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Promoting Environmental Education Through the Development of Visual Literacy Skills

By David S. Jakes

Type of Entry:

  • Lesson/Class Activity

Type of Activity:

  • promotes the development of visual literacy skills.
  • is student-centered and is authentic.
  • promotes skills such as organization, cooperation, critical observation, interpretation, and visualization.
  • promotes active knowledge construction.
  • develops photography and computer skills.
  • permits multiple assessment formats such as individual evaluation, peer evaluation, and instructor evaluation.

Target Audience:

  • any type of environmental studies course
  • biology
  • integrated science
  • adaptable for any grade level and ability level

Notes to Teacher:

This group activity is an alternative to more traditional forms of scientific investigation. Photodocumentation permits students to view an ecosystem in a non-traditional manner by using a camera for data collection. Topics typically overlooked, such as texture, color, shapes, natural framing, or contrasts created by natural objects can be investigated. New ways to view ecosystems can be explored; new understandings about ecosystems can be constructed.

Required of Students:

Students are required to construct a photodocument on their selected topic. They must use at least twelve photographs in their photodocument. One of the photographs must be of the authors. Additionally, they must write at least five interactive questions which help the viewer interpret the visual message. The photographs and interpretive questions are then mounted on poster board according to a particular organizational theme.

Preparation Time Required:

The teacher should collect photographs (from magazines, etc.) or take slides of a particular theme(s). These should then be used in class to help students interpret visual messages.

Class Time Needed:

Two class periods are usually required to introduce the activity, discuss organizational strategies, and potential topics. An additional period may be used to help students interpret visual images. I do this with a simple slide show illustrating natural textures found at a local forest preserve. Photographs are taken during a field trip (my class does this during an extended four-day trip to northern Wisconsin). Once the photos have been developed, a photodocument takes about three class periods to construct. Depending on the evaluation format (for example, peer or individual) additional class time may be required.


Photodocumentation is a technique which permits students to investigate an aspect of a natural resource and then create a personal, visual message about that resource. This activity promotes active knowledge construction, is authentic, and is student-centered. The actual photodocument is comprised of at least twelve photographs focused on a particular theme and arranged with an organizational strategy that facilitates interpretation of the theme. Additionally, at least five questions are included to help the viewer interpret the visual message. Creative expression is encouraged. Photodocuments can be evaluated with multiple assessment formats: individual, peer, and instructor evaluation can be used separately or together in combination.


Materials Needed:

  • Disposable cameras with the capability of taking between 24 and 27 photographs each. My students purchase their cameras but perhaps they could be donated by a local business. I use disposable cameras because I know the students will get good photos. Initially, I allowed them to use their own cameras but many did not know how to operate them. Disposables are easy and everyone has the same equipment and therefore no advantage.

  • Posterboard (foamboard can be substituted for posterboard to create an additional effect).

  • Rubber cement for mounting photographs.


Objective The objective of photodocumentation is to utilize photographs to creatively construct an interactive pictorial essay about an ecosystem.

Instructing students on how to develop a photodocument takes place in three distinct phases:

  1. Step 1: Prior to the actual photography, students must identify a potential topic and schedule a conference with the instructor to develop ideas and organizational strategies related to the topic. Additionally, classroom instruction during this phase focuses on developing interpretation skills by showing students slides arranged by topics such as texture, natural geometry, or colors.

  2. Step 2: Students are taken to a local natural area where they identify and photograph images related to their topic.

  3. Step 3: Students construct their photodocuments in class.



The first phase of instruction is critical to the success of the photodocumentation. During this time, the importance of developing visual literacy (defined as the capacity for the construction and interpretation of visual images) skills is discussed with students. Secondary students do have experience interpreting visuals but I have found very few who can initially develop or construct visual messages. A general overview, the objective of the photodocumentation, and evaluation criteria are also discussed.

After this, slides of potential photodocument topics such as texture, symmetry, and patterns are shown. These slides were taken in local forest preserves and on summer trips. Students are asked to discuss each particular slide and then synthesize a unifying theme of the image set considered together. At this point, it is appropriate to review the criteria of good observation skills and emphasize to students the importance of looking and seeing beyond the obvious.

The final portion of the first step is to identify potential topics and organization strategies. Since this is a cooperative learning project (2-3 students), student groups can also be determined.

Potential Topics:

  • symmetry
  • natural geometry
  • patterns
  • colors
  • things living on other things
  • textures
  • lines
  • contrast
  • edges
  • natural frames
  • human influence
  • light and shadows

Organizational Strategies:

  • random
  • sequential
  • branching
  • spokes on a wheel
  • concept map


Any natural area can be used for photodocumentation (consider your school's campus). Students should be given a basic introduction to the camera before pictures are taken. It is important to discuss focal length with them; most disposable cameras must be at least 4 feet away from the object to be photographed. Explain that close-ups are not possible with these cameras. Allow 1-2 hours for investigation and photography. Students should be encouraged to investigate thoroughly; it is not appropriate to shoot all photographs within the first ten minutes of the activity. Photographs should also be taken with the organizational strategy in mind.

Step 3:

Construction of the photodocumentation typically requires three class periods. During this time, students should select between 12-15 images for inclusion in their photodocument. Typically, not all 24-27 photos will be of high quality. They should then arrange their selected photos in accordance with their organizational strategy. It is appropriate at this point to enlist the help of an art teacher to help in the organizational process. I have found this to be extremely helpful to the students because art teachers are exceptionally visually literate and can suggest ways to organize the images that were not readily apparent to either the instructor or the student.

Once the images have been organized, students should develop at least five questions which help the viewer interpret the visual message. Examples of sample questions and their associated themes are:




  1. How does color evoke the feelings of texture?


  2. What emotions would feeling the objects bring out?

    Natural Frames

  3. How does nature focus your attention to these objects? natural frames


  4. Can you see how nature visually reveals its interdependence?


  5. How does color add to the diversity of an ecosystem?


  6. Can one thing itself be a pattern?


  7. Which edges are created by one thing living off of another?


  8. What sound would you expect from this texture?

These questions should be critiqued by the instructor to ensure they are interpretive in nature. These questions are then typed using word processing software to provide a finished look. Both pictures and questions are glued in accordance with the organizational strategy to poster board to create the final product.

Finally, students should write a short summary explaining the theme and organizational strategy employed. A description of their intended visual message is also helpful. This should be word-processed and glued to the back of the photodocument.

Method of Assessment/Evaluation

Photodocuments can be evaluated with several formats; individual, peer, and instructor evaluation can be used separately or together in any combination. The grading criteria below are criteria which I have found useful in establishing evaluation rubrics. These criteria focus on technical and thematic construction:


  • s the photodocument created neatly?
  • Are the interpretive questions word processed using an appropriate font style?
  • Are the photographs clearly in focus?
  • Are the photographs properly lighted?
  • Is a summary of theme, visual message, and organizational strategy included?
  • What is the quality of this summary?


  • Are the pictures used representative of the chosen topic or theme?

  • Do the pictures and organizational strategy convey the theme?

  • Do the questions promote interactivity with the viewer as it relates to the theme?

Extension/Reinforcement/Additional Ideas

Photodocumentation is highly adaptable to a variety of instructional settings. Alternative uses of this process besides environmental science focus on disciplines (any other science course, history, art, English) or themes (social, political, economic or urban).

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