15 Terms That Can Deepen Your Understanding of Literacy & Communication in an Image-Rich World

Online discourse is increasingly expressed through visuals. More than that, much of today’s ideas and concepts are communicated and shared through visuals. Yet, this remains an area that garners limited attention in schools. We use visuals, to be sure, but exploring the nature of communication and life in an image-rich world remains something that is underdeveloped in most learning organizations.

Tweets are increasingly accompanied with images. Pinterest and Instagram are increasingly “go to” sources of browsing for “information.” The presence of a featured image on an online article can make the difference between a couple dozen readers and it going viral. Political and ideological banter online is often an visual sword fight. Visual memes sometimes have far more influence than carefully considered and discussed ideas. As such, some contend that are living in a digitized version of the pre-modern world. Others prefer to describe it as sometimes entirely new.

This is not new to scholars and media experts. If you take time to explore the scholarly literature, you will discover valuable insights about this reality going back decades, and all of this has important implications for how we educate and equip people for life, learning, and literacy in a connected and image-rich age.

You can find many popular articles and “tips for teachers” about the role of visuals today, but many of them fail to represent the fascinating, deep, challenging, and incredibly useful insights that exist in the more scholarly literature. With a little curiosity and time, exploring some of the key phrases and discourses on this topic can offer both students and educators access to a treasure room of cognitive and communication tools for our modern age.

To test your knowledge (and hopefully to piqué your interest), consider the following 15 phrases, each of which represent an increasingly deep collection of research findings, theories, debates, ways of thinking about our image-rich world, and insights that can help inform how we equip people for discourse and communication in the digital age. Review the list below. How many of these terms can you define? What have you read and learned about each? If one of captures your interest, consider taking a few moments to explore and share what you discover with a friend or colleague. Let’s join in collectively deepening our understanding of what it means to be literate in a connected age and how to better equip ourselves and others for such a world.

  1. visual literacy
  2. media literacy
  3. digital literacy
  4. multimodal literacy
  5. new media
  6. new literacies
  7. new literacy studies (yes, a different discourse from new literacies in the literature)
  8. transmedia storytelling, migration, and navigation (and check out the concept of convergence culture while you are at it)
  9. media ecology
  10. multiliteracies
  11. visual semiotics
  12. visual rhetoric
  13. visual anthropology
  14. visual sociology
  15. media psychology

You Are the Smartest Person in the Room, and So is the Person Next to You

I recently came across an imagine online with the following quote from happy_trader:

“If you are the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room.”

After the image, the contributor connected the quote to an experience as a teenager. A basketball coach advised to find the court where everyone is better than you. Surrounding yourself with people who are better than you will stretch and challenge you in ways that can make you better and stronger, the coach explained.

There is proverbial wisdom in such a statement. I’ve certainly experienced the wisdom of this quote in my life. Yet, the quote also served as the spark of a larger reflection about what it means to be the smartest person in a room. Three distinct reflections come to mind to help illustrate where this took me, and its implications for education.

Reflection #1 – What is Smart?

Several years ago I received an invitation to be keynote/featured speaker for a gathering of twenty or thirty University presidents. We met at a resort that was less than ten miles away from the physical space of the old Black Mountain College, a fascinating experimental college started in 1933 that lasted less than thirty years. Yet, it played a valuable role in gathering and nurturing the minds of an impressive list of faculty and students who went on to be a force of change and influence in the arts. The organizer of this group asked me to speak on a topic of personal passion that might also stimulate the thinking of such an impressive group of University leaders. So, I spoke on how startup culture and the spirit of entrepreneurship is influencing contemporary education.

I talked for a little over an hour followed by fifteen minutes of question and answer. The next morning I headed home. Sometimes when I speak, I walk away with a keen sense of how well it was received, whether it accomplished the intended goals. Other times I’m not so certain, and this was one of those times. It was a reserved group that did not seem quick to share their questions in front of one another. While I know several of these leaders personally and am the first to point out their wonderfully humble approach to leadership, it was hard to ignore the interesting power dynamic when speaking in a room like this, and that contributed to my uncertainty about people’s response to my talk.

