It’s All About the Optics

It’s All About the Optics

We are all becoming visual learners, thanks to our fire-hosing ourselves with multimedia on our phones and every other medium we’re absorbed in. The Economist says we’re contending with five times the volume of information that we did in 1983. Maybe it’s forced a re-wiring of our brains to adapt to this inundation, and we’ve streamlined the intake by preferring images and video over text. It’s a lot easier, a lot more efficient (each picture being worth the customary thousand words) and maybe it makes sense. I remember a study from several years ago that said that people learned several times as much from 15 minutes spent watching a video (about whatever it was) as they did spending the same 15 minutes reading about it.

I think that images are more important to learning than most of us realize. Try to think of something (anything)… without there being a mental image attached to it. You can’t do it. There has to be a mental image in order for a topic of thought to be generated, and for that topic to be recallable. (If it cannot be recalled, it is forgotten.) In order to generate and retain learning, there has to be images.

The learning that best sticks to the ribs is that which is relevant to the learner’s interests. What the learner wants to know may be quite different from what he needs to know. (This, for example, could be whatever he needs to know in order to pass a required course that he may not have much interest in.) What he learns for that purpose is parked somewhere temporary, and then fades away once the purpose is served.

The teacher has the opportunity to arouse interest in the learner and to grow that interest. Images are very useful for arousing interest; in fact, there is no better way to arouse curiosity than with a good image. Its effect is immediate, it requires no mental digestion, it lets the learner know what she wants to see more of and where she wants to go, and it creates a handle on which the learner can hang the subject matter for future recall. A good image sparks curiosity and fuel an appetite to learn about the image. With search engines, the image usually includes a link (somewhere close by) to the website that the image was derived from. The viewer can then go to the website to learn all about the subject of his newfound curiosity.

That’s how visual learning works. It’s different from the usual top-down approach (in a survey-level history course, for example) of laying a huge amount of information on the learner and hoping that all the requisite intellectual grunt-work will reward the learner with an interest. Here, we start with the rewards, pick the low-hanging fruit, and climb our way up into the tree to gratify our appetite for more fruit. We learn best what we enjoy the most, and as Socrates said, “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” A good image will kindle the flame.

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