Should Pictures Have a Place in Education?

various thoughts by Wendi Capehart

The following is from CM Books, volume 1, #1- this was an online ezine that the Advisory and others used to publish. It's now defunct.

Books: Does Research Support Quality Over Quantity?

Compiled by Leslie Laurio, with permission, from posts by Wendi Capehart and Karen Glass

. . . As for real research on some of the other issues, particularly being careful not to let children overload on twaddle, slower reading (keeping in mind as you consider this idea that CM reading is more complex than the average child's fare) and so on, Dr. Jane Healy's books Your Child's Developing Mind and Endangered Minds are interesting reading. Here's a quote from Endangered Minds (thanks to Sandy Fairchild for pointing it out):

"The Importance of Words without Pictures" Any activity that helps children use their brains to separate from the "here and now," to get away from pictures and use words to manipulate ideas in their own minds, also helps them with the development of abstract thinking . . . Even more important, however, is understanding words alone as the main source of meaning. Because the words do not come with pictures attached, the child must come to grips with "the symbolic potential of language . . . Experiences with pictures attached, even when they involve looking at picture books and learning new words, are not as valuable, says Wells, because the child needs to learn "sooner, rather than later" to go beyond just naming things that can be seen. He concludes: 'For this, the experience of stories is probably the ideal preparation . . . Gradually, they will lead them to reflect on their experience, and in so doing, to discover the power that language has, through its symbolic potential, to create and explore alternative possible worlds with their own inner coherence and logic. Stories may thus lead to the imaginative, hypothetical stance that is required in a wide range of intellectual activities and for problem-solving of all kinds.'" (p. 91-92)

This, previously posted to the CMSeries list, might be interesting as well. This is some of the latest brain research on the importance of stories to the human intellect. Dr. Renee Fuller has made startling progress in teaching mentally retarded children and adults to read, including those with IQs in the 30's! She is successful because of her understanding of the importance of stories to the human mind. I read about this woman and her work about twelve years ago, when we first started homeschooling. I wanted to pass on some of her ideas here, but it had been so long since I'd read them I wasn't sure I had it right, so I looked her up on the web, and she has a whole website with lots of articles. Consider this excerpt: "As every parent knows, even a two-year old can already do many things that are beyond the capacity of computers. I don't mean walk, run and perceive, although those are important differences. I mean that peculiar way we humans construct and organize information, a way that is so very different from what my computer does so well. Curiously, IQ and aptitude tests do not test for, and therefore measure, this peculiarly human method of organizing, storing, and combining information whose end point is the creation of knowledge.

I have called the basic unit of our human way of organizing information the story-engram. Around the age of one a child begins to learn the principles involved in building this basic unit as he/she attempts to understand (organize) the surrounding world and tries to communicate. Those first attempts begin with the naming of some important person or thing. English teachers would say the toddler has discovered nouns. By age two, the toddler has added verbs to his/her nouns. This noun-verb combination makes it possible to express a causal relationship.

With just nouns and verbs we can communicate meaning in a nutshell, thereby giving us a story essence, a miniature story. Which is why I have named this basic unit of the way we organize information, the story-engram.

It doesn't take long before the toddler elaborates simple story-engrams with adjectives that describe the noun, and adverbs that describe the verb. With that accomplished, he/she experiments at attaching these elaborated story-engrams to each other with connectives and simple prepositions, thereby building an ever-bigger and sometimes complicated story. She/he is on the road to becoming expert in that peculiarly human way of structuring information; building with story-engrams complicated intellectual structures that make possible the understanding and communication of causal relationships and meanings. Our toddler has become a story teller - something the computer cannot do. Contrary to those bits of information we humans tend to forget, the intellectual structures we build with story-engrams are easier for us to remember.

Not only is it easier for us to remember story-engrams and the stories we build with them, but more important, story-engrams function as our thinking units."

You can read more here:

This excerpt was from the article "Stories, the brain compatible way of teaching humans." In addition to Healy's books, it is strongly urged that parents read CM's series for themselves . . .

I would now add that the emphasis educators today place on 'learning styles' and modalities is, I believe, misplaced. This is not, I believe, a breakthrough in understanding how we learn, but is rather an observation of how an excessive reliance of television, movies, and computers has handicapped large portions of our population. We continue to cripple ourselves and our children when we observe what 'is' and do not recognize why that is, and what the problems are with what 'is.'

Yes, many of us now prefer our information in pictures rather than words, but this is not a positive development. This is a handicap. God did not give us the Bible in pictures. He chose the medium of words; in fact, mostly He chose the medium of stories, narratives told in a literary fashion.

We think in words. We have impressions and perhaps emotional reactions in pictures - but real thought uses words. You can't have real thought without words.

[Oooh, er, I think that was very badly phrased. I make it sound like pictures are of no use, and I think sentence more happily phrased would have made it clear that we need both. We actually need to think using both words and pictures. CM's methods, I think, actually do address more than one learning style. The difference is that she wants, I think, each individual student to be fully developed in the ability to learn to by reading (or listening to read alouds) and to learn to picture what we read and hear about in our minds.]