A week later, I received an honorarium in the mail along with a postcard from the organizer of the event. The postcard from the event organizer who was a longstanding and well-respected retired President of an independent college on the east coast of the United States. Not including the exact words, it was only two sentences and said something like this:

Bernard – Thank you for sharing your insights with us. You were the smartest person in the room.”

I have a love/hate relationship with the idea of being smart. As readers know, I’m critical of traditional measures of intelligence through reductionist tools like IQ. Howard Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences found its way into my thinking early in my career, and it continues to work on me, influencing many of my beliefs, values, priorities, and practices in education. When I’m around people who talk about how smart their children are on the basis of some objective test, I find myself managing a blend of anger and sadness, desperately wanting to offer an alternative way to think about the value and uniqueness of each child. I’m troubled when some University faculty instantly turn to the idea of raising admission requirements as the first solution to some academic problem with students, especially when that raised standard is on the basis of yet another reductionist set of criteria. At the same time, as a kid, I was drawn to every “boy genius” character that I ever read about or saw on the screen. I also loved the idea of being smart. I will admit that I am flattered by comments like what I read on that postcard. I don’t know if I’ve ever shared this before, but I kept that postcard on my desk for several years, looking at it for a boost of confidence when I felt like I needed it. After all, I was in a room with some of the most well-educated and influential people in higher education, and the person writing that postcard was a leader among such leaders. I respected his opinion, so when I found myself experiencing a moment of self-doubt, his confidence in my intelligence or ability served as a useful, albeit temporary, proxy for my own.

Was he right? Was I the smartest person in the room? On any number of measures, I was not, and yet it was affirming to know that someone appreciated my words and insights. What I really wanted to know is whether any of those words benefited others in the room. Did I have an impact?

Reflection #2 – Big Fish in a Small Pond or Small Fish in a Big Pond?

I’ve always been fascinated with the process of job interviews, and in my 20s, I loved to apply for jobs and interview. Even when I was not actively searching for new employment, I loved the interview process, the chance to meet new people and learn about another organizational culture. I found going through the interview process to be a great learning experience. I confess to dozens (maybe even hundreds) of interviews in my early years. After getting quite a few job offers, I realized that I was wasting the time of people if I was applying but not serious about considering the job, so I started to be more open about my level of interest, and yet many still called me in for an interview and even offered me jobs. I’ve often pondered turning these early experiences into a book, my personal lessons from two-hundred (I made up that number) job interviews. I especially enjoyed learning about the types of questions that people asked, which leads to this second reflection.

In one interview for an international humanitarian organization, the president asked me if I would rather be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond. I was in the habit of thinking out loud about such questions in interviews, and that is what I did in this case. My response went something like this. “Well, I love the challenge, adventure, and opportunity to learn that comes from a big pond. I guess, for me, the size of the pond is determined by the size of the mission and its potential impact, and I’m inspired by large and compelling missions, organizations that are going to lead a large and positive impact in the world. So, in that sense, I really want to be part of an organization that, in one way or another, is on its way to becoming a big fish in a big pond. Yet, I realize that this is not what people usually mean by this phrase. I’m just not sure how to answer the phrase in a traditional sense. Sometimes I’m the older, more experienced, more skilled person in the room, and that is an important role to play. Other times, I will be the small fish, and it will be my job to learn from and support the bigger fish. As long as it is a compelling mission and I’m growing, I can get behind it.

For me, it has never been about being a big fish or a small fish. It is about being a growing fish with a compelling mission.

