Not All Visuals are Created Equal (or Equitable)

by Stephen Fleenor

Visual aids have long been recognized as a powerful instructional accommodation for diverse groups of learners. Indeed, whenever I ask educators how to best support language learners, learners with special needs, gifted and talented learners, or learners with limited or interrupted formal education, the most common answer I hear is visuals. Not surprisingly, whenever I ask educators which instructional strategies generally help students learn best, I get the same response.

So, if there is one thing to take away from this blog post, it is to use more visuals! However, not all visuals are the same. Some visuals are more detailed (A) or complex (B) than others; some visuals are models or cartoons ©, while others are photographs (D); some visuals are metaphorical representations (E), while others are actual representations (F). 

Also, the experience that each student has with a visual is unique to their background experience and worldview. Consider, for example, a student who is looking at the below visual depicting the word communism. If the student has never seen a picture of Joseph Stalin or Mao Zedong or has no prior association with the hammer-and-sickle icon, the student might struggle to make any connections to the visual. On the other hand, a student who does recognize Stalin’s or Mao’s portraits and has seen the hammer-and-sickle icon will not be able to learn anything new about communism from the visual. 

This is an example of how visuals make a lesson more or less equitable. A lesson is equitable if it helps all students at all levels grow, regardless of background experience. An equitable lesson has to be accessible to the most-struggling learner yet challenging to the highest-performing learner. When working with teacher teams during lesson planning, I often ask two simple questions: How will your highest-performing student respond to this lesson? How is your most-struggling student going to respond to this lesson? If both students can participate and grow, the lesson is truly equitable.

The above example is not equitable, however, because the student with limited background knowledge about communism will not be able to participate, and the student with significant background knowledge about communism will not be able to grow. This can be remedied by making the visual more structured. Structured visuals include arrows, symbols, labeled vocabulary, comparisons, and relatable examples, which allow students to infer deep meaning about a concept. Diagrams, flow charts, and anchor charts are all examples of structured visuals. The Visual Non-Glossary is a project I’ve spearheaded with over 2,000 structured visuals representing academic vocabulary terms.

Consider the structured visual of communism below. A student who has never seen Stalin or Mao or the hammer and sickle can still understand that communism involves the equal distribution of wealth and government control of industry. Furthermore, a student who is familiar with communism can begin making comparisons between communism and capitalism and debating the pros and cons of each system.

The structured visual above is an equitable instructional tool. The lesson itself becomes equitable when the visual is used as an anchor for structured conversations. This is because students participating in structured small-group discussions share diverse ideas and perspectives about the visual, helping each other to make new connections. If a structured visual gives all students the ability to engage with a lesson, a structured conversation based on a structured visual gives all students a voice in the lesson.

When planning to use a visual in a lesson, it might be helpful to consider the following:

  • What do you want students to learn by looking at this visual?
  • What prior knowledge do students need to understand this visual? Do they all have that prior knowledge?
  • What other information can be inferred from this visual? What questions might arise from looking at this visual?

A final note on visuals: one dimension of equity that cannot be overstated is the cultural representation of students in visuals. In short, students need to see themselves and their culture within the visuals of their lessons. There is a woeful overrepresentation of light-skinned people and white American culture on the Internet. A discerning teacher seeking equitable visuals will sometimes have to look extra hard to find ones that are culturally representative of their students. But that extra effort is worth it. When we consider first and foremost the experience of our students while looking at and discussing visuals, we will create lessons in which students feel seen, heard, and confident.

The images in this article were created by the author, derived in part from:

“Atom Logo” by Gorkhs [CC0] (no alterations) via Pixabay <Accessed 11/29/2022>

“Sodium Atom” by Plazmi [CC BY-SA 4.0] (no alterations) via Wikimedia Commons <Accessed 11/29/2022>

“Bridge Wooden River” by Clker-Free-Vector-Images [CC0] (no alterations) via Pixabay <Accessed 11/29/2022>

“Bridge Park Garden Japanese” by James DeMers [CC0] (no alterations) via Pixabay <Accessed 11/29/2022>

“Boy Skateboard Silhouette” by GDJ [CC0] (rotated and transparency filter applied) via Pixabay <Accessed 12/1/2021>

“Sickle Yellow Hammer Red” by Clker-Fee-Vector-Images [CC0] (no alterations) via Pixabay <Accessed 11/29/2022>

“CroppedStalin1943” by U.S. Signal Corps photo [Public Domain] (cropped) via Wikimedia Commons <Accessed 11/29/2022>

“Mao Zedong 1963” by unknown (cropped) via Wikimedia Commons <Accessed 9/22/2022>

“Top Hat Fancy” by FoxTierDesigns [CC0] (stretched and recolored) via Pixabay <Accessed 10/20/2021>

“User Person People” by TukTukDesign [CC0] (no alterations) via Pixabay <Accessed 9/13/2021>

“Factory” by Mahmure Alp [royalty-free license] (recolored) via The Noun Project <Accessed 10/31/2022>

“Us Capitol Washington Dc” by AzamKamolov [CC0] (cropped and recolored) via Pixabay <Accessed 8/17/2021>

“Direction Finger Hand” by OpenClipart-Vectors [CC0] (rotated) via Pixabay <Accessed 9/29/2021>

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