Visual Learners and Digital Storytelling

The other 3 (human) members of my household are all visual learners. They see everything from numbers to dates to stories in their heads as pictures. My daughter sees all numbers, letters, days of the week, months, etc., as color. This is odd to me, as I am very much a word person. I don’t see pictures – I see words. (You’ll notice my blog is far more words than visuals.)

Yet, for my daughter especially, school is very much a word based place. She works twice as hard as a word based person to read – every word is turned into a picture.  Her move to the high school has just exacerbated this problem. If you’ve read previous posts, she wants to take Pre-AP World History next year.

Does this look enticing for a 21st century visual learner?

We looked at the book – it’s deadly. Print. Pages and pages of tightly spaced words with no visuals. Class assessments are totally writing based – essay, tests, etc.

The teacher told me it was because it would be what the kids would find in college. I don’t disagree with the need to learn how to read advanced texts and be able to write essays. But is that really the only way to learn content and demonstrate understanding? Why does a high level history class have to focus on words only? Where are the visuals?

There are others who feel visual learning is valid. I just read a blog post about a teacher who has his students study a painting and read it as an essay about the time in which is was made:

He challenged students to think of a painting as an essay – in the sense that it captures not in words, as an essay does, but through a visual image, some aspect(s) of the life, history, and culture of a particular historical period from the point of view not of a writer but of an artist.

Awesome idea, and certainly a very valid way to learn concepts and history.

Another blogger wrote about the digital storytelling assignments she does with her high school students. In this case, students are given a topic and have about a week to put together a two minute digital presentation. Kids can use iMovie, Keynote, etc., anything that let’s them express their understanding of the topic in a digital mode. Visuals are considered key.

I would argue that these projects are a better assessment of a student’s understanding of a topic than a mere essay. If you check her rubric and watch the samples, you’ll see that the students aren’t slacking. They do have to write: no digital storytelling project would be complete without a script. They have to organize their thoughts in a storyboard. They have to also find appropriate visuals to express their ideas. They have to cite all sources. Some of the samples are more narrative or biographical, but you certainly could make these projects into something like a 5-paragraph essay with a strong thesis and supporting arguments. Like those who argue that giving students a public audience for blogs, the whole class watches the videos and is even quizzed on the content!

Digital storytelling can be used with all ages and subjects. The product doesn’t have to be a polished 2- or 10-minute video. Shelly Terrell writes about an online course she’s teaching (to 250 people!) about digital storytelling. She lists a number of quick ways to get started (such as having students pull out their cell phone and tell/write a story about a picture on their phone) and a myriad of resources for building digital stories.

I can easily see the problems in assigning a digital project like this: access to a computer lab, teaching students about the software, etc. But why not make it an option?

I know my daughter will gravitate to study fields that are more visual and less towards the word based content. I’m sorry that history, which she really enjoys, won’t be an option if her classes continue to be offered in these exclusively text based formats. The teacher next year thinks he’s really helping her by teaching her how to learn the way he thinks she needs to. I think he’d do her a lot more good by letting her express her understanding in a format that makes more sense to her.

6 thoughts on “Visual Learners and Digital Storytelling

  1. Thanks for citing my example of digital storytelling. I find it to be a great medium for students to research and present creatively – creativity is a key element that is left out of much modern education. I also explain to parents and administrators that I do not do digital stories in lieu of research essays, it’s just one element of my curriculum. In fact, I believe that giving them a myriad of assignment activities that take advantage of all of the senses – auditory, visual, contextual, etc, are far more effective at helping students truly *learn* their material.
    One of my colleagues once asked “Why don’t you just let them do a PowerPoint presentation?” My response, “They all already know how to do PowerPoint presentations. There’s no challenge to that. I want them to stretch themselves academically and creatively. Learning a new format is a way for them to do that!” We need to keep children constantly evolving their skills because the platform they learn on today will not be the one that they use 5, 10, or 20 years from now. Teaching them to self-learn and adapt is a necessary skill to future success.

    • crossons says:

      Jennifer – thank you so much for your comment, and for your wonderful blog. I enjoy reading about your social studies classes.

      I truly appreciate your comment about creativity missing from much of modern education. It seems as the kids move along in school, there is less and less room for creative thought, when really, there should be just as much (if not more) room for students to absorb content and demonstrate understanding through different means. The world would be a boring place if we all did the same thing.

      I hope you don’t mind if I use your examples in an upcoming curriculum meeting. I am also writing a post for my professional blog ( that will focus on using primary historical resources in digital storytelling. Your samples are perfect for that post!


    • crossons says:

      Bill –
      Thanks for the wonderful suggestion. I think we just might take that step here!

      I have been encouraging the use of tools that develop additional skills more with my younger child (e.g. having him turn in a Spanish assignment using Voice Thread rather than just a written piece or do journals on Kidblog with illustrations rather than just on paper.)

      The high school my daughter is at has been a tougher place to do this type of respectful experiment. As a parent, I’ve been hesitant to “rock the boat,” or come across as critical when I see lost opportunity for learning (such as when the school refuses to use obvious tools that would allow students to engage and be successful.) It’s time to find a more effective way to advocate, and this might be a good way to get started. Thank you!


  2. I’m really interested in using “film” as a tool for learning. I’m sure you’re right – students are engaged in so many different ways by the process. I’m currently contemplating going “transmedia” and including questionnaires and Scratch games as additional ways of engaging an audience in storytelling. Might use Google Apps or Glogster. Ideas anyone?

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