Digital Technologies and performative pedagogies: Repositioning the visual

Kathryn Grushka & Debra Donnelly
Published Online: May 31, 2010
Abstract | References | Full Text: HTML, PDF (524 KB)


Images are becoming a primary means of information presentation in the digitized global media and digital technologies have emancipated and democratized the image. This allows for the reproduction and manipulation of images on a scale never seen before and opens new possibilities for teachers schooled in critical visuality. This paper reports on an innovative pre-service teacher training course in which a cross-curricula cohort of secondary teachers employed visual performative competencies to produce a series of learning objects on a digital platform. The resulting intertextual narratives demonstrate that the manipulation of image and text offered by digital technologies create a powerful vehicle for investigating knowledge and understandings, evolving new meaning and awakening latent creativity in the use of images for meaning making. This research informs the New Literacies and multimodal fields of enquiry and argues that visuality is integral to any pedagogy that purports to be relevant to the contemporary learner. It argues that the visual has been significantly under-valued as a conduit for knowledge acquisition and meaning making in the digital environment and supports the claim that critical literacy, interactivity, experimentation and production are vital to attaining the tenets of transformative education (Buckingham, 2007; Walsh, 2007; Cope & Kalantzis, 2008).

Keywords: Digital technologies, imaging praxis, multimodality, performative, pre-service teachers, visuality.


Digital technologies have profoundly changed notions of literacy, knowledge and communication, altering the cultural construction of life in contemporary society and impacting on the classroom. Learning and communicating in a world of rapid change will inevitably require the ability to produce meaning using combinations of digital technology, knowledge and skills. This perspective of literacy practices recognises social pattern activity in which encoded texts, can be retrieved, worked and transported independently of the physical presence of another person (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006). Thus the skill of visuality, the ability to critically decode and encode visual texts, (e.g. in scientific representations, symbolic systems, magazines, video, film, photography, objects and fine art), is central to new literacy practices. Increasingly images are shaping new knowledge (Stafford, 1996, 2007) and are becoming central to its communication. The performative learning attributes of the visual, and the inherent multi-modal forms, enrich the contemporary learning environment

Visual meaning making and literacies in the context of digital technologies

A pre-service teachers’ literacy persona is shaped by the culture at large as well as by the professional academic/education discipline fields. The challenge presented in this research project is whether pre-service secondary teachers, from across the range of discipline fields, could confront their literacy practices, shift their teacher identities and consider the contribution of images to teaching and learning in the 21st century classroom. Opportunities for critical investigation and manipulation of images as representational forms were offered over a three year period to cohorts of final year pre-service teachers, from the secondary schooling specializations of Physical Education, English, Social Science, History, Design and Technology, Science and Mathematics.

These fourth year pre-service teachers undertook an undergraduate elective, entitled “The Visual as an Investigative Learning Tool,” in which they were asked to re-conceptualise the role of the visual in their pedagogical approaches and practices. They were required to confront imaging praxis, the construction of encoded visual texts, as literacy. The course raised issues of the infiltration of images into all aspects of social learning, and drew attention to impact of digital literacies on communicating ideas in an information saturated society. The course created sites for experimentation with digital imaging technologies focusing on the socio-cultural learning of adolescent digital natives (Alverman, 2002; Carrington & Robinson, 2009). The contradiction between the dominance of print literacy in the classroom and their life world use of digital imaging for communicative purposes was examined (Dowdall, 2009).The pre-service teachers were challenged to undertake a visual critical inquiry and disrupt knowledge constructs, ideological positions and mythologies perpetrated through traditional text oriented knowledge, the primary mode of learning encountered in their academic courses. Self-managed projects in the form of post-modern learning objects focused the pre-service teachers on critical pedagogies (Giroux, 1996) and saw them use imaging processes as an explorative, communicative and meaning making pedagogical tool.

Over the last decade, the notion of what it is to be literate has been expanded. Competency in reading and writing paper text is no longer viewed as sufficient for future citizens as rapid and dramatic advances in technology, and the resulting globalization and social change, requires a more wide-ranging set of skills and understandings (Kress & Van Leeuween, 2006; Anstey & Bull, 2006; Knobel & Lankshear, 2006; Kalantzis & Cope, 2005). The term “multiliteracies” conveys the notion that today’s literacy necessitates multiple forms of knowledge and discernment to identify the appropriate social context and the adaption of literate practices in fresh and diverse ways. An appreciation of the consciously constructed nature of texts has become increasingly important as the individual is deluged with vast quantities of information that they must critically analyse in terms of veracity and reliability (New London Group, 1996; Buckingham, 2007). The platforms of functionality are fluid for the multiliterate, requiring seamless navigation between paper, electronic and live texts and their semiotic systems (Kress, 2003; Anstey and Bull, 2006). Print based models of literacy, such as the Four Resource Model (Freebody and Luke, 2003; Anstey and Bull, 2006) have been adapted to models of multiliteracies and undoubtedly they have merit in that they provide a framework for critical analysis. However, the approach is a traditional one that positions the learner as an analyser, interpreter and critic rather than as a creator or designer of new meanings. The challenge is to shift the use of electronic media to facilitate critical selection, design, communication and production.

