Use of Images to Support Critical Visual Literacy

A Small-Scale Study In a Religious Education (re) Setting In Karachi, Pakistan

In: Scottish Educational Review
Rehana AdilIndependent Author/Researcher or self authorship,

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In a contemporary society dominated by visual media, critical visual literacy (cvl) is a significant skill to inculcate, and yet, in some educational systems, its integration in teaching and education has not (yet) achieved enough recognition, especially in a context like Pakistan. As it is assumed that students will develop the necessary competencies by themselves as they operate in a far more visually stimulating world today. This view, however, is contested in literature where it is claimed that students can learn to develop cvl competencies just like they develop their phonemic literacy skills. Thus, the current study investigated how the use of images in a classroom of 12-year-olds in Karachi, Pakistan can help them develop cvl. Using an action research methodology with video-recorded observations, focus-group interviews, teacher’s reflections, and students’ work, data was obtained over 10 weeks. The findings from the study suggested that as students analysed and interpreted images, they enhanced their abilities to consider multiple perspectives, critical thinking, application-based learning, and visualization, eventually, improving their engagement, learning, and development. However, for some students, the process of critical interrogation of images was found to be challenging. Also, a well-prepared teacher with pedagogical content knowledge on cvl was found equally important to involve students in more meaningful learning experiences.


In a contemporary society dominated by visual media, critical visual literacy (cvl) is a significant skill to inculcate, and yet, in some educational systems, its integration in teaching and education has not (yet) achieved enough recognition, especially in a context like Pakistan. As it is assumed that students will develop the necessary competencies by themselves as they operate in a far more visually stimulating world today. This view, however, is contested in literature where it is claimed that students can learn to develop cvl competencies just like they develop their phonemic literacy skills. Thus, the current study investigated how the use of images in a classroom of 12-year-olds in Karachi, Pakistan can help them develop cvl. Using an action research methodology with video-recorded observations, focus-group interviews, teacher’s reflections, and students’ work, data was obtained over 10 weeks. The findings from the study suggested that as students analysed and interpreted images, they enhanced their abilities to consider multiple perspectives, critical thinking, application-based learning, and visualization, eventually, improving their engagement, learning, and development. However, for some students, the process of critical interrogation of images was found to be challenging. Also, a well-prepared teacher with pedagogical content knowledge on cvl was found equally important to involve students in more meaningful learning experiences.


Students in the 21st century interact in a more visually stimulating world through their Internet practices, televisions, video games, and computers; thus, they are prone to becoming visual learners (Gangwer, 2015). This implies that students tend to react actively toward various visual tools, leading to the instant consumption of messages that “create a stimulating, interactive and conducive environment…” (Vadsariya, 2014: 1). Gilbert (2013: 90) asserts that “most students are so familiar with [visuals] that they instantly absorb the messages contained within them,” consequently, “students subconsciously come to consider that…[visuals] as a medium…[do] not require analysis or critique”. This suggests that teaching students to read and interpret media and images from a critical and analytical standpoint has become increasingly important. Students should be equipped with the ability to read, analyse, and produce any kind of visual text, known as visual literacy (Chung, 2013: 4). However, what constitutes the consciousness of meanings and usage of visual texts that work to position us as viewers? Schieble (2014) states that students that possess the skills to effectively navigate, manipulate, and critique information presented visually can successfully operate in a highly techno-visual world. This approach is known as critical visual literacy; the ability to engage critically in visual texts to recognise that they “work to position us and that this happens below the level of consciousness…, [thus] it provides strategies for making these workings conscious” (Newfield, 2011: 92). These views, thus, set the premise of this research. The research was undertaken in a Religious Education Centre (rec) of the Shia Ismaili Muslim Community1 in Karachi Pakistan with 7th-grade students aged between 12 and 13. Students in these supplementary education centres in Karachi study a specially designed Secondary Curriculum developed by the Institute of Ismaili Studies (iis), London2 for global Ismaili students of ages between 12 to 16 years. The iis secondary level curriculum advocates the use of multiple methods to cater to diverse learning needs. It endorses visual learning and asserts, “the visual component of the reader is also of educational value in the instructional process. Teachers will find references in the guide to maps, illustrations, photographs, or diagrams that can be examined more closely with pupils” (iis, 2012, p.25). Consequently, it encourages teachers and teaching that seeks to involve multiple representations of content such as video, audio, images, and other interactive elements along with the written body of text to respond to the various learning styles of an increasingly diverse student body (Sankey, Birch, and Gardiner, 2010).

