If you love to read and learn from infographics, then this is one that you don’t want to miss. It includes five critical statistics about infographics in the digital age, offering an important lesson about information and digital literacy in the contemporary world.
I just finished a quick, enjoyable read; Life’s Journeys According to Mister Rogers: Things to Remember Along the Way by Fred Rogers. It is a short, simple collection of insights and proverbs from the host and creator of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. As I review and reflect upon different ideas in the book over the upcoming weeks, I plan to share some of my favorites. This my first one.
Fred noted, “The media shows the tiniest percentages of what people do. There are millions and millions of people doing wonderful things all over the world, and they’re generally not the ones being touted in the news” (p. 127). While he wrote this before the democratizing impact of the Internet, it still resonates. We certainly get to learn about more people’s stories now that anyone with an Internet connection can share a story, picture, video, or image. Yet, there are so many more stories that are unknown, wonderful things that people are doing in their lives, relationships, families and communities. There are pieces of art that people create and never share. There are kind words and gestures that go unnoticed by many in the world.
This is not some Pollyanna view of the world. Fred Rogers recognized that there was plenty of pain and suffering, that there are bad things happening in the world as well. However, he suggested that the bad reaches the headlines and gets media attention more often than the good. His statement seems to represent a life philosophy tied to the idea that it is wise to also think about the things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable (Phil 4:8). We can learn good and important lessons from non-examples in the world, examples of things and people that we do not want to emulate. We can also learn much from attending to the wonderful things that people are doing as they discover ways to live out their unique potential in the lives.
While I’ve been in higher education for the last seven years, I started my career in a middle school classroom. I remember teaching social studies and often using the KWL method with the students. Accordingly, I would ask the them what they already knew about the subject that we planned to study next, and we would create a massive (or minute) list on the board. Quite often, the items that students recalled came from a movie or an episode on the History or Discovery channel. Some of what they remembered was accurate, but not all. Frequently, their knowledge fit into the category of historical fiction, which was expected, given that many of the movies related to the subject (the Civil War, for example) fit into that genre. What became clear to me was that teaching the subject required teaching something new to students, but also helping them to unlearn some of the “visual facts” that already existed in their minds. In fact, students often enjoyed learning about the subjects because of the high-interest film version of the events. After reading about these events, many also enjoyed discovering the similarities and differences between what they were learning and what they saw on the screen. They didn’t need to stop liking the films, but they did need to re-categorize that information, sometimes moving it from the non-fiction to the fiction shelves in their minds.
Images stick. Think back to some of the first movies that you saw as a child. If you are like me, you can conjure up at least one or two vivid scenes from that movie. The same is true for many of us when it comes to still pictures, commercials, and multimedia messages that we’ve encountered over the years. There is a reason that companies invest large amounts of money into creating image-rich advertisements and messages about their products and services. It is because they are effective. This is why information and media literacy are such important skills today. If we consider traditional literacy important so that students can function in a world of print, then it is equally important to help cultivate literacies that prepare us to live in a world of multimodal text (texts using more than one type of message: print, audio, video, images, etc.).
Over the past decade, we saw a rapid increase of infographics as a popular example of multimodal texts, and I’m delighted to see them. In fact, I collect infographics, especially those dealing with topics related to eduction or digital culture. At their best, infographics convert pieces of data into a vivid, concise and high-interest knowledge visualization. They are wonderful teaching and learning tools, and inviting people to create their own is an excellent way to help learners work at the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy as they make sense of information about a given topic.
Just as there are affordances, there are also limitations when it comes to infographics. When students started typing and submitting papers using a word processor, I noticed something interesting. When you type a rough draft on a word processor and print it out, it looks clean and complete, even if the content is far from clean and complete. Visually, the paper looks good. If anyone takes the time to critically read the paper, then it becomes apparent that it is not a finished product. The same is true with infographics. The data in an infographic is no more or less accurate because it is visual, regardless of how good it looks. Just like that draft in the word processor, the visual rhetoric of an infogrphic requires that one read it carefully and critically. Toward that end, here are some of the questions that we might want to consider asking during and/or after reading an infographic.
- Is the data accurate?
- Are there unstated assumptions?
- What biases are present (not that biases are necessarily bad, but surfacing them is still valuable)?
- Who created the infographic? Does that person or organization have a mission or agenda (Again, this not necessarily bad, but it helps us to understand the context.)?
- What sources did the creator use?
- Did the creator provide access to those sources so that I can check it out for myself?
- What is fact and what is opinion? How do they support the opinions and substantiate the facts?