Pre-service teachers and performative arts pedagogies

The course, “The Visual as an Investigative Learning Tool,” incorporated performative arts pedagogies. Performative is presented as the progression from “performance as mimesis to poiesis to kinesis” (Conquergood, 1998:31 in Alexander et al, 2004: 415). This sees beyond performance as imitation, or the presentation of predetermined knowledge and understandings within set curriculum, to performance as construction or co-construction. Learning is envisaged as dynamic and open to interpretation. Of significance to the pre-service teachers was the realisation that images enacted society’s norms or practices and that the image had been emancipated and democratized by technology. The self-managed project orientation of their experience necessitated the production of new meaning through images and sought to broaden their existing teacher pedagogies and curriculum insights through a critical ontological window (Kincheloe, 2005).

Visual critical and performative acts, as imaging praxis, informed the pedagogy of the course and responded to the larger debate around personal agency and the performative self (Butler, 1990; Bolt, 2004; Holman Jones, 2005; Jones, 2007; Lovell, 2003; McNay, 1999). An explicit aim of the course was to disrupt pre-service teachers’ mythologies about images and also their own beliefs about themselves as pedagogical imagists. The course required the pre-service teachers to encounter the semiotic practices and cultural theories that surround image use in society. It aimed to present the image as both expressive and interpretive, and production as a complex inter-subjective activity that parallels the complexity of life (Deleuze, 1990; Finely, 2005; Greirson, 2003). In this context the pre-service teachers used performative visual pedagogies to produce contemporary representational forms, as montage posters with co-constructed or individual meaning possibilities. The posters were to be dominated by media practices and the discursive relationships between images and other texts, such as words, symbols and statistics.

Visual productive pedagogy

An adaptation of the notions of a curriculum framework for new learning environments presented by Zammit and Downes (2002) formed the basis of the conceptualisation of the assessable learning outcomes. Pre-service teachers were provided with easy access to multi-modal, written and visual texts was required to provide a sympathetic learning environment. The course was assessed via the student-managed project, in this instance, three large scale digital (text and image) photographic posters each for their specific discipline classroom that would disrupt the viewer (secondary school student) and commence debate about the critical and contestable nature of knowledge (Kincheloe, 2005). To achieve this outcome the course was designed with six learning intersections as seen in Figure 1: Using the Visual as an Investigative Tool Learning Intersections (below). The intersections were: an understanding of the discursive nature of images and texts; the skills to create digital imagery and use of multi-platform semiotics; the skills and understandings generated through an enquiry based learning orientation, where knowledge was explored in individually identified problematized curriculum spaces identified by the pre-service teachers; digital studio and a community of inquiry which featured staff and peer collaborative negotiations; explicit assessment criteria which signalled quality goals and expectations, and the final exhibition of works that targeted the audience, secondary students living and learning in a digital and consumer society.


Figure 1: Using the Visual as an Investigative Tool Learning Intersections

Enquiry- based learning with a strong digital orientation in this course aimed to connect directly to the life narrative of the pre-service teacher/learner and the narratives of the school and university communities. It was envisaged that pre-service teachers would confront new narratives about self as teacher/learner in the process of constructing knowledge (Goodson & Deakin-Crick, 2009). This would require the appropriation and re-representation of digital images collected from the vastness of digital repositories around the globe. Pre-service teachers predominantly used the world-wide-web, but were also encouraged to access still frames from movies, DVDs and to include archival images from historical sources. Photographs of real life people, buildings, landscapes and artefacts were also encouraged along with media images and texts. In this authentic task, the cross-curricula pre-service teachers, were encouraged to ground the images in their life world experiences, memories, events and people, and explore links to their discipline fields. Learning to design a graphic work through manipulated images and concise printed text in a discursive and technically sophisticated manner was a significant shift from traditional modes of communication and knowledge exploration for these final year pre-service teachers.