Moreover, the inclusion of a variety of visual images in the student reader specifically in the Ethics-based module titled Ethical Pathways to Human Development (ephd),3 and my curiosity to understand how visual images can impact the classroom learning experience and support students in developing critical visual literacy has further guided this research, It also sought to identify the challenges and success of employing images in the classroom.

Literature Review


In this study, the working definition of an image comes from an indefinite concept of text that extends beyond the written script presented in traditional books and into a realm of semiotic possibilities, including “pictures, gestures, animation, and other representational modes” (Siegel, 2006:65). In this sense, an image is significantly distinct from the notions of reputation and branding which are often used to describe things like character, ethos, personalities, and experiences in contexts such as politics and the corporate world (Simons, 2009). Mitchells (1986: 10) conceives the idea of a family of images, which is made up of optical, mental, perceptual, and verbal images. Thus, an image can be perceived as a representation of things that contain some visual characters, more precisely what we come to experience about sight.

My intention here was to limit my study to what is valid for visual images in general, that is still pictures, painting, photographs, and drawings without connecting to or questioning any specific cultural tradition. Many visual theorists and educators like Messaris (1994), Hodge and Kress (1988), The New London Group (1996), and Newfield (1993), have mentioned visual images of all kinds are different forms of informational texts. They work in a similar fashion yet the ways in which they are used tend to represent different “meaning, ideas, and feelings, often in complex combinations and orchestrations with words, sounds, and movement.” (Newfield, 2011: 82). Photographs and film images, for example, create a powerful sense of “reality”, “truth” and “evidence” because they not only bear a resemblance to the objects they represented, unlike verbal and written language-based texts but also draw the viewers in and make them play with their emotions, such as joy or sadness.

Visual images, however, advocate careful scrutiny of the elements that make up an image as a visual to enhance understanding, engagement, and appreciation (Newfield, 2011: 82). These elements include but are not limited to what Gunther Kress (2011) noted as the “logic of the image” (p. 20) which can be both spatial and simultaneous. Information carried through the image is dependent upon a spatial arrangement, such as objects’ kind, colour, size, angle, distance, tone, and their presentation all in the same frame. This visual information is not arranged sequentially as is found in the case with written text, but this is according to Newfield, (2011: 85) “simultaneously present” to the reader/viewer as an overall site of display. The choice with which these details are being placed in an image affects the simultaneity of the meanings for a reader which requires to be read or analysed using critical viewing skills. Thus, the research used images as a pedagogy to develop critical visual literacy skills in students.

Critical (Visual) Literacy

Critical visual literacy is distinct from visual literacy “as it goes beyond mere analysis and understanding of visual objects” (Chung, 2013: 4). It is informed by the theories and practices stemming from “a way of thinking and a method for critique” (Sandretto 2011: 17). Critical literacy theory presupposes the idea that knowledge is a social construct where learners “learn how to read the world and their lives critically and relatedly” (Shor and Pari, 1999: 20). This view of knowledge stems from Paulo Freire’s idea of literacy (1973 and 1987). Freire argues that literacy is not a mechanical program that involves the passive reception of knowledge; rather, it is linked to the awakening of the consciousness to the world through a critical approach.

McLaughlin and DeVoogd (2004) suggest that critical literacy involves disrupting the commonplace by examining texts from multiple perspectives, noticing relationships, and taking actions towards transformation. This implies a process to bring out and make meaning from a critical standpoint, whereby “a reader searches for hidden messages…behind the information conveyed in texts and locates these messages as part of larger social, historical, and political contexts” (Schieble, 2014: 49). Such an approach towards literacy as also suggested by (Freire, 1973, Luke and Freebody, 1999 and Janks, 2014) thus, has become vital when facilitating students to not only recognize, reflect upon, and grasp the meaning behind “the contents of visual images, but to examine the social impact of those images, to discuss the purpose, audience, and ownership as well as visualise internally and communicate visually” (Bamford, 2003:1) the ideas and values put forward by the authors.

