September 30, 2022

Slow looking for visual literacy

Posted by Laura Guertin

After just finishing a blog post on the slow water movement, my eye was caught by an article title that discusses the idea of slow looking.



The article starts by asking the reader to look at an image and to resist the temptation of immediately jumping to the caption for an explanation of what is being shown. The author of the article, Virginia Seymour, reminds us that more information exists beyond what is obvious in a first glance. She states that “practicing close looking unlocks more discoveries in an image and enriches understanding of the associated text.”

Shari Tishman has written a book titled Slow Looking: The Art and Practice of Learning Through Observation. In this publication, Tishman describes how “a museum-originated practice increasingly seen as holding wide educational benefits, slow looking contends that patient, immersive attention to content can produce active cognitive opportunities for meaning-making and critical thinking that may not be possible though high-speed means of information delivery.” It is fascinating that there is an entire book on the complexities and rewards of slow looking!

Here’s an example, using my own image with the prompts from Seymour’s article. Start by examining the following:

  • Subject: What do you see in the middle ground, or focus of the following image?
  • Foreground: What is in front of the subject?
  • Background: What is behind the subject?

On left, bald eagle on top of a light post. On right, a snow-covered mountain with wind turbines on top.

After gathering these pieces, revisit the details and connect the dots. What details in each area could provide clues to understanding? How do the details seem to relate to each other?

There is an entire lesson plan on JSTOR for Close Looking with Mystery Images, designed for various grade levels and disciplines. I could see slow looking being provided as a very intentional approach to an Image of the Day exercise with students (an example of how Earth and space science images can be used with classrooms is available on the Pennsylvania Earth Science Teachers Association (PAESTA) website (example reproduced on Science Friday)).

But how does slow looking tie in to visual literacy?

The Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) has published The Framework for Visual Literacy in Higher Education. ACRL defines visual literacy as the following:

Visual literacy is a set of abilities that enables an individual to effectively find, interpret, evaluate, use, and create images and visual media. Visual literacy skills equip a learner to understand and analyze the contextual, cultural, ethical, aesthetic, intellectual, and technical components involved in the production and use of visual materials. A visually literate individual is both a critical consumer of visual media and a competent contributor to a body of shared knowledge and culture.  — Association of College Research Libraries (ACRL), “ACRL Visual Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education,” October 2011

The Framework for Visual Literacy emphasizes visual information is multidisciplinary in nature, that visuals can include but are not limited to charts, drawings, graphs, icons, maps, memes, paintings, photographs, symbols, or other visualizations, as well as multimodal texts with visual elements.

ACRL offers a footnote that while their Framework focuses on the visual nature of these examples, some visuals may require applying additional literacies in order to fully engage. This is where in our science classrooms, we can ensure we apply the geoscience literacy documents (atmospheric science, climate, Earth science, energy, ocean science) to our goals and objectives for using images.

Perhaps, just to start, we can slow down and look around at the visuals in front of us…


[Note: The image above was taken from Oscar’s Dock on Kodiak Island, Alaska, in February 2022. The island receives more than 99% of its power from renewable sources, wind and hydro. The snow-covered Pillar Mountain hosts the five wind turbines, with a bald eagle perched on top of a parking lot light on the dock below.]