (see Plate 1). The result is what Mayer (2008, p. 764) called “spatial contiguity,” where “corresponding words and pictures are presented near […] (each) other on the page or screen.” Finally, here we provide a general comment about deciding what information to include in each chunk. The chunked information should provide teachers with more than mere talking points of simple identifications and definitions of items depicted in the image; instead, it should help guide student inquiry. For example, the textual chunks should provide essential data – including context, varied perspectives and value conflicts – that students need to begin to understand and answer the topic-specific question. Visual chunks should specifically prompt broader class discussions that encourage inductive reasoning as learners seek to create a deeper understanding of the photograph (e.g. content knowledge, discipline-specific connections and spatial reasoning) (Maddox et al., in press) (Figure 1).
In 11 out of 11 experiments, Mayer (2008) reported that learners were more likely to transfer information to new situations when presented with multimedia resources written in a conversational tone as opposed to a formal, professional tone. Others found similar results when researching the influence of learner-friendly language on comprehension (Clark and Mayer, 2016; Wang et al., 2008). Our decision to design educative curriculum with collegial words and phrases attempts to position the resources as a type of partner-in-practice with whom the teacher has the common goal of helping students think more deeply. It has been suggested that learners work harder to make sense of multimedia resources if they consider the materials a type of conversation partner (Mayer, 2008). The educative primer shared here, for example, did not employ the professional, and perhaps distant sounding, phrase “A teacher then should […].” Instead, it read, “You might want to try […].” The primer, in effect, became a sort of “recommendation agent” (Hess et al., 2009) attempting to establish a social partnership with the teacher to develop dynamic instruction.
Research into multimedia curriculum suggests adopting a minimalist’s approach toward design because reducing unnecessary information can promote higher-level thinking and problem solving (see Apple Development Team, 2019; Krug, 2006; Oviatt, 2006). Our educative primer used bolded, gray-scaled and italicized text to emphasize the most relevant aspects of the textual information to be synthesized with the photograph (Nielsen and Loranger, 2006). Along with variations in text, the primer also used blank space to emphasize specific information and tasks and to minimize distractions (Mayer, 2008, 2017). Minimal can also be seen in the fact that the educative primer does not cover all of the information possibly related to the topic; instead, it includes information and questions relevant to the overarching topic-specific question.
The four design characteristics described above (i.e. multimodal, chunked, conversational and minimal) can be thought to comprise research-based guidelines to help teachers, teacher educators and curriculum designers format well-selected visual documents. This synthesis of recent scholarship could also inform other aspects of instruction. For example, teachers can employ these characteristics when creating scaffolds to guide students’ interpretive investigations; teachers could ask themselves questions such as “What information is essential to students’ exploration of the topic and must be included on a scaffold and what information could be omitted to minimize distractions?” Or, when designing an interactive slide lecture (see Teachers Curriculum Institute, 2019), teachers could use the characteristics to determine which visual resources afford students opportunities to think in disciplinary-specific ways and therefore warrant inclusion in the presentation of content.
Several types of visual documents have been common curriculum resources featured within social studies classrooms. However, only recently have scholars begun to systematically research ways to more authentically employ visual documents in educational settings, including the development of important twenty-first century skills (see Callahan, 2015; Giroux, 1997; Marcus et al., 2006). Informed by strong, consistent research into multimodal learning, visual literacy and the cognitive sciences, the wise-practice scaffolding suggestions provided above may help professionals with an interest in social studies education to integrate theory-based suggestions with wise-practice, field-tested implementations as it concerns visual documents.
We hope the above guidance and discussion helps teacher educators as they prepare preservice teachers to justify their instructional decision making for edTPA and other performance assessments. Similarly, in-service teachers – novice and veteran alike – may find our suggestions helpful as they build rationale for their instructional decisions. Such thinking tends to be difficult because linking theory to practice does not come naturally. Our research-based descriptions and examples for powerful use of visual documents in support of inquiry-based instruction may help social studies professionals produce high-quality curriculum materials that will engage contemporary students and help them develop vital civic competence.
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