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Reflecting on viewing: Supporting teachers to make judgements about students in the upper primary and lower secondary years of schooling

Anne Simpson and Joelie Hancock
School of Education
Flinders University

The Reflecting on Viewing project[1] was undertaken jointly by the Flinders University and the University of South Australia, with the participation of 23 teachers in seven schools. Its purposes were to:

The report was published in three volumes:

Volume 1:The main report which includes discussion of the investigation's aims and methods; provides an overview and discussion of the teachers' units of work with visual texts; explores the place of viewing in the national statements and profiles; considers assessment issues; and suggests the kinds of support needed by teachers if critical viewing is to be part of the curriculum.
Volume 2:A collection of nine of the viewing units, written by the teachers who planned and taught them.
Volume 3:An Executive Summary, which summarises the major findings.

The recommendations from the research were categorised under the following headings: the statements and profiles; models and resources; the assessment of critical viewing; commitment from schools to the teaching of viewing; and professional development. All three volumes were written for an audience of teachers as well as administrators and policy makers.


The National Plan (DEETYA, 1998) is based primarily upon the need for students to develop adequate literacy skills in terms of reading and writing in English. While skills related to listening, speaking and viewing are mentioned in the National Plan, the focus is clearly upon reading and writing print in a traditional sense. Given the profile of visual texts in modern society, their significance in the experiences of young people, and the development of new image making technologies, this omission needs to be addressed. It is important that visual texts be given appropriate status by teachers, parents and curriculum writers if they are to be afforded the serious analysis they merit. Furthermore, the findings of this research, as outlined below, suggest that including the study of visual texts in the curriculum, may enhance many students' enthusiasm for and commitment to schooling and their willingness to engage in associated reading and writing tasks.

There are specific implications arising from the Reflecting on Viewing project for the National Plan in regard to several of the identified 'aspects of literacy'. These include: Section 5.2 Teaching and learning for ESL and bilingual students; Section 5.7 Maintaining and enhancing strong literacy throughout schooling; and Section 5.8 Literacy and technology. For example, data from the teachers involved in the research suggested that visual texts provided more opportunities for success for students disadvantaged by limited English literacy skills. In many cases the use of visual texts increased these students' confidence and engaged them on a more equal footing with native English speakers. The implication for the National Plan of findings such as this is that the teaching and use of visual texts must be recognised as contributing to the engagement and success of students who are not experiencing success in literacy.

Teachers from a range of curriculum areas were involved in this project and used a variety of visual texts to teach. Whereas it is true that traditionally literacy has been the domain of the English teacher, no specific curriculum area has been seen to be responsible for visual literacy. It could be argued, then, that all teachers should properly be involved in the development of critical viewing skills and that schools are in a strong position to develop 'whole school' programs.

A further link with the National Plan relates to the development of new technologies. As the National Plan states, 'new information technologies bring with them profound changes in the range of nature of texts' (DEETYA, 1998, p. 41). This project highlighted some of the uses to which technology has been put to produce images and stories of great complexity, sophistication and power. Often the print and the image are integral to each other and it is critical that students can read both; that is, that they are taught how and for what purposes these texts are constructed.


One of the major aims of the project was to investigate the kinds of support that teachers felt they needed to teach successfully critical viewing skills to young adolescents. Consequently many of the findings of the report relate to the professional development needs identified both by the 23 focus teachers, by teachers around Australia who responded to a questionnaire and by the researchers.

It was clear from our findings that support in the teaching of viewing has to be a major focus of future inservice programs for all teachers. Key findings which need to be considered in the development of any such programs include:

The project reinforced the value of collaboration with and between teachers, and for working with groups of teachers in schools who are then able to offer each other mutual support and encouragement. The need for formal commitment from schools and educational administrations to legitimise the study of visual texts in the eyes of parents and even other school staff was an important issue. The resources most valued by teachers were those written by other teachers about their practices, and for this reason we recommend that in the development of any resources, researchers and curriculum writers work together with teachers. Our experience was that most teachers also need a great deal of time and support to write about their practices.


Apart from some confusion surrounding 'critical viewing', there were two specific areas which proved to be hurdles for teachers and which could well be the foci of further research. First, teachers were often unclear about what students already knew about visual texts - where they got their knowledge from, what they did with it, and where the gaps were in this knowledge. Students come to school with extensive experiences of visual texts, and teachers would benefit from more knowledge about what it is that young people understand about these texts. Second, we need more information about how to assess critical viewing without relying on written products - how to assess understandings about visual texts which can be demonstrated and assessed in ways which do not depend on the student's ability to write in formal English.


The inclusion of visual texts in all curriculum documents based on the nationally developed statements and profiles is one step in their acceptance as formal and necessary texts for learning. Viewing has been included with reading in the English statement and profiles. However, in doing this, there has been no acknowledgment that teaching viewing may make some unique demands on teachers and schools in terms of pedagogy, resources, knowledge and skills. Indeed, by pairing it with reading, the assumption is that it is the same - if one can teach reading, one can teach viewing. Certainly, there are many similarities, and graphics and print are often closely integrated in texts. But, as we found in our investigation, there are differences which need to be taken into account. The focus teachers in this study were enthusiastic about teaching viewing, enjoyed the experience, and were positive about continuing developing their skills in the area. We recommend that the National Plan explicitly recognises the importance of visual texts and the particular demands teaching them make upon teachers.

Furthermore, the inclusion of viewing and visual texts in curriculum documents is of limited value unless accompanied by the training of teachers to teach viewing, the acquisition of appropriate technology and infrastructure, and the development and distribution of the kinds of teaching materials we identified in the report. Professional development, access to relevant models and resources and support for teachers within their schools are essential if the opportunity to help young people recognise, challenge, and perhaps reshape some of the ideologies which are conveyed so powerfully through the visual images of our modern society is to be realised.


DEETYA. (1998). Literacy for all: The challenge for Australian schools: Commonwealth literacy policies for Australian schools. Canberra, ACT: Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs. http://www.dest.gov.au/archive/schools/literacy&numeracy/publications/lit4all.htm


  1. Hancock, J. & Simpson, A. (1997). Reflecting on viewing. (Vols 1-3). Canberra: DEETYA. http://www.griffith.edu.au/school/cls/clearinghouse/content_1997_reflecting.html
Author details: Anne Simpson,
Faculty of Education,
University of South Australia
Underdale, SA, 5032.
Email: anne.simpson@unisa.edu.au

Please cite as: Simpson, A. and Hancock, J. (1999). Reflecting on viewing: Supporting teachers to make judgements about students in the upper primary and lower secondary years of schooling. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 15(1), 69-74. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer15/simpson.html

[ Contents Vol 15, 1999 ] [ QJER Home ]
Created 1 Jan 2005. Last revision: 2 Jan 2005.
URL: http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer15/simpson.html