Exploring visual learning objects as pedagogical tools

Visual investigative posters or learning objects, the product of the course, aimed to critically challenge the assumptions of the pre-service teachers about the subordinate role of images in learning, established from formal secondary and tertiary schooling experiences, and perpetuated in curriculum documents and school texts. The task was to create a series of three learning object posters that were to examine a nominated syllabus topic or content area from multiple perspectives and that had classroom application as a stimulus for learning or inquiry. The posters were to be designed as a coherent series, which aimed to disrupt knowledge expectations, question understandings and stimulate curiosity and discussion in the secondary classroom. There was a total of seven hours of interactive lecture-style presentations from staff and thirteen hours for pre-service teachers to develop semiotic language, critical thinking and digital image manipulation skills in a computer, workshop studio environment. Pre-service teachers were introduced to the concept of visuality (Stafford, 1996) and examined how media imaging practices construct subjectivities and present hegemonic behaviours, values and beliefs. In these sessions they collaborated with peers and staff to develop skills in: using search engines; accessing image data sources; refining image selection; digitally manipulating images; and re-contextualising images as digital montage through the application of PhotoShop CS2. New technical skills were developed outside of formal class timeframes and pre-service teachers brought with them, in-depth insight into the key concepts and ideas of their curriculum areas and disciplines from their university studies.

In this transformative education landscape, manipulation of images and text were explored in the context of the inter-textuality of post-modern narratives. Learners were encouraged to play and experiment. This tapped into the, often latent, creativity of individuals with little or no background in visual education, and often no experience of using images, or multi-modalities, for assessment. The imperative to communicate to an audience through a visual narrative orientation captured the interest and imagination of most of the learners as visual narrative perspectives embody the maker’s subjectivity (Kellner, 1992; Mcquillan, 2000).


Figure 2:  Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia, Poster 1 (Pre-service teacher work, 2007)


Figure 3:  Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia, Poster 2 (Pre-service teacher work, 2007)

The posters as learning sites, demonstrated above, were typical of the productive efforts of the many pre-service teachers. They were selected as they exemplified the standard of works produced over the three years of the course. Figure 2 and 3 demonstrate a key objective of the course, the production of critical inter-textual works that carry contested and multiple meanings. These modern history examples resulted from the selection of a key strand of study from the senior curriculum and images were sourced from the World Wide Web. Photographic montage techniques were used to juxtapose and superimpose iconic cultural and historic images with adapted printed text from source documents to create a graphic image. In figure 2 the pre-service teacher has worked directly with overlaid revolutionary propaganda slogans. This action involves decisions about how images and their related historical texts are presented to meet audience requirements, in this case the specifics of a curriculum. The pre-service teacher sourced, analysed, appropriated and juxtaposed images of the Pol Pot regime superimposed with historical evidence. Figure 2 demonstrates how historical sources, used in a constructed image context, can disrupt the viewer.

Figure 3 uses the bold red word Khmer and the figure of the passer-by locates the culturally poster. Centring the pile of skulls and skeletons draws the audience into this temporal space where atrocities have become commonplace. The statistical comparison within the poster, 7.2 x the population of Newcastle, links the visual narrative to the life world of the pre-service teacher and the local school context and gives emphasis to the contrasting social, cultural and temporal spaces. These pre-service teachers learnt to critically investigate images as important sources of information about society, culture and the physical environments. Other pre-service teachers chose to critically incorporate images such as family photographs, popular media, maps, graphical representations or other evidence of the physical to inform a site study, case study,  event or narrative.

The organisation of the course was designed around the two assessment phases. Assessment 1 was a “work in progress” presentation to the group, and Assessment 2 was the exhibition of three resolved posters and accompanying pedagogical statements supported by an oral presentation. Assessment 1 tasked the pre-service teachers to find images and texts that respond to different narrative perspectives of their syllabus topics and seek ways to effectively communicate their ideas to an audience. Evidence of the conceptualisation of the topic, working ideas around the different perspectives, image disruption of mainstream discourses through the manipulation of image and texts was the key task. Pre-service teachers gathered working evidence of their learning and provided a brief explanation of how all the evidence (text & images) would inform each other and support the communication of a message to an identified audience. The presentations were critiqued against published explicit criteria and assessed in relation to a depth of understanding of both the visual and the classroom relevance. The narrative perspectives were expected to be logically formulated and display conceptually strong visual cues and links between text and image. Assessment 2 required an exhibition and debriefing to a peer audience on the validity and significant of the pedagogical posters to their syllabus. The posters were assessed in relation to their skilled use of semiotics to create meaning, authenticity to the syllabus unit and the refinement of the narrative perspectives and series cohesion. A short statement of pedagogical application tested understanding of integrating the visual in practice and how working with discursive texts can create a stimulating learning environment. The completed poster series with pedagogical statements became an exhibition in the University of Newcastle, School of Education corridors.

