While the Yale Center for British Art remains closed for renovations, its achievements in educational innovation are gaining national attention.
For its upcoming “Museum Advocacy Day” next Tuesday and Wednesday, the American Alliance of Museums has chosen to honor the work of the YCBA education department staff by highlighting the center’s newest documentary, which profiles the center’s creative learning program, “Visual Literacy.” Titled “Visual Literacy: Rethinking the Role of Art in Education,” the film explores the role of visual arts in developing students’ thinking, communication and writing skills. YCBA Associate Curator of Education Cyra Levenson, who created the program 10 years ago, attributed the program’s effectiveness to its flexibility, noting that it does not have a rigid curriculum.
“It’s successful because it’s more of a methodology than a program,” Levenson said.
The program involves displaying visual arts images to students and asking them to compose responses to writing prompts by sketching their ideas as images and translating them into words. Levenson explained that the concept behind the program is the notion that students who have difficulty conveying their ideas through writing can better understand such tasks through interpreting and creating images. As children do not need to be taught how to understand visual images or how to draw, Levenson added, visual literacy relies on skills that are inherent.
Levenson also emphasized the concept of “sketching to write.” She explained that sketching an image in a response to a prompt allows students to organize their ideas into something that resembles a written outline. Once students have their ideas on paper, she noted, it becomes easier to write out the ideas in words.
The program also allows students to tap into sensory experiences, such as sight and sound. Ava Heitmann-Levenson, a student at New Haven’s Cold Spring School who took a class that participated in Visual Literacy two years ago, noted that employing different senses in the learning process helps one better understand and express ideas.
Yale psychology professor and Berkeley College Master Marvin Chun echoed this sentiment, adding that for elementary school students, the visual system tends to be more fully developed than other brain systems, which making the visual literacy teaching style useful.
The YCBA originally designed the program in conjunction with local Connecticut schoolteachers. Development of the program included asking teachers for recommendations, conducting research on the visual learning process and measuring student reactions to the program.
The YCBA’s Summer Institute, which attracts between 40 and 60 teachers every year, has introduced a number of instructors to the idea of visual literacy and its use in the classroom. According to Levenson, the program has likely reached more than 1,000 local students, who range from elementary school to high school.
James Shivers, an English teacher at Hall High School in West Hartford, said his students’ writing abilities drastically improved after he employed the visual literacy technique. He added that their critical understanding of written texts showed particular signs of advancement.
Despite the success of the program, Shivers noted, several challenges still exist. Not all students are visual learners and some struggle to draw pictures, he explained. Shivers added that the program requires “a fair amount of understanding from teachers” and is therefore difficult to replicate. Chun added that not many museums have teaching staff to conduct visual literacy education.
“Visual Literacy: Rethinking the Role of Art in Education” will be screened at the National Art Education Association’s Spring Conference next month.