Improving Student Ability in Interpreting Visual Sources through Action Research, pp. 3 of 14

Werner’s views seemed to correlate the assumptions behind certain strategies the PLT had employed before 2017. We recognized that instead of helping students interpret pictorial sources, focus was instead placed on providing students with specific structures to answer source-based question. The main assumption was that mastery of  a proper writing structure for the different kinds of SBQ question types would enable students to interpret pictorial SBQs effectively. This often led to further interventions which dealt primarily with writing structures rather than historical analysis and interpretation.

What, then, is the way forward? Some scholars provided alternative approaches that the PLT team found we could adapt. For example, Burack (2000) proposed that students have been taught to view political cartoons and other pictorial sources as mediums that employ complex visual strategies that make a point quickly in a confined space. He argued that “mastering the language of cartoons” may need to take precedence before they can benefit from “these fascinating sources of insight” to interpret the past. He also recommended developing the student’s ability to decode the various persuasive techniques to help students understand the underlying meaning the cartoonist is trying to make. Nokes (2013) held similar views. He believed that “through the process of identifying and breaking the code as well as constructing meanings with the code in relation to the context of the cartoon”,  students can then develop the literacy to understand the persuasive techniques employed by the cartoonist to interpret cartoons and other visual sources.

Wineburg, Martin and Monte-Sano (2013) also developed a three–part sequence to help middle school and high school students develop a proper schema for decoding cartoons. For them, decoding visual evidence such as cartoons and art begins by having students consider what they see and staying close to the details of the image. Next, they should develop an interpretation of what is seen by looking at representations, symbolisms and issues from the historical context. Following these two stages, students would then be expected to speculate on the ways their historical interpretation addressed the cartoonists’ argument or main message.

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An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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