We communicate in words. We like to say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but that really depends on what we are trying to communicate - a picture can have an emotional impact that words can't, but the impact is determined by the words we use to describe it. A case in point is a famous picture of a young boy cowering behind his father in the midst of a gun battle. What that picture communicates depends upon the words that describe it. Are the flying bullets from Palestinians, from Israelis, or somewhere else? Are the boy and his father innocent bystanders, Israeli, Palestinian, or participants in the battle? We don't know without words. A picture seldom communicates fully unless we provide captions - either those accompanying the picture, or those we provide ourselves.

I'm jumping ahead quite a bit, but I found page 340 of volume 6 very informative:

"Great confidence is placed in diagrammatic and pictorial representation, and it is true that children enjoy diagrams and understand them as they enjoy and understand puzzles; but there is apt to be in their minds a great gulf between the diagram and the fact it illustrates. We trust much to pictures, lantern slides, cinematograph displays [movies]; but without labour there is no profit, and probably the pictures which remain with us are those which we have first conceived through the medium of words; pictures may help us to correct our notions, but the imagination does not work upon a visual presentation; we lay the phrases of a description on our palette and make our own pictures; (works of art belong to another category)."

This is a round up, so to speak, of some previous things I've written on the use of pictures, television, illustrations, and learning styles and CM:

Miss Mason has some interesting things to say about the use of pictures in education (bear in mind that movies were just becoming available toward the end of her life and she was aware of them.).

She says (around the middle of volume 6) that she does not think pictures helpful in learning geography or models helpful in learning anything. Initially, I disagreed, but having given it some thought, I changed my mind. She says that these 'aids' to the understanding actually stultify and hinder the understanding. I think they may, like repetition, hinder our imagination, the ability to picture for ourselves based on verbal descriptions. I think it might be best if, when first introduced to a concept, the description and information gained all came in verbal form, and after the words are digested as thoroughly as possible and the best picture we can come up with formed in our minds, then look at photographs, diagrams, models, or movies. This will help, I think, instruct the imagination, so that wherever our picture does not line up with reality, we may learn to better understand the next verbal description we come across.

On page 340 of volume 6, she says further that, "We trust much to pictures, lantern slides, cinematograph displays; but without labour there is no profit, (emphasis mine) and probably the pictures which remain with us are those which we have first conceived through the medium of words; pictures may help us to correct our notions (emphasis mine), but the imagination does not work upon a visual presentation Again, "children cannot tell what they have not seen with the mind's eye."

This is key to much of Charlotte's method--the development of this mind's eye. And I suspect most of this development occurs without our help. What the children need from us is for us to let that mind's eye develop, not to hinder it with insipid twaddle not worth picturing, or make it overfed and lazy with too much reliance on repetition, illustrations (videos/TV), and continuous discussion and longwinded explanations on our part.

Regarding Geography, Charlotte says, since the "pictures which abide with us are those which the imagination constructs from written descriptions," they don't have much use in this study. (page 228 of volume 6)

I read another really good book, and the title is totally out of my reach right now, that talks more about how much value we place on things learned from television and movies, and how little real learning occurs, partly because we misunderstand how it works and in what situation it actually would be effective. That book was especially interesting because it was written by a film professor who teaches at the same school where Bill Cosby got his Ph.D. The focus of his book wasn't television, it was colleges, and about how poor (academically speaking) they've become. However, the author of the book teaches film, so he had lots of first hand experience with how the education majors misunderstand the medium. He believes we expect far too much of television and give film far too much credit. He also says that because we assume television transmits information one way, instead of actually studying the research on how television/film/video works, that we actually end up teaching the wrong things in many so-called educational films.

I would strongly encourage anybody interested in learning more to read these books:

"4 Arguments for the Elimination of Television" by Jerry Mander
"The Plug In Drug" and "Unplugging the Plug in Drug" by Marie Winn
"Amusing Ourselves to Death," by Neil Postman
Endangered Minds, by Dr. Jane Healy (must reading!)
"The Child Influencers," by Dan Adams

and really look into the research on how the medium of television itself, regardless of content, affects brain wave patterns.

In response to a question about the benefits of the use of pictures in geography, I once said this:

I think pictures do help clarify things, but they work better if they are shown after a verbal, or literary, description. Miss Mason acknowledges that the pictures can help--to correct rather than inform the imagination. I think this is significant. I know we personally found it wildly successful to do some geography by first reading a description of a geographical term (from the book Geography, A to Z), then having the children illustrate what they thought I'd read (they used blocks to make a model of the geographical feature I'd described), and only after they'd heard the reading and tried to reproduce it somehow, did I permit them to see the picture. They would compare the illustration to their model to see if they'd gotten it. They really looked at those pictures in a way they weren't looking at them before we did this. I feel very strongly about this (as some may remember), but I think using pictures first is harmful rather than helpful. We trust much to pictures, as Charlotte says, but the mind doesn't really internalize anything that it doesn't have to work over. Those nice, shiny, glossy, full color photographs by professional photographers are gorgeous, and so slick that they glide effortlessly off our minds as we turn the pages to look at the next one. No thinking required to deal with them at all. It is not so easy to glide through verbal descriptions without letting them actually touch our minds - not well written ones, at least.

Wendi Capehart

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