Fostering visual literacy in history education: Analysis and interpretation of images

Promovend: Kevin van Loon,
Keywords:History education, historical reasoning, visual literacy, analysis and interpretation of images
Prof. Dr. Monika Waldis, Prof. Dr. Ralph Ubl
HS 2018 - HS 2022

We are living in a digitalized world, where images play an important role in communication. In the educational context, students need to make judgements about the presented visual information in such images. Particularly in history education, images are popular and used extensively (Bernhard, 2017). One important aim of history education is that students learn to use sources and accounts for historical reasoning or historical thinking (Schreiber et al., 2006; Van Drie & Van Boxtel, 2008). However, students seem to have problems with source criticism (Marti & Waldis, 2017); they inspect and analyse images in superficial and inattentive ways (Bernhardt, 2007, 2011; Lange, 2011; von Borries, 1988; Wolfrum & Sauer, 2007). This indicates the need to train students to acquire visual literacy competencies (Debes, 1969). Fostering their visual literacy skills related to the perception, understanding, meaning making and evaluation of any kind of images presumably leads to better historical reasoning. Nevertheless, although they need to be able to critically reflect on the content presented in images, visual literacy has not been investigated in the context of historical reasoning.

In classrooms, images are mainly used for illustrative purposes, rather than for critical reasoning exercises. History textbooks and teachers rarely create assignments asking for a more thorough examination of images (Bernhard, 2017). Thus, when aiming to train visual literacy, instructions should be adapted such that students have opportunities to develop abilities to interpret images from the past and present in a reflexive and critical way. One way to do so could be with document-based writing exercises: Research on reasoning about text sources shows that these writing activities can be useful to support students’ critical reasoning (Monte-Sano & De La Paz, 2012). However, it is yet unclear whether document-based writing activities can also support students to critically interpret images, including contextual characteristics and the producer’s perspective.

The aim of the project is to investigate how secondary school students (Sek 1) can be supported when working with historical evidence presented in images, so that they learn to critically reason about these sources and the presented content. To conduct this research, media and learning tasks to support students to analyze and interpret images will be developed, tested and evaluated.

Research questions

  • How can image interpretation models help students to develop and apply historical reasoning competencies when making meaning of historical images? Are current models in history textbooks sufficient to support students with critical reasoning, or do students need further prompts to critically interpret the image characteristics, context, and implications?
  • Does a document-based writing prompt foster historical reasoning about images? And if so, can a rubric with indications on structuring a narrative argumentation further enhance the interpretation of images?
  • Is it more useful to train contextualization, as an aspect of historical reasoning with two images instead of one, to encourage multiperspective thinking? And if so, how can images be combined so that these have most benefits to foster multiperspectivity and contextualization?

This research consists of three studies, following the design-based research (DBR) approach (Raatz, 2016).

For Study 1, a circular image analysis model is used, which is developed based on theoretical as well as empirical findings and a previous conducted pilot study. The circular model is compared with a linear image interpretation model from a recent history textbook, based on the interpretation model by Panofsky. The study will be realised in secondary school classrooms. Students will write a text about their image interpretation; analyses of their written documents can bring insights into the examination depth of the presented image and their visual literacy skills: How do they use the circular model, to what extend supports the model their analysis, and which categories of the model are more or less complicated for students? Does the circular model foster specific competencies of historical reasoning, like the de- and reconstruction? Which model supports students best in terms of image interpretation, and what type of learner (strong or weak historical reasoning ability) profits the most?

For Study II, the focus is not on the deconstruction (i.e. the analysis) of a given image, but on the reconstruction (i.e. interpretation). To assess interpretation, students engage in a document-based writing task, where they construct an own meaningful narrative based on the prior analysis of the image. Document-based writing is presumed to support students to acquire historical reasoning competencies. A rubric, indicating how to structure an argumentation, is developed to support students’ writing abilities. For the study, the experimental group is compared with a control group, which has no rubric for the document-based writing task. The aim of this study is to examine whether they could profit from an instruction on how to use a rubric, and how this rubric affects historical reasoning (as derived from the quality of the written texts).

Although the design for Study III is still open, the focus could for instance be on the contextualization or trustworthiness of the presented source. To examine these aspects, students could be asked to engage with multiple sources, for example with two images. For example, multiperspective thinking with images that originate from different perspectives on the same historical event, may enhance depth of processing, image interpretation, and the understanding of historical contexts and ideas. For this, the investigation of the authors and their intentions is central. The comparison between two images with a different temporal historical context would require students to focus attention to historical reasoning aspects like change and continuity, cause and consequences, and similarities or differences.

Conclusions and expectations
Systematically training students to interpret images in history education is a necessity. Although research brought theoretical insights about image interpretation, it is yet unclear which methods and materials can foster students’ visual literacy skills in the classroom context. The present dissertation project aims to shed light on this, by investigating how interpretation activities can be designed and implemented to foster critical and reflexive reasoning about images in history education.

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