Stress on Visuals Weakens Texts

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

A recent issue of Time magazine contained an advertising insert for a prominent San Francisco corporation and the building that bears its name. As I opened the section, the city's skyline and the Transamerica building popped up, with the Golden Gate Bridge and the bay in the background. Although the advertisement took my breath away, I later realized that we have come to expect, if not the design and color quality of this particular ad, then something approaching its visual allure in all of our reading material.

A dominant influence in American cul,47lture, visual appeal sways our response to magazines, journals, and books.

Indeed, as in the advertising that makes up much of our popular magazines, striking visuals can entice us to read. At the same time, photographs and other illustrations can, in instructive ways, capture ideas from a piece of writing.

We might expect, then, that such graphic elements would perform a valuable function in school textbooks. Illustrations, it seems, would be particularly helpful in conveying the richness and complexity of a historical event or social-studies concept.

Unfortunately, illustrations in textbooks more often serve marketing or social functions than they do instructional needs. Under these circumstances, they may amount to little more than collages of pretty pictures only tangentially related to the instructional purpose of a chapter or unit.

Two factors determine whether a textbook receives initial consideration for adoption. The first, copyright date, is based on the questionable premise that new is better than old, even if "old" happens to be a copyright date of the previous year.

The second factor is a text's esthetic qualities: the attractiveness of its cover and illustrations. Recogniz-the importance of graphic design, publishers stress impressive covers and colorful photographs, the most appealing of which are placed at the outer edge of pages. The assumption, as at the supermarket checkout's magazine rack, is that the brightest material will be picked up first.

It is only a slight overstatement to say that for many textbooks, the instructional exposition takes second place to the design characteristics, which generally resemble those of a coffee-table picture book.

In the case of the high-school civics textbooks I studied recently, an average of 70 percent of the text was nominally devoted to "content," when such elements as glossary, index, and title pages were eliminated from consider-6ation. However, more than 30 percent of those content pages consisted of photographs and other illustrations.

Used in moderation, photographs can facilitate learning. For example, a chapter in one text contrasted capitalist and communist societies. The juxtaposition of two photographs--one depicting the fully stocked meat case of an American supermarket, the other a long line of customers awaiting their turn at a nearly depleted Soviet meat counter--vividly showed the practical results of the different economic systems.

Illustrations such as these broaden and personalize students' understanding of atopic or concept. However, only 13 percent of the photographs in the seven books I analyzed extended the text in some way.

Of the remaining photographs in these texts, some represented events, occupations, places, or objects mentioned in the text; others had little or nothing to do with the text.

Over a third of the photographs (37 percent) bore no explicit relation to the text. For example, an oblique shot of a statue presumably depicted part of the Supreme Court building, but could have been almost anything. The Houston Opera House appeared in a section on city government ("an important part of city life," the caption read).

Many of the photographs simply provided an example of something already mentioned or repeated material well covered in the text. While some of the examples were instructive (a page showing "mechanized" farming in the days of horse power and today), most were not. The books included, for instance, numerous portraits of government officials and civic leaders; many of these photographs were devoid of the props and settings that would have indicated who these people were and what they did.

A large number of photographs were obviously intended to serve a social function.,47lAttempting to dispel stereotyped images of groups traditionally excluded or underrepresented in textbooks, such illustrations depicted, for example, women and minority-group members serving as coal miners and cattle hands, judges and mayors.

Indeed, in all subject areas and at all levels, publishers have attempted to ensure that women and minority populations are represented through appropriate images of what might have been or what should be.

I do not want to appear to be attacking the importance of including such groups and their contributions to our history and culture. However, many texts use photographs and prints to convey what turns out to be a substanceless image of women and minorities supposedly creating history and fully participating in society.

There is little connection between the history or civics described in the text and such illustrations as a print of a black Civil War soldier, or photographs of Judge Constance Motley, a Hispanic policeman, or a woman truck driver. Lacking any relationship to prose content, these illustrations become examples of mere tokenism.

A related problem, frequently criticized in recent years, is the practice of "mentioning" in textbooks. Critics argue that in their attempt to cover many topics, textbooks treat none in enough depth to enable students to develop a thorough understanding of concepts and events. The high proportion of pages devoted to illustrations in textbooks and the tenuous relation of many of them to the text itself partly explain the difficulty publishers face in handling given topics with sufficient substance.

Textbooks with relatively few photographs and illustrations once existed. The occasional map, print, or photograph was an eagerly anticipated treat that became genuine vehicle for extending and reinforcing learning.

Over the years, however, the form and purposes of textbooks have changed. The act of reading, it seems, has become a problematic feature of our schools and culture. Serving a jumble of functions, textbooks have begun to resemble the media that define what it means to be literate in our society.

Consequently, they are invariably superficial and rarely stimulating. Like watchers of the evening news, the users of these books end up knowing very little about a lot. This hardly seems a satisfactory outcome of schooling.

To argue for almost pictureless textbooks is absurd. Yet a better balance must be struck between the competing functions of textbooks.

Everyone should agree that the primary purpose of textbooks is to transmit a certain quantity and quality of knowledge. The appropriateness of photographs and other design features should be judged against that principle. Implementation of such a criterion would result in much better textbooks.

Vol. 07, Issue 24, Page 19

Published in Print: March 9, 1988, as Stress on Visuals Weakens Texts
Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories