Thomas Friedman’s 2005 bestseller The World is Flat got policy makers’ attention describing visual-digital innovation driving new forms of communication and learning — rapidly evolving video game visuals, for example, spurring innovation in science and medicine — while our education system prepares learners for a text book world that no longer exists. The urgency of his call for change is underscored by Smith’s and Wilhelm’s award winning 2004 research in Reading Don’t Fix no Chevys, which examined boys’ well known disengagement with school literacy. Tracking high school students’ daily experiences, they found boys, who were sadly disengaged and learning little from schools’ bookish literacy, were engaged and effective learners outside of school — when using visual tools. And once again the power of video games for learners is examined.

Both books urge more visual learning in the classroom, yet these authors’ own work dramatically highlight how well intentioned reformers block that change. Friedman says educators must expand schools’ narrow left brain text-focus and instead nurture big picture right brain thinking skills, and Smith and Wilhelm find the role of visuals for learners “can’t be oversold.” At the same time, these authors SHOW how deeply tied they ( with publishers/editors and the literacy elite) are to text narrow communication and learning: The World is Flat is 600+ pages, all text. Chevys shows no visual evidence of the ways student can use visual tools in the classroom.

These books, like the vast majority of education discourse in print, present a near schizophrenic US vs THEM message — we SAY change is here, and that visual tools are essential to learners, but we SHOW that literate adults don’t need them. We have met the enemy of authentic change and it is US in capital letters. Experts urge educators to embrace visual-digital change; professors tell teachers visuals for learners can’t be oversold, but they can’t seem to break the text-focused mold. And let’s tell the truth, these books are targeted to US, the literate folks at the front of the classroom who don’t need a lot of visual fluff when we learn.

Unfortunately, this disconnect is pervasive in our classrooms and curriculum. Few educators have training using visual tools or had the opportunity to see how visual tools can change the learning landscape. Indeed, teachers pioneering visual tools are often seen by colleagues and administrators as diverting time from literacy essentials. And standards offer only lip service to visual tools. In the midst of a “literacy crisis,” tapping students’ natural visual skills is not on experts’ or policy makers’ radar, despite plenty of evidence that encouraging students’ hands-on drawing skills fosters right brained thinking skills — they are the same tools used by engineers and scientists. Experts also seem unaware of ample research showing how these same visualization skills are essentially linked to effective reading and writing.

Teachers have the power to bring real reforms, to give students the visual tools they urgently need in their classroom today. All it takes is a willingness to break that confining text mold and see what students can teach us about visual learning. If you’ve used visual tools with learners you know, but please share what your learners show you with the teacher next door, and with the curriculum coordinator or administrator down the hall.

If you’ve never had the opportunity to see how visual tools, meaningfully integrated in a curriculum, can support students in reading, writing, vocab, math, science and much more. Please take a close looker at both classroom evidence and the research that shows how visual tools can advance our literacy goals, and give learners the tools they’ll need in our digital visual future.

Roger Essley