Reflection #3 – You Are Always the Smartest Person in the Room, and So Is the Person Next To You

This brings me back to the quote that prompted this line of thinking. “If you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room.” I agree with the challenge that we want to stretch ourselves by being around others who exceed our capacity in one way or another. That is a great piece of advice that will serve many people well. On the other hand, maybe there is value in expanding our understanding of “smart” enough to recognize that you are always the smartest person in any room, but that the person next to you is as well. This is not some modern “every kid gets a trophy” statement. This is, I contend, an objective reality, if only we have the humility to expand our definition of what it means to be smart, excellence, intelligent, skilled, insightful, or even genius.

This is not some esoteric philosophical musing. This matters in how we think about and design education. Consider the implications if we truly reoriented ourselves and our classrooms to look at people and communities in this way.

The Role of Wonder in Education & Building a Team That Wants to Do Something About It

I could get excited about studying toll booths. That must just be how I’m wired. I remember a professor stating as much about me as well. It doesn’t take much to get me curious or to evoke a sense of wonder about something that others see as mundane. I’m not sure why I react that way to the world, but that is what it is like to live with my brain. I’m grateful for it. Life is a series of literally wonder-full experiences for me, even amid the less than pleasant times in life. There is so much to learn, discover, and explore.

I suspect that this is one of my greater weaknesses as an educator. If find it hard to relate when someone seems to be in a perpetual state of boredom regardless of the subject or activity. Yet, largely informed by my ongoing sense of wonder, I’m deeply curious about this reality, that people are wonderfully different, and part of our challenge and opportunity in education is to nurture an educational ecosystem that celebrates and helps people grow into their differences.

We all have a shared experience of wonder as humans. We might not all experience wonder about the same things, but we’ve all experienced this complex mix of emotions that we call wonder. It happens when we are confronted with something novel or grand. It might be a particularly striking sunset or picturesque view; an enhancing dance or athletic performance; a brilliant piece of prose or music, a fascinating theory, discovery, or concept; or perhaps an act of kindness or sacrifice that causes us to stand in amazement.

Wonder is, as Kieran Egan and many others have pointed out over the years, a powerful cognitive or learning tool, and it doesn’t require a large budget or complex technology. Yet, a single, vivid, memorable, powerful moment of wonder sometimes changes the course of a person’s life. With such a powerful tool at our disposal as learners and educators, it would seem wasteful, even foolish, to overlook it.

I recently re-read a delightful article about the role of wonder in math education called “Wondering About Wonder in Mathematics.” Even if you have no interest in math education, this is an excellent introduction to some of the more promising themes related to both wonder as a noun and a verb, and the role of both in education. One might experience wonder through novelty (wonder as a noun), but  then there the question of when and how that turns into an act of wonder and wondering (wonder as a verb). Of course, the latter is our goal, and that is the incredible promise of this line of inquiry.

I’m convinced that wonder has much to teach us about how to improve student learning and engagement. We can experiment with different ways to evoke wonder, and those experiments can produce rich insights for the field. That is why I’m in the process of assembling a team of educators and researchers who can help lead the charge in this line of inquiry as one of the first Birdhouse Learning Laboratories. It will simply be called the “Wonder Lab”, a group of people committed to conducting simple and inexpensive experiments and designing/testing rudimentary prototypes that help us better understand the role of wonder and curiosity in enhancing student learning and engagement. And while this will be a lab that does experiments, the goal will be to produce new methods or products that help make wonder a greater part of the modern educational ecosystem.

I’m excited to delve into this line of thinking over the upcoming months and more, conducting experiments to learn more and hopefully working with others to produce some prototypes of educational products and services as well. If this captures your interest or maybe leads you to wonder (as a verb), I would love to hear from you. You can share comments here, sign up below to get updates and news about Birdhouse Learning Laboratories (including announcements about openings for volunteers, internships, or part-time paid positions in the future), or you can also read more about Birdhouse Learning Laboratories by going to the BLL website.

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10 Education Curriculum Trends & Developments to Watch in 2018

As we enter 2018, you are sure to find plenty of top ten lists related to trends for us to watch in this new year, and you will get several of them right here on Etale. Only I’ve decided to break things down a bit more than I’ve done in past years. As such, here is my first list, ten curricular trends to watch. These are trends focused specifically upon new developments, expansions, innovations, and unfortunate curricular missteps that we are likely to see grow in 2018. Look for additional top ten lists to cover other education trends and developments.

