NOW READING: Museum Field Trips—Exploring Visual Literacy, the Fluencies, and PBL

Museum Field Trips—Exploring Visual Literacy, the Fluencies, and PBL

This is the first in a series of articles from guest writer Stephen Berer focusing on literacies, fluencies, and projects for museums and classrooms.

The following series of articles will discuss how to successfully use museums as multimedia classrooms, and how to bring the best of the museum experience back into your classroom. In the process we will discuss how visual literacy, solution fluency, and project-based learning are effective tools for creating exciting educational experiences that will help students build and expand their various knowledge bases.

This, and a second introductory article, will outline our guiding concepts. After that, I'll jump into discussing best practices for exploring some of Washington DC’s best museums. In each article I will offer specific suggestions for developing active student engagement both in the museum, as well as back in the classroom. I will also provide flexible templates for you to use to create projects that will inspire your students to do their best work while having a great time.

But please know that this is an open discussion. I welcome your feedback, your ideas, and your questions.

If you are planning on visiting a museum local to you, or if you are planning a field trip to a local factory, memorial, or historic park, send me your agenda, ideas, and questions, and I’ll respond with my ideas, and open it up to an international conversation! Perhaps we’ll even be able to entice the education depart of your local museum to enter the discussion.

I will focus on 3 core concepts and how you can use them to make your classroom a more engaging place to build knowledge and learn collaborative skills. Those concepts are: 1) visual literacy; 2) solution fluency; and 3) project-based learning.

What is Visual Literacy?

We live in a world increasingly driven by media and by the images presented in the media. Radio, TV, Internet, ebooks, smart phones, social networks: our senses are challenged as much as our beliefs. How often have you heard or thought:

  • Why is that painting considered art?
  • What images should I allow my child to post on her Facebook page?
  • What does that acronym mean?
  • Is that news video clip real, or is it staged?
  • What does this symbol mean in this equation?
  • Does the referee get the last say, or the instant replay?
  • What does this icon mean on my phone?
  • What does that 10th-century icon mean?
  • Has that photograph of the Aurora Borealis been altered?
  • Where is the link to the FAQ embedded in this website?

All these questions, and a thousand more, demand visual literacy.

Visual literacy is the capacity to extract information and make meaning out of the things that we see. The concept of visual literacy evolved out of the understanding that every act of observation (by any of the senses) is an act of interpretation.

Looking at a painting, smelling a fragrance, feeling the texture of a fabric; all these involve analysis and interpretation just as reading an historical essay, unpacking a short story, deciphering a mathematical equation, or evaluating the results of a chemical reaction.

Visual Literacy: Who produced this image and what is it trying to say?

Now, consider how much time you devote to teaching your students how to interpret a text, or solve a math problem, or analyze a science experiment. Compare that to how much time you devote to helping them to understand the images in their textbooks, on the walls of your room, and on their computer screens. Also, think about how often you use images to amplify the topic you are teaching.

Best practice suggests that the more images we actively use in teaching any subject (including math), the more successful our students will be in comprehending the subject.

In other words, visual literacy is a core skill. Unfortunately, it is often overlooked in our curriculum and pedagogy.

Pioneer10 Decoded
Here you can see some of the details of this image decoded. It was produced for the NASA Pioneer 10 project.

For more information on visual literacy, the International Visual Literacy Association is a good place to begin.

What is Solution Fluency?

I first came across Solution Fluency right here on the Global Digital Citizen Foundation's website. It is one of the organizing principles of the foundation that created, sustains, and is continually expanding the purview of this site. It is a skill that dovetails neatly with project based learning, visual literacy, and the promotion of creative thinking.

If you haven’t actively explored the Global Digital Citizen concepts of fluency, here’s the place to begin.

Solution Fluencydefine, discover, dream, design, deliver, debrief—effectively and efficiently building projects, tools, knowledge to solve real-world problems.

Information Fluencyask, acquire, analyze, apply, and assess—learning to master the flood of information that is reshaping our world.

Creativity Fluencyidentify, inspire, imagine, interpolate, and inspect—unlocking our creative powers and preparing us to successfully face our rapidly changing world.

Media Fluencyinterpreting and leveraging the messages you and your students experience everyday—a subset of visual literacy, this is an area where students can often teach the teacher.

Collaboration Fluencyestablish, envision, engineer, execute, examinethe hallmark of the modern workforce, where students learn from each other, producing work that exceeds their individual capabilities.

What is Project Based Learning?

Here we put our literacies and fluencies to work to actively engage our students in critical and creative thinking. The following image clearly shows that project-based learning is closely related to solution fluency.

From the Sam Houston State University

Both begin with important questions tailored to each student’s interests. Both rely on collaboration, peer feedback, and public presentation. Both focus on developing an understanding of the process of moving from an idea to a design, and then to a completed product, requiring both critical and creative thinking. These are the skills our students must develop if they are to successfully face a future full of unpredictable changes and rapidly evolving knowledge.

Tell me what you think, and how you’re implementing these conceptual tools in your classroom. In my next article I’ll discuss: Museums: A Very Different Place From Your Classroom.

Steve Berer is an educator, author, and founder of Museum Exploration Partners, an independent education company that strives to turn your trip to Washington into a life-changing experience. Visit them at