We’ve all heard the saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” but do you know the history of the idiom?  According to Wikipedia, “The expression ‘Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words.’ appears in a 1911 newspaper article quoting newspaper editor Tess Flanders discussing journalism and publicity” (April 10, 2016, Wikipedia).  Over the next two decades, near equivalents of the phrase appear several more times in different advertisements.  Wikipedia continues:

It is believed by some that the modern use of the phrase stems from an article by Fred R. Barnard in the advertising trade journal Printers’ Ink, promoting the use of images in advertisements that appeared on the sides of streetcars.  The December 8, 1921 issue carries an ad entitled, “One Look is Worth A Thousand Words.”  Another ad by Barnard appears in the March 10, 1927, issue with the phrase “One Picture Worth Ten Thousand Words,” where it is labeled a Chinese proverb.  The Home Book of Proverbs, Maxims, and Familiar Phrases quotes Barnard as saying he called it a Chinese proverb, so that people would take it seriously.  Nonetheless, the proverb soon after became popularly attributed to Confucius. The actual Chinese expression “Hearing something a hundred times isn’t better than seeing it once” is sometimes introduced as an equivalent (April 10, 2016, Wikipedia).

Regardless of the its historical origins, we have all experienced the truth embodied by the phrase.  For example, have you ever tried to do something new (knit, fix a bicycle tire, shoot a hook shot) following the verbal directions of someone trying to explain it to you?  Usually, after you fumble around for a while, the person trying to explain usually loses patience, breaks down, and says, “For heaven’s sake, let me just show you how to do it.”  Once they show you, it makes perfect sense, leaving you to wonder why they didn’t just show you in the first place!

That’s the power of a good visual–it makes sense almost instantly, and we can see the gestalt of the entire concept at once, whereas if something is explained verbally or written out in text, we get only one piece of the information at a time, sequentially, and have to put it together as we go.  This is clearly much slower, and there’s no guarantee that we will have put all the information together correctly at the end of the lecture or reading.

A Bottleneck on the Information Superhighway

Research in cognitive science has looked into the reasons that visuals work so much better for learning than auditory input or text.  Researchers Denis Pelli, Bart Farell, and Deborah Moore, in a letter to the scientific journal, Nature, discuss a “bottleneck” in the processing of written text as compared to images.  They point out that people get better over time at making sense of certain types of charts, diagrams, and graphic organizers as they gain more experience with how these visuals embody information.  A single visual feature that can be taken in in a split second, such as, say, an arrow traveling in a circle, can represent an entire concept (in this case, a cyclical process) efficiently.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of written text.  The researchers explain that humans, even with a lifetime of reading experience, “never learn to see a word as a feature.”  Our brains, in order to read text, must separately identify each letter, and efficiency is “inversely proportional to word length.”  In other words, longer words take proportionally longer to process because they are proportionally longer–we can’t speed up the reading and meaning-making process beyond a certain point.  We simply have to process the information linearly, and add up the meaning as we go (Pelli, Farell, & Moore, 2003).

The Brain Prefers Pictures

Not only does the human brain process images more quickly than words, but “pieces of information are more likely to be recalled if they are first presented as pictures rather than as verbal propositions…The brain prefers–and processes better–pictures over text, a phenomenon know as PSE, short for Pictorial Superiority Effect,” according to Dr. John Medina, a molecular biologist and Affiliate Professor of Bio-engineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine (Bazadona, 2016).

Implications for the Classroom

So, if we take the conclusions of the research quoted here and apply them to the classroom, what logical implications for practice can we infer?  Here are my thoughts, which by the way square with several models of effective instructional input developed in recent years:

1. Whenever Possible, Use a Visual

Sometimes our teaching materials provide a good visual summary of a chunk of information–a chart, diagram, flowchart, mind map, etc.  If you have such a visual at hand, by all means, use it!  Your students will understand the graphic representation of the material much more easily than listening to a verbal explanation or reading a text (not that the two are mutually exclusive, of course–see #2 and #3, below).

If a good visual has not been created for you, things get tougher.  Does the material you are about to teach lend itself to a visual representation?  If so, can you create an appropriate visual yourself to represent the information?  Doing so will help your students greatly in their initial processing of the information.  (And oh, by the way, you may just find that you even understand the material better yourself after having gone through the process of creating a visual representation of it.)

2. Present the Visual First

Since visuals are so powerful for providing a gestalt of a complex subject, it makes sense to present them at the beginning of an input chunk (lecture, textbook reading, etc.)  Students then go into the heavier verbal input portion of the lesson with this “big picture” view of the material, and as you add detail to the image through other input methods, those details make better sense to students because they can situate the details into this big picture framework.

3. Have Your Students Flesh Out the Visual

No image is going to be able to do the entire job of inputting complex new material into students’ brains.  Presenting a well-designed visual first can certainly help students grasp the big idea of a chunk of input, but you are almost always going to want to add detail to that big picture representation (most often through a short chunk of lecture or by having students read some text, or both).

Here’s my suggestion: when you first introduce the visual aid to start your input chunk, only label as much of the image as necessary for students to get the overall structure of the information (whether the information is going to be organized in a cause-and-effect manner, or whether it’s hierarchical, or cyclical, or modular, etc.).  Then, give a copy of the visual to each student, and have the students fill in the details as you present more information in your lecture, or as they read. Again, having the big picture visual in front of them as they listen or read helps them to make sense of the details, and the participatory nature of having to write the details into the organizer focuses students’ attention and keeps them engaged.

4. Break Verbal and Textual Input into Bite-Sized Chunks

Finally, since verbal/textual processing represents a bottleneck in the overall processing of information, I highly suggest that you break your lectures into shorter chunks of no more than ten minutes at a time (this is for high school students–I would make the chunks shorter for younger students).  Likewise, I would break longer informational texts into short chunks and have students read and process a piece at a time, making meaning as they go.

Again quoting Medina: “Reading large blocks of text is an extremely unpleasant, energy-intensive task for the brain to perform…Having an instantly recognizable, defined, bite-sized block of text may telegraph to the brain that the painful experience is limited, providing relief” (Bazadona, 2016).

Conclusion

Teaching is a challenging task under any circumstances.  It only makes sense that we learn as much as possible about how our students’ brains work and adapt our instructional practice to match that information.  The research reported here–that visuals are processed more quickly and more effectively than verbal input or text–has broad implications for teaching practice.  Designing the input sections of our lessons in such a way that it takes these understandings into account will help our students learn more efficiently.  Do this consistently, and watch your students’ learning skyrocket!

Resources

A picture is worth a thousand words. (n.d.).  In Wikipedia. Retrieved April 10, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_picture_is_worth_a_thousand_words.

Bazadona, D.  (March 22, 2016). The science of snackable: 6 scientific reasons your brain loves listicles.  BuzzFeed.  www.huffingtonpost.com/damian-bazadona/the-science-of-snackable-_b_9518162.html.

Pelli, D. G., Farell, B., & Moore, D. C.  (2003).  The remarkable inefficiency of word recognition.  Nature, 423(12 June 2003): 752-756.