As a reminder for readers or an introduction for those who are new to my blog, these are not just random musings. They are informed by my careful and ongoing work around futures in education. To get a sense of how I go about identifying trends, you can check out my MoonshotEdu podcast episode on the subject or this article on “How to Predict Educational Trends.” However, as you read, you will see that I sometimes use the word “hope.” When I do so, that signifies that I’m moving a bit away from prediction into a more “hopeful” editorial comment on the larger trend.

1. AR and VR Education Software Tied to Curricular Standards

In the last few years, we’ve seen plenty of new augmented and virtual reality hardware come to market, and new options will certainly continue in 2018. While many software developers are focusing upon the applications of AR and VR for next generation gaming (as well as simple enhancements to more traditional games), we can expect a number of existing companies and new startups to invest research and development into curricular products that make use of AR and VR. There are certainly some on the market, but 2018 will be a pivotal year in terms of the AR and VR education market. We can expect a rapid increase in options that are tied the stated needs of schools. Look for STEM and social studies as major areas. There is incredible promise for the startup willing to re-imagine math education with AR and VR, and I am hopeful to see some take on that challenge in 2018.

2. Citizenship and Digital Citizenship Curricula

Look for 2018 as a year of new curricula that is partly inspired by the current political climate, growing conversation around “fake news”, the ongoing search by educators (and parents) to better equip students for digital culture, as well as emerging research the influence of digital culture upon individuals. We will see a number of existing curricula refreshed by new tools, technologies and teaching strategies; as well as a number of new players in both the citizenship and digital citizenship curriculum space.

3. Cartoon-ish and Simplistic Game-Based Learning Tied to State Testing

In less than a decade, we’ve seen an entirely new industry emerge around educational game design, and we will see even more new startups entering that space in 2018. Unfortunately, some of these will be lured in by the demand of certain schools and districts who are narrowly focused upon increasing student performance on test scores. As such, we will see lots of 1980s-like educational game products striving for attention in 2018, touting their offering as high-tech, engaging, fun, and a good alternative to existing test preparation strategies in the classroom.

4. Increasingly Sophisticated Game-Based Curricula Across Disciplines

At the same time as we will see those low-level test-prep games sell out for a steady stream of willing and paying customers, we will also see some truly impressive, inspiring, and even incredible software and curricular products emerge in the educational game-based learning space. Some will come from longstanding and established players, but others will come from new and promising startups that are focused upon creating authentic, rich, engaging, and immersive game-based learning that ties to key curricular areas. These are not the educational game add-on options of the past, but products that can truly take a more central role in classroom learning experiences. We already have some of these on the market for both K-12, higher education, and corporate training, but 2018 will be a time for much growth in this area.

These are not all necessarily high-tech or digital games. Some will be board games, card games, role-playing and simulation curricula, alternate reality and more. Many will have a strong digital component, but it is the learning and game design that will drive these products, not the promise of something high-tech or digital.

My hope is that this breed of educational design with spark the imagination of educators, entrepreneurs, schools, parents, and students in 2018; launching a new era of educational game products and services.

5. Standards-based Grading Technologies

With the trend of schools in K-12 looking beyond the aging and dated letter grade system, we will see even more schools starting or making the shift toward standards-based and related assessment systems. As such, we will see new products emerging to help manage this shift. Most will come from new features and new products by existing vendors and providers, but I expect a few new and influential players to join the game in 2018 as well. Look for such announcements by the third quarter of 2018 at Edsurge, the world of education podcasts, and the major educational technology conferences.