- What relevant data is excluded (Since infographics are usually intended to be concise, much is usually excluded. This is both an affordance and limitation of infographics.)?
- How do the graphics and how do the design decisions influence the way that I and other readers might think about the topic? How would the message change with a different visual representation?
Many of us, myself included, do not take the time to ask many of these questions when we read infographics. Often, I read them for entertainment as much as information, also for examples of different ways to visually represent ideas. And yet, infographics are often educational tools, communicating messages intended to stick with us, even to influence the way that we think or act. At minimum, they serve to draw greater attention to a topic. That alone is a means of influence, elevating the significance of a topic by prompting us to think about it a bit more than we did before, leaving visual residue in our minds that is often easier to recall than text.
Similarly, I’m not sure that infographics are usually designed in a way that encourages us to analyze and ponder. Quite often, they are made for quick consumption, intended to gain the attention of the “readers” for a minute or two before they move on to something else. To read such a visual critically may require that we discipline ourselves to pause, think, even research a bit; and that is a difficult thing to do.
Dale Stephens, author of Hacking Your Education and founder of Uncollege, takes the vision of unschooling and applies it to higher education. He points out that learning and getting an education is much more than attending classes at a University. For many high school students, they are given a few options. You can go college, join the military, or get a job. Stephens helps young people discover a fourth option, one that embraces a commitment to learning that is just as rigorous as many college experiences, but that also allows them to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities at the same time. He challenges the idea that college is the only choice that leads to success, but he also challenges the idea that college is the only path that leads to deep, substantive, transformational learning. Like many who embrace the spirit of unschooling, Stephens shares a compelling case for a life of learning beyond school. We learn through play, building new and meaningful relationships, experimentation, exploration, work, reading, travel, community engagement, finding others to mentor us, leveraging the vast pool of resources in the digital world, and participating in a variety of communities and groups with shared interests.
One does not need to abandon the pursuit of a college education to learn from this message. I’m a University administrator, professor, and a lifelong student (with a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees, a doctorate, and coursework at 20+ Universities), and I have no problem endorsing Stephens’s message. Many University faculty and administrators promote the value of a solid liberal arts college education, noting that it equips people with the capacity the think well, live well, write well, and communicate well. And yet, it is in some of those liberal arts classes that students learn about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman, Andrew Jackson, Grover Cleveland, Frank Lloyd Wright, William Faulkner, Ansel Adams, Jack London, William Blake, Robert Frost, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford. They never earned a college degree. We can extend that list by hundreds with highly successful people in multiple industries and parts of the world today. We can add thousands more by touring the history books. One may respond by arguing that these are exceptional people, that they are exceptions and not the rule. My point is not that avoiding college will make a person successful. It is that the proposed outcomes of a solid liberal arts education are possible beyond the walls of the University. I know many who attended liberal arts colleges and left with little respect for the great books, little interest in reading something that isn’t required for a class or job, and a fear of public speaking. I know others who never attended college and they have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, a love of the classics, and they live as a contemporary renaissance man or woman. Steve jobs never finished college, but in a 1995 interview, he specifically noted that the vision and innovation behind Apple comes partly from their commitment to the liberal arts. The University does not own the liberal arts.
Despite all of this, a solid college education is a good and valuable investment. It is a learning community that is rich with opportunities, but not if you are simply talking about taking a series of classes and earning a bachelor’s degree. That will not adequately prepare someone for life beyond college. I do not recommend that students allow their college years to be dominated by some sort of cloistered college experience. “College and…” is my suggestion. There is value in college and…travel, road trips, work, community engagement, entrepreneurial efforts, personal exploration and experimentation beyond the classroom walls and the campus boundaries, using the digital world to build a broad and substantive personal learning network, and participating in diverse groups and communities beyond the college. Many colleges recognize the importance of this as they offer more travel study options, are deeply engaged with community activities and social causes, give students opportunities to work on cutting edge research and innovation, provide resources to help students with internships, provide entrepreneurial centers to help students start their own businesses, emphasize things like service learning, and help pair students with mentors beyond the University. Going to college and not exploring these learning experiences leaves one with an incomplete education. The true spirit of the liberal arts cannot be contained within a classroom or school. It is about cultivating refinement, but is even more about liberation, exploration and transformation that extends for a lifetime and well beyond the school walls.
While I appreciate many things from the unschooling movement, the reality is that certain vocational paths will continue to require a college education. For those aspiring to be doctors, lawyers, and P-20 teachers; for example, skipping college isn’t typically an option. However, if one wants to be ready for life beyond college, then it requires getting deeply involved with life beyond college…it requires “college and…”