Inquiry Questions

This paper reports on two key inquiry questions. Firstly did the pre-service teachers find the production of classroom posters, grounded in the world of visual culture and the skill of visuality a relevant learning context and a useful addition to their pedagogy across the range of discipline fields? Secondly, could a short intensive course in critical visual performative approaches to imaging in pedagogy shift pre-service teachers’ perceptions of the value of the visual to their learning and meaning making and impact on new classroom teacher identities as visual communicators?

The Inquiry

The mixed method qualitative inquiry was used to gather data, with the lecturing staff positioned as participant observers in the research project. The participants’ investigative learning posters and support pedagogical statements were analysed as well as qualitative surveys in the form university course assessment protocols and pre and post course surveys.

The posters were critically and interpretively analysed and assessed through a process of moderation by the team of three researcher/lecturers for shifts in skills and understandings related to visual communicative learning. Analysis of the learning posters provided evidence of visual learning narratives that revealed agency, as action or choice, linked to emancipatory discourses (Denzin, 2005) in learning. They were analyzed using a critical hermeneutic approach (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005) and Habermasian theory of technical, practical and emancipatory interest, adapted by Rennert-Ariev and College (2005) in their assessment of pre-service teacher learning. Evidence was sought concerning the critical selection of images, technical skills and decision-making, deliberate and personal reflection and visuality or critical emancipatory understandings or transformative learning about the discursive nature of images.

The three assessment categories were selected as the most authentic and valid criteria for the task. In the category, Conceptualization and Refinement, the assessment sought to identify the extent to which pre-service teachers could identify an appropriate discipline topic and create a key message in image and text for a specific stage of secondary school students. For example, a general science curriculum topic on chemistry and the safety of household products for lower senior students resulted in the generation of a poster dominated by a close-up image of penguins struggling in an oil slick. Washed up, in the foreground, was a bottle of baby oil. The link between oil and petroleum products was refined to a key image that carried emotive strength and strong cognitive links to curriculum and learning. Semiotic skills linked directly to the pre-service teachers’ ability to work with the structural elements of an image, such as foreground, background, focus, emphasis, colour and shape etc.  Authenticity and application linked directly to the subject content, the images and the pre-service teachers’ accounts of how the images would be used in their pedagogy. The posters were also presented as inquiry findings (Emme, 2001), as this was an appropriate way to communicate to the reader and viewer (Denzin, 2005).

The formal university designed, administered and independently analysed surveys addressed questions related to the pre-service teachers’ perceptions of using images as a legitimate teaching and learning tool for the classroom. The surveys provided evidence that the experience of developing the learning posters impacted on the pre-service teachers’ pedagogical practice. Formal evaluation took the form of Likert scale response to statements such as, “this course changed my understanding of the visual” and “I would like further opportunities to study visual literacy.” It also used open-ended inquiries such as, “describe what you think the course is about”, and “what was the relevance of the course to your career?” The survey sought to measure shifts in the pre-service teachers’ perceptions of the value of the visual to their own personal learning and meaning making. Initial and post surveys provided further data on pre-course experience with visual education and shifts in attitudes about the visual in learning. The short response questions asked about the importance of images, the use images in daily lives, and if and how images were considered in teaching programs. It was noted that gaps between pre-service teachers’ perceived value and use of images emerged relative to the historical legacy of images within each epistemological field. However, there was limited capacity to gain detailed insights into this phenomenon using such open ended questions.


There are limitations inherent in this kind of study. There are threats to its reliability of the data derived from the use of what is actually a convenience sample, that is, a sample that comes from a group available to the researcher by virtue of its accessibility (Fraenkel & Wallen, 2006). While it is the case that some pre-service teachers were randomly assigned to the class, the majority choose to enrol in this elective having been given eight options. This brings into question the degree to which the cohorts can be claimed to be representative of secondary pre-service teachers and so the conclusions that can be drawn from the research findings. However, over the three years the pre-survey failed to detect expertise or interest in the use of the visual or in the use of visual semiotic meta-language and understandings of images that may have skewed the learning outcomes and these have remained constant over that time. Another variable was the technology skill level of the participants which varied considerably and had the potential to impact on the demonstration of conceptual understandings.

The nature of the data collected from the course evaluation and the pre and post surveys, using Likert scales, posed another threat to integrity of the data. The course evaluations are part of the University of Newcastle’s standard student evaluations of learning and satisfaction and as such were not designed for the research needs, e.g. “How could this course be improved” was not relevant for the research, while  the extended response question, “Briefly describe what you think this course was about” yielded useful data .  Despite the blunt nature of these instruments, these evaluations have the advantage of being independently collected and analysed and so can be seen as free of bias on the part of the data collector.

