“In Other Words”

Over the next five days, I plan to blog about the research and history behind the idea of teaching with pictures. It’s actually quite fascinating, and sets up our release of three Habitudes® resources this month. Hope you enjoy!

We live in a culture rich with images. Kids grow up with photographs, TV, movies, video, VH1, DVDs, Facebook and Instagram. We can’t escape the power of the visual image—and most of us don’t want to. We’ve grown accustomed to watching, not merely listening to, our music; radio gave way to TV, which gave birth to MTV. Even our music is inseparable from images. Our grandparents grew up listening to the radio for entertainment; kids today grow up watching YouTube. And the pace of this visual expansion accelerates. As a child, I was among the first to mature with the television set—the “one-eyed babysitter”. Today’s adolescents can aptly be called “screenagers”, as their screen time is not limited to a television but has expanded to laptops, video games, tablets and smart phones. Within the next six years, 90 percent of the content we’ll receive on our cell phones will be visual not verbal.

I wonder, however, if most people recognize the history behind the use of images to communicate, pass on values, and teach the younger generation. How important have images been to mankind’s communication? What role have they played as cultures talk to one another? And just how central will they be to our future, as information becomes ubiquitous yet ideas become more complex?

Consider this: As we make progress, there seems to be a regress to this simple, original pedagogy of pictures. The new isn’t new at all; it is a return to something old. As we progress further into the 21st century we seem to be magnetically drawn to pictures in order to translate and transmit ideas to others. Our international road signs communicate to oncoming traffic with simple pictures. The pictures are, indeed, a universal language. As NCAA sports become more complex, a growing number of athletic coaches use visual systems to call plays, snap counts and formations on the sidelines. Pictures are, indeed, a multi-generational language. Our human population, in many ways, is becoming iconic: information is passed along via a simple icon. Again, pictures are a timeless language, and effective leaders understand this. Best-selling author Tom Peters said, “The best leaders, almost without exception and at every level, are master users of stories and symbols.” As you read further, I’d like to challenge you to reflect on the research and learn from our rapid migration back to this instrument—images—for relaying thoughts. It is safe to say, the visual is going viral.

The Art of Human History

Humans have a robust history of using icons, diagrams, symbols and pictures to communicate. Centuries ago, Mesopotamia and Egypt used them on cave walls to educate new generations about their past. Throughout time, images have been used in political, spiritual, cultural and military arenas to affect the schemas of that particular population. Spanning from pre-historic to modern times, images have impacted the way we think, process information, and engage the culture. They impacted the memory process, the learning process, and the level of personal engagement they inspired during each time period.

The primary purpose of using images, however, was to tell the story of a culture. Some common themes arise during the early pre-historic periods based on the images facilitated on pottery and cave drawings. The types of images used were very pragmatic and reflect the type of hunting, living, and values of the day.  It’s almost as if the people were recording their story to engrain in the memory of future generations and to improve their culture’s chances of survival.

photo credit: afcone via photopin cc

photo credit: afcone via photopin cc

In the ancient Hebrew culture, parables and metaphors were employed to remind common people of important truths. This has been seen not only in archeological discoveries but in the evolution of language in their ancient writings. By this time, pictures were still used to teach, but they took on the form of stories and symbols. Instead of listing rules of conduct in a left-brained style of pedagogy (e.g. the Ten Commandments), Christ was known to have told parables as pictures of truth, enabling hearers to reflect on life lessons they could relate to through the characters in the story or the objects in the scenario. These visuals were a right-brained approach to learning.

In the Renaissance period, an array of communicative channels utilized images to enhance memory, helping people retain information longer than in the past. Books used visual metaphors, paintings and sculptures of the day were central to education, and the stained-glass windows of the cathedrals contained pictures reminding people of what was most important. This has carried on for centuries, as teachers today find symbols and visuals to be very effective in helping student retain information. Despite our Western preference for didactic teaching methods, educators in health and science are utilizing images to educate more effectively.

During the 18th century, as the United States of America was born, images played a central role in galvanizing patriots to the cause of freedom and revolution. We remember Benjamin Franklin’s use of symbols and illustrations, especially the snake warning the British “Don’t Tread on Me”, as a sobering reminder even to those who couldn’t read that revolution was immanent. Through the course of the Revolution, pictures of branches, eagles, trees and nooses, and the Liberty Bell were tools to call people to the cause. When Franklin was chairman of the flag committee, they chose stars and stripes in symbolic colors to remind Americans of their roots. Each of these took on special significance in the American story.

The fact is, history is communicating that the message that gets through is usually one that contains imagery. And today, we recognize this timeless truth again. Tomorrow, I plan to post Part Two of this series—and whet your appetite to engage students with images, stories and conversations.

Looking to develop leaders with images, stories, & conversations? Check out

Habitudes: Images That Form Leadership Habits and Attitudes

We will be releasing 3 Habitudes resources this month!


“In Other Words”