Sunday, March 8, 2009

Listening Skills in a Visual World

At what point do visual representations undermine listening(auditory) skills? Listening skills are important. By producing visual presentations, am I undermining the development of that skill? These questions are good and I had the opportunity to reflect upon them recently thanks to a question from a colleague.

At first thought, it seems easy to say these skills are mutually exclusive. Are we not emphasizing one over another? However, I don't think that this is the case. Visuals should not reduce auditory listening. Visuals should be a "hook" for the learner/audience to make the concept being talked about more vivid and easier to recall. Hopefully, the visual brings out some relevant relationship for an unusual way to think about the idea or reinforce the verbal description. If an audience can remember an image, it is much more likely they will remember a concept.

For example, in some presentations, I have recently used this visual:

CC Prescott Pym (Universal Playground)

I picked it up off of Flickr via Creative Commons. It gives some vivid imagery in relation to our students, our world, and our future. I like it. It may not work for everyone but can say more than the words I type. The image provides a hook to a concept I want to articulate.

Back to my focus, if we post less text and more images/media, then more listening is required, not less. Note the stark contrast to straight powerpoint presentations...typically heavy on text. Text-heavy powerpoints can undermine presentations as much as enhance. People become extremely dependent on the words on the screen--they listen less and read more. Why not hand out a sheet with the text and just let them read it if that is the goal? Some would rationalize this because students listen and write it down themselves as a kinesthetic way of learning. Although true, it seems to me that they spend more time making sure they "write" down the right things than understanding the concepts/content.

We need to find ways to use more images and multimedia to engage students and make the content memorable in place of text powerpoints. If we can do this effectively, it seems to me the images require more listening to make the connections and derive the content. However, I don't want to seem naive and say this is easy. It isn't. This is something I am working on in some of my PD work with teachers. It takes time and it is a skill which develops with use, practice, and effort. Effective teaching is not easy.

Let's note an exception...there is a value in helping ESL students by having more text visible. That doesn't necessarily mean less images, but more text may be interspersed. For ESL students, much of their learning extends to language learning and having a language rich environment. Their learning is more than just getting the content. However, images are invaluable to them as they use it for context and depend on it for understanding, perhaps even more than those without language limitations. For ESL students, they may not understand the oral language...again, they need to practice and do it, but in smaller chunks. For them, it is not the listening skill that is so weak as comprehending what is being said. Again, balance is needed.

Listening as a mental discipline. Effective visuals can be a way to engage and "appeal" to students to perform the discipline of listening in some non-painful, enjoyable ways. At the same time, a discipline takes effort and sometimes there is no way around it.

What do you think?


  1. I really appreciate your thoughtful post. I think visuals should be used much more in the classroom. I only wonder if you are not going far enough. You write about visuals being a hook for concepts that are talked about. You seem to say visuals are a type of medicine to reduce the pain of the listening. I would contend that visuals are not a help for listening but extremely valuable for its own sake. Sometime when words are wanting, visuals can effectively make the point.

  2. I think you are very accurate that as the old adage goes, a picture can be worth a thousand words.

  3. Darren;

    I think I saw this at some point past, but it popped up (an inadvertant key stroke perhaps?) and I read and I was impressed. I like your point that visuals gain attention and by minizmizing text people need to listen MORE not less. Excellent advice....from the ground, I find I often don't use enough graphics because of time required to build presentations and find good pictures. Yes they are available, but a coherent presentation requires more time to make then time required to present; often 2x as much ... at least. Hmmm