The pre and post course evaluations were carried out in class time and, while guaranteeing high response rates, this gave rise to the threat of the data being influenced by independent variables such as teacher approval, peer pressure and personal attitudes to surveys, staff and the university.  When a group of pre-service teachers are asked questions about their experiences, learning and attitudes, some are likely to give the answers that they think a researcher would want to hear, and this problem is exaggerated in this study as the researchers were their teachers and assessors. Also some of the answers will be influenced by what the respondents view as “the right answer,” while others will minimise their achievements (Denzin and Lincoln, 2005). Another issue with the data could arise from the assessment of the posters as this was carried out by the participant observer lecturers. However, the assessments were the result of collaboration of three members of staff, including non-researchers, and showed a consistent pattern over three years.


The total cohort numbered 89 participants over three years with groups of 23, 29 and 37 respectively. As the evaluations were carried out in tutorials the return rate was high at 99%. From the post survey over the three years with a total cohort of 89, 98% of pre-service teachers found the course intellectually challenging and 85% agreed that they found the course interesting. Some pre-service teachers identified that they struggled to acquire both the technical and practical aspects of the course and that they found the theoretical component difficult. This from a Geography student in 2007,

This course put me on a steep learning curve and I hated it at first. The manipulation of the images was so hard and the lectures talked about things I had never heard of. Eventually I got more of an idea.

It was found that these participants’ experience paralleled the educational and societal debate around the visual and indicated their lack of exposure to non-print methods of communication during their teacher studies. They had viewed images as a tool to help in the presentation of information and had understood the image in terms of illustration or decoration. The idea of using images to explore and communicate complex ideas was novel to them. Many had not studied in the art education field since early high school, and had not highly rated the use of imagery in the classroom. As an English student explained,

This course was different to anything else that I had studied at uni. It was fun to play around with images but it took me ages to realize that I could do more than tell a simple story.

This lack of critical visual literacy was a key finding in this research. Most of the pre-service teachers described themselves as living technologically literate lives. They were mostly active users of the web and social chat sites. Despite this, they displayed varying levels of naivety about image construction and the technologies used to create digital images. An example of this was observed during the lecture sequence. Pre-service teachers were shown the You Tube video, ‘Where the Hell is Matt?” It shows Matt dancing his way around the world. Pre-service teachers were then shown an interview with the creator, in which he demonstrated how he manipulated images and blurred the line between fact and fiction, and had not travelled the world dancing. All but three pre-service teachers admitted that they had not even suspected the deception, nor had they considered the deeper questions about the social power of the web to influence its audience.

This lack of understanding about image construction links directly to the skill of visuality. Most pre-service teachers did not comprehend the mechanisms by which images communicate. They were generally unable to understand the power relationships between the creator and the audience or the significance of the historical, social and cultural contexts in interpreting images. This deficit links directly with the third finding, that most of the pre-service teachers had little or no semiotic analysis skills with which to access the visual or to discuss image as power through critical deconstruction. They possessed little or no design language such as foreground, background, scale, dominance, and contrast. Techniques such as collage or montage were unfamiliar, so too, the digital terms used in the manipulation and construction of images, such as layers and filters. They had very little awareness of the way images are used in postmodern contexts such as parody, irony or disjunction. Therefore the majority of the pre-service teachers were illiterate in terms of the communicative practices and technical language of production. Most significantly they then had little or no insight into the discursive nature of the visual.

For example, prior to engagement in the course a Physical Education pre-service teacher had no experience of using montage to examine the role of media in the development of hegemonic notions of beauty. Supported by collaboration with teaching staff and the conceit of a magazine cover, she managed to create a work that incorporated a photograph of her own childhood toy. Her Barbie is pictured crucified and surrounded by feature headlines such as Skinny is the New Black and Ribs are in or are they out? And Save 80% on your first boob job! The article headlines with the sacrificed Barbie in the background produces a powerful intertextual questioning of the suffering endured in the contemporary quest for “ideal beauty.” Although the iconography is literal and the feature headlines predictable, this student was able to produce an evocative learning object with appeal to an adolescent audience. As the student explained:

I would never have thought of using images to teach this topic, particularly not ones that I had made. I like the Barbie poster as it is the most successful in contrasting images and writing. (Physical Education, 2007)

The shifts in beliefs, about the relevance of visual culture and images in learning and the classroom were drawn initially from the surveys and the anecdotal evidence across the three years. It was common for pre-service teachers to complain about the complexity of this field of knowledge. These three were typical of many:

Given that I last did art in my first year of high school, I found this course challenging but great fun. It helped me develop new and interesting ideas for teaching in my subject. (English, 2007)

Learning to master the basics of the technology and actually learning how to “look at” images was new to me. I think I have been able to develop my skills at “seeing” the whole image and its meaning.  (Physical Education, 2007)

This was the hardest course I have ever done. At first I struggled with the technical side of the task but then I found it was hard to know when the posters were finished. (History, 2008)

Despite the difficulties, this course changed pre-service understandings about the use of the visual in classroom learning. 92% of pre-service teachers agreed that this course was very relevant to their career and 93 % stated that they would like to continue to extend their knowledge and skills in visual learning, while 80% thought that this course was a very good introduction to the field. The post course survey saw a significant re-estimation and up-grading of the role of the visual in their teaching practice and an appreciation of the power of images to engage and instruct. This from a History student in 2009,

This course has given me a new approach in my teaching and one that my students will love.

