Visual Literacy

Theo Kuechel, Jeff Beaudry and Sarah Ritz-Swain | View as single page |

Why is the History of Visual learning important for teachers?

Studying the  history of visual learning provides some fundamental background knowledge and understanding that is relevant to, and has a practical application in today's schools and learning environments.

Images and visual cues have always been used to support learning. These date back to the earliest days of mankind. Visual learning has always been closely linked to technology, whether that be images made on prehistoric walls or those created using the latest digital technologies.

Before the advent of printing, making visual artefacts was in the hands of a few and output was limited to ‘special’ books such as the Bible and illuminated manuscripts. At the same time a mainly illiterate population could be managed and ‘educated’ by giving them access to highly symbolic and metaphorical religious images in churches and public spaces.

The technological breakthrough brought about by printing changed the social and cultural landscape, by the visual materials could be disseminated and importantly who could access.

Although it still used hand made illustrations The Gutenberg Bible, and the books that followed contributed a rapid growth in literacy and made possible the Renaissance, scientific progress, and the Reformation.

Comenius’ Orbis Pictus (1658) was unique breakthrough, in being first illustrated book specifically aimed at children. Illustrating everyday experiences including beer making, animal slaughtering, horticulture and anatomy. It served as a default template for illustrated encyclopaedias from that point forward.

  • ‘This approach centered on the visual was a breakthrough in education for the young, as was the decision to teach the vernacular in addition to Latin. Unlike treatises on education and grammatical handbooks, it is aimed directly at the young and attempts to engage on their level.’        Public Domain Review

From the 20th Century onwards Photography, Film and Television were used to provide a visual support for learning with varying degrees of success. Computers and digital technology overcame many of the constraints of these analogue media, including physical space, time, fragile media formats, cost

The Internet, especially the Web has opened up a new opportunities for communicating and sharing visual information, these include ‘anytime - anywhere’ access, user generated content, flexibility, low-cost/free. These affordances are continuing to evolve rapidly and a historical perspective will help teachers evaluate their use of visual resources, and may suggest new opportunities for their use.


The following references are part of the evidence base for this resource.

Ayiter, E.,  History of Visual Communications  accessed 1/11/2014


Clark. D., Plan B, Caves paintings: Savants not savages, (2012) accessed 10/10/2014

Comenius. J. A; Orbis Pictus,(1658) Project Gutenberg

Public Domain Review,.  In the Image of God (John Comenius and the first Childrens Picture Book ) (2014  May)

accessed 4/11/2014

Kuechel. T.,  Digital Literacies in Education, “Video for learning” (2013)  Eds Crotty, Farren.  Peter Lang Chpt, 5