6. Integration of Curricular and Co-Curricular Learning

We are slowly awakening in education to the arbitrary lines that we’ve drawn around learning in the classroom and beyond. Community-based programs, after-school programs, informal learning, self-directed projects, personal reading and experimentation, personal learning networks, in-school and out-of-school extracurricular activities/hobbies/sports are all rich places of learning. Many in the digital badge as well as the edges of the competency-based education movement have helped people imagine new possibilities when it comes to recognizing, celebrating, documenting, and sharing this broader spectrum of learning. As such, we can expect much growth in curricular innovations (and products promising to assist with these innovations) focused upon a more thoughtful and systemic blending of learning in the classroom and all the learning beyond that. We can expect this in K-12 and higher education, but we might see some of the greatest expansion in the workforce development, corporate training, and continuing education. This will be further bolstered by higher education institutions expanding the ways in which they review prospective students, and applications products and processes that take into account the larger “profile” and “story” of students.

7. Reductionist Data Analysis Driving Curricular Decisions

Big data and learning analytics are here to stay. There will be much expansion in this area during 2018. Unfortunately, much of it will be ill-informed, with largely or partially data-illiterate people trying to make sense of new data sources, dashboards, and incremental reports. There will be many rash decision and there will be too little time devoted to understanding the data and the people behind the data. Algorithmic tools in education will be celebrated even as they are creating new winners and losers, with many not taking the time to understand these important affordances and limitations, the biases that are coded into every algorithm. Those challenging these new innovations will sometimes be labeled as neo-luddites and holding up progress, but I am hopeful (but not certain) that we will also see some serious and important public discourse about these important considerations in 2018 as well.

8. Curricula Focused upon Non-Cognitive Skill Development

Educators today talk about growth and fixed mindset today in a way similar to how educators talked about and gravitated toward Gardner’s multiple intelligence in the 1990s and 2000s. Then we have the other research on grit, resilience, conscientiousness, and countless other strengths/traits/non-cognitive skills. Look for an explosion of products and curricula related to nurturing such traits in 2018. Some will be well-research and others will be less thoughtful products that companies and new entrepreneur’s hope to release so that they can capitalize on this growing demand and interest.

9. Experiential Education Curricula

Many learning organizations lack the resources and expertise to design robust and immersive experiential education for students, but recent experiments and developments in this area have the attention of educators and schools. It is hard to deny the benefits and off-the-charts levels of student interest and engagement associated with such learning experiences. While many such efforts are coming from partnerships with companies that offer experiential education products and services, or by home-grown strategies from skilled and committed one-off educators, people will be looking for resources in 2018 to make experiential education a greater part of what they do in an ongoing basis, and that creates a growing demand for curricular products and services.

10. Self-Directed Learning Management Tools

Student-centered and self-directed learning projects are growing in education as well, even along other schools that are blinded by an unfortunate obsession with raising test scores and narrow approaches to documenting progress toward meeting listed state or national standards. However, self-directed and student-centered projects are no easy task, especially for educators who are new to such a world. That is creating growing interest in and demand for products, apps, software, and services that can help. I expect a number of new startups entering this space, as well as some home-grown products that will be commercialized and popularized in 2018.

11. (a bonus item) New Definitions for Educational Quality

I add this as an 11th, because it is part 40% prediction and 60% desire, but we are on the verge of something very important in education. I see hints of an awakening about our narrow approaches to defining what constitutes a quality school or a quality education. Our reductionist use of test scores and focus upon a narrow and largely unhelpful set of measures cannot last too much longer. Education is both science and art. It is informed by beliefs, values, and philosophies. There is no way around these unless one philosophy “wins” and “dominates” and that would be a disaster for the modern education ecosystem, but especially for diverse learners. I expected this reality to capture more attention in the public and school-based curricular dialogue of 2018, and I am hopeful that this will lead us to have some competing approaches to measuring and defining educational quality.


This is far from an exhaustive list, but I have every confidence that each of these are curricular areas that will see significant growth in 2018. If you notice others, please consider sharing your thoughts in a comment. Please share this list with others to help spark important exploration and conversation.

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