And again,

I have more understanding of visual literacy and how I can use images to stimulate discussion in my classroom. (Design and Technology, 2008)

The evidence indicates that the experience of the intensive course and self-managed project did shift pre-service teachers’ perceptions of the value of the visual to their learning and meaning making and impacted on new classroom teacher identities as visual communicators. In formal course evaluations, 85% saw a strong link between course content and the visual communicative performative assessment and agreed that it was a legitimate inquiry strategy. 86% of pre-service teachers claimed to have developed an interest in the course content and expressed a desire to use their new knowledge and skills in the classroom.

The inquiry data clearly revealed that the pre-service teachers shifted their personal and classroom perceptions of visual communicative approaches and began to appreciate visual learning as having direct relevance to themselves and their students. On the question of the best or most valued aspects of the course responses emerged around the following themes. Pre-service teachers learnt how to “look at images” and develop skills in “seeing”. They reflected on their new abilities to use the visual with purpose, as opposed to providing a picture to add decoration or interest.. The pre-service teachers valued the freedom to experience and explore personal themes and concepts of interest, even passion, in their chosen discipline fields and explored ways to connect their new knowledge directly to the classroom.

The pre-service teachers did achieve levels of expertise as evidenced by the instructor evaluations summarized in Table 1 below. It can be seen that achievement in semiotics skills lagged behind the other two criteria and that authenticity to the discipline topic and application to the classroom produced the highest results.

Assessment Criteria 2007 n=23 2008 n=29 2009 n=37
Conceptualization and refinement 68 70 71
Semiotic skills 62 68 64
Authenticity and application 71 75 78

Table 1: The final instructor assessment of the posters by criteria in percentages.

Three key pedagogical approaches emerged in the poster creations of pre-service teachers.  Firstly, there were critical historical narratives, which demonstrated the capacity to construct complex meta-narratives in their selected areas of study. They developed a refined and subtle relationship between image and text with the image remaining the initial cognitive experience. The second category was narrative data display working with visual rhetoric. Images were used as strong graphical data sources open to interpretation supported by strong visual narratives. The third category was identified as multi-textual narratives. This category groups the pre-service teachers whose curricula give significant attention to multi-modal and written text as they are located and used in contemporary society and visual culture, specifically within English and media studies curricula. Pre-service teachers demonstrated the capacity to move beyond simple critique of the image as a source of interpretive possibilities to using imaging as the dominant communicative form.

Figures 4 and 5 are examples of critical historical narratives exploring the Nazism in Germany. Both posters use symbols and icons to evoke the terror and violence of this time and place. This history student explains his ideas about pedagogical implementation,

The posters are designed to be sequential and tell a narrative about the Holocaust and the lives of people who experienced it. Text and symbols are used throughout to develop deep knowledge and deep understanding.


Figure 4:  The Holocaust in Nazi Germany Poster 1 (Pre-service teacher work, 2008)


Figure 5: The Holocaust in Nazi Germany Poster 2 (Pre-service teacher work 2008)


Figure 6: Air Quality Futures (Pre-service teacher work 2007)

Figure 6 is an example of narrative data display working with visual rhetoric.  In this work, a geography pre-service teacher uses his class photo, donned with gas masks, to question future air quality. In the background are chimney stacks from polluting power stations and in the foreground he ironically positions a no smoking symbol juxtaposed with scientific diagrams. As he explains,

The poster provides factual information as well as a vision of the future and at the same time creates opportunities for the viewer to question its narrative perspective and develop their own understandings. I will use this as continual reference point for discussion and support material when teaching this topic.

The third approach saw pre-service teachers playing with multi-modal presentation of prescribed texts. For example, an English student integrated images of the tradition Romeo and Juliet with modern stage and film adaptations and asks “Was Romeo an emo?” and “Was Romeo a gigolo?” Another has Hansel and Gretel in the forest with the iconic golden arches of McDonalds fast foods looming over the witch’s gingerbread house alluding to the manipulation of children as consumers.

Discussion: Re-positioning visual literacy

Lankshear and Knobel (2006: 80) define “new literacies” as the skills of accessing and using technology on various platforms and recognises that “cyberspace operates on the basis of different assumptions and values from physical space…and from very different procedural assumptions and values” (Lankshear and Knobel 2006: 80). As observed by Carrington and Marsh (2005), digitextual practices are now blurring these traditional distinctions between writer, reader, producer and consumer and require a complex and sophisticated range of skills, knowledge and understanding to be learnt and assessed holistically.

Kalantzis and Cope (2005) in their definition of multiliteracies confront this digital literacy phenomenon and call for a reflective epistemology in which learner agency or choice is re-balanced in teacher/student relationships. In their model of Learning by Design, pedagogies of learning are re-configured to construct learning as “a dialogue of difference” (Kalantzis, 2005:31). Thus, the life world of the learner is integral to learning and is a transformative experience. The “cyberliterate” will have an understanding of the forces that shape the digital environment and an appreciation of the power relationships inherent in their use of technology.

This paper argues that the specific additional “new learning” is the skill of visuality (Meskimmon, 1997; Stafford, 1996; Thompson, 2004; Rose, 2007), or the ability to communicate critical and multiple orientations to vision. Visuality, acknowledges that images are discursive, symbolic, expressive and holistic communicative practices. Images are central to visual culture, virtual realities, and new digital social networking practices and are significantly shaped by social constructs and the meanings that are attributed to them (Dikovitskaya, 2006; Mirzeoff, 1998; Stafford, 1996). Moreover, investigating meaning making, through image construction, is presented as a legitimate inquiry tool (Sullivan, 2005; Finley, 2005) with performative or autopoietic (self-producing) attribute for its learners.

Visual Competency

This research supports the findings of Burnett (2009) who questions the assumption that this generation of pre-service teachers can readily engage with the full range of digital technologies with many reporting difficulties with the computer applications. Images have become integral to life world of the pre-service teachers in their daily communication behaviours with the use of technology such as cameras and mobile phones. However, these experiences had not prepared them for the transformative learning experience of working with images in a discursive manner for classroom use. The research suggests that final year pre-service teacher educators still needed to develop critical visual proficiency and that the majority of this cross discipline cohort had limited  knowledge of visual semiotics. The pre-service teachers were found to lack proficiency with the most basic functional skills of balance, dominance, colour, focal point and the use of foreground, middle ground and background. It was also found that some pre-service teachers lacked cultural and historical understandings of images and this negatively impacted on their capacity to identify, critically select and manipulate images to create new meanings and communicate conceptual ideas from their curricula.

The two elements of visual competence, the analysis of images and the construction of images were initially poorly developed in the majority of the pre-service teachers. Many found the acquisition of conceptual, technical and semiotic skills difficult. However, most reached some level of confident analysis and discernment beyond the traditional ‘image as illustration’. It is very significant that many pre-service teachers had no critical analysis skills and no language with which to deconstruct the meanings in images. They had little difficulty harnessing images from multiple sources for imitation or illustration, but found it a challenge to negotiate and manipulate the dynamic of the interpretive spaces of images. Most began to understand that the field of visual culture and visual history is awash with multiple messages of truths and power within their own specialist field.

In the postmodern classroom contexts, both the teacher and student require the skills to use images intertextually and that contemporary society requires the ability to utilize parody, irony and disjunction in communicative practices. The findings from this study reveal that the pre-service teachers demonstrated very low visual competencies at the commencement of the course. The least developed visual competency was that of constructing meaning from images in combination with other symbolic systems such as diagrams and text. The scope of the achievement of the pre-service teachers was limited by their naïve understanding of how images carry narratives, facts and interpretive possibilities; how images communicate ideologies ;and how images are used to influence and educate. Many of the participants significantly improved these skills during the course, but they had only begun their exploration of the potential of the visual. Further opportunities for practice and application are needed to sustain this introduction and develop beyond competency to proficiency as classroom praxis.

Teacher identities as visual meaning makers

The learning experience of this course saw the pre-service teachers begin to grasp visual meaning making is a performative act. This understanding has the potential to shape their teacher identities in the future.  The learning process was transforming for some, as evidenced in the statement by a science pre-service teacher.

I would never have thought to use the visual to explore if I had not done this course. It has opened up a world of possibilities in my teaching. (Science, 2008)

There was a strong correlation between the participants with successful learning outcomes and the developing image-maker identity.  Most changed their perceptions about images and learning and nearly all expressed the desire to extend their knowledge and skills in this area. It can be concluded that some identity shift had commenced. Digital technologies accelerated the pre-service teachers imaging skill acquisition and many who had not viewed themselves as “artistic” began to find their creativity. To continue this journey, most of the participants require continuing learning opportunities to work with critical visuality and development of pedagogical skills using digital technologies.

The critical and performative arts pedagogies combined with digital technologies facilitated the significant learning and developed the relationship between knowing how to analyse and image and the performative outcomes of constructing images. Most pre-service teachers at the conclusion of the course saw their learning journeys as empowering and had included the skills as part of the personal praxis. These comments capture the attitude of the vast majority:

It was exciting to know that I will use this knowledge and skill for the rest of my career. (History, 2008)

Being able to create posters that generate discussion has allowed me to see the importance of showing the students images that disrupt and are ambiguous so that they have to find the meaning. I will be making my students do the same and they will probably be better at Photoshop than me!  (English, 2009)

In the affordances of digital realities, critical performative pedagogies acknowledge the unique ways knowledge is retrieved, manipulated and constructed in new media.  The high quality course outcomes from the pre-service teacher educators, who initially demonstrated minimal visuality competencies,  indicates that the learning posters provided a performance spaces or sites to explore their learning through virtual realities. In these spaces, the pre-service teachers explored the phenomenon of visuality and constructed meaning through images. For many new teacher identities as pedagogical imagist emerged. Much of the evidence for this shift was drawn from the observations and anecdotal evidence from student comments gathered by the researcher participant observers. The empirical data collected was unable to identify individual baseline data on the skill of visuality at the commencement of the course. More refined and targeted instruments may be able to provide greater insights into the degree of shift in the learning and identities of the pre-service teachers as imagists. .

The pre-service teachers’ experience of the visual and performative pedagogies demonstrated that their current knowledge and understandings could be reframed through an imagist’s lens and that this reconceptualising of the visual had the potential to alter classroom practice. Further tracking of these pre-service teachers, as early career teachers, would strengthen the emerging research findings of this small study. It would then enable the further exploration of questions such about the alignment of pedagogies and contemporary communicative practices and the degree to which the revolution afforded by new digital visual forms had opened opportunities for new learnings.

Conclusion: Visuality in the 21st century

The cognitive work of image in the 21st century is transforming communicative practices and knowledge production. Images carry socio-cultural orientations as well as the history of symbolic practices in knowledge construction. The discipline field of Science has come to acknowledge that texts in many contexts cannot represent concepts as clearly as images. Similarly visual culture, architecture and media arts, such as film, graphics, animation, advertising, video, gaming and digital imaging devices all place the ability to read printed text as secondary to the ability to understand the representational and spatial forms of images. Images and their associated concepts, symbols, metaphors and analogies have penetrated deeply into our digitized world.

Effective and relevant educators now require proficiency in the skill of visuality. This knowledge can only be fully acquired through understanding semiotic systems and through engagement making or the encoding of images. Understanding that visuality is trans-disciplinary and has a digital presence in education is a critical insight for classroom teachers. The focus of this research, the elective course “The Visual as an Investigative Learning Tool”, placed the skill of visuality at the centre of the learning experience and acknowledged that the previous slowly acquired skills of drawing and designing by hand are fast-tracked using digital imaging software and have the advantage of accessibility.

As technology propels the visual as a primary means of meaning making, there is an imperative that pre-service teacher educators embrace new understandings and practices. The findings demonstrate that many pre-service teachers undertaking ‘The Visual as an Investigative Learning Tool’ course experienced significant attitudinal and skill changes. This course showed that it was possible for a diverse group of pre-service teachers to develop skills around critical visuality and begin to see themselves as digital image-makers.

As Buckingham (2007) concludes, many schools have embedded sophisticated digital multiliteracies into their pedagogical practice and are reaping the rewards of student engagement and motivation. This research demonstrates that the authentic experience of digital production is vital to prepare beginning teachers to take up the challenges ahead.

As this graduate acknowledges,

Understanding the power of the image to communicate has made my teaching so much better. I am thankful that my first choice was full and I ended up in your class.

Biographical Statement

Kath Grushka and Debra Donnelly are academics working at the School of Education, University of Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia. Both have extensive experience across a range of educational settings and work in undergraduate and postgraduate teacher education degree programs. Kath Grushka is an artist and art educator with research interests in curriculum design and theory in visual arts, teacher identify and the role of reflective practice, and visual culture and technology. Debra Donnelly is a history educator with research interest in historical understanding pedagogies, new media and historical consciousness and pre-service teacher education.




The authors would like to acknowledge the contribution of all the pre-service teachers who ventured into this new area of learning. In particular, the following pre-service teachers who gave permission for their images to be used in this paper: Jeremy Farnett, Keira Hibbert and Michael Harrison.

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