Critical visual literacy in this sense becomes a form of critical literacy that pays particular attention to the visual modes of a text and its use(s), and how, together or without written text, they create meaning(s). With regards to visual images, critical visual literacy includes looking carefully at both images and texts, if used together, and examine how they interact together to form meaning(s). In other words, critical visual literacy entails looking at how the conventional written body of knowledge and its visualisation are used to convey specific ideas, positions and biases contained within them (Evans, 2015). This means that if we want students to be critical reader-viewer of visual information that they are acquainted with on daily basis, we need to engage them in discussions of how authors/illustrators use visual tools of an image [that are discussed above] to not only present an idea or message (Serafini, 2012; Callow, 2017) but also help us understand how readers are “pulled into the ideal reading position” (Newfield, 2011: 85). For example, objects that are placed at the centre or larger in size within an image frame tend to be more important and/or demonstrate power. Similarly, the encoded text if, written in bigger fonts and placed above the image tends to offer varied interpretations. Thus, such ‘spatial’ arrangements or image structures present in a visual form offer multiple cues for a reader to interpret different aspects of it (Hassett and Schieble, 2014). This process, as a result, allows a reader of an image to interpret how people, places, and events flow within an image, or what power relations do they have amongst themselves, eventually providing a reader rich opportunities for developing academic skills and articulating ideas about race, gender, religion, and justice, for example, just by looking critically at the placement of different details in an image. Therefore, critical visual literacy, in this sense, takes inspiration from critical literacy and extends its scope by moving beyond the verbal and written language of information.

Critical Visual Literacy in Education

Much literature exists on how engaging in critical literacy enables students to be critical in reading texts which are mainly presented as a written body of knowledge (Morgan, 1997). However, literature has also provided examples wherein engaging with visual texts, such as images, leads to “critical inquiry [that] weaves [into] critical literacy practices throughout the curriculum and offers children prolonged engagement with issues that are important to them” (Laman, 2006: 204). Laman (2006: 211) recollects this argument based on his observations in a multi-age classroom where critical inquiry activities were a routine. Through the analysis of one student’s shift in thinking because of critical literacy, he claimed that asking students to write and draw their questions, responses and reflections marked the beginning of their critical inquiry journey and empowered them to question the representations in the visual texts that “picture books may not represent real things”. This discourse seems transferable to other contexts where the use of images aims to foster critical visual literacy practices, whereby students can be encouraged by “thinking about, responding to, and creating texts, moving to social action, and developing an awareness of texts in relation to the larger context in which [they] live” (Kurki, 2015: 16). This may also help students construct knowledge from images, rather than merely accepting them, their functions, and ascribed narratives.

Similarly, Newfield (2011) in his analysis of educational materials from the Words and Pictures (1993) workbook, claims that to interrogate how a photograph can mirror an image of reality, critical visual literacy should discuss the positioned and positioning nature of visual texts, their social effects and the semiotic choices made in the visual texts. He suggests that engaging students in critical discourses of an image’s site of display, examination of verbal text, and historical and contextual information can contribute to students’ abilities to critically engage with images (Newfield, 2011: 8-8). Consequently, critical visual literacy aims at empowering students to appreciate the artistic qualities of texts, analyse these texts as sites of forming an understanding, identify problems of and with visual (mis)representations to negotiate meanings, and use creative tools for self-expression.

Many classroom teachers who use critical visual literacy texts in their instruction create safe spaces for students to talk about tough topics by using images as a vehicle. For example, Roth (2010) uses images of inner-city youths in the media with secondary students and found them being cognizant of their socio-cultural issues. By incorporating supplementary texts, other visuals, and providing opportunities to create counter-narratives and self-portraits, Roth was able to provide the students a safe space to not only “recognise, analyse, and critique the mainstream portrayals of fear, violence”, but also to “critically repositioning themselves as knowers of lived realities instead of as potential consumers of mainstream discourse” (p. 29). Similarly, research by Callow (2006) explores the persuasive role of images in students’ understanding of democracy and political advertising. Qualitative evidence from this study suggests that the integration of visual language, critical questioning, and opportunities for creating images not only provides students with a vocabulary to describe images but also supports students’ critical thinking skills and critical interpretations of the texts they encounter in the wider socio-cultural contexts as well as their own created ones.

Use of Images in Religious Education

The use of visual arts in religious education has been widely researched. Miller (2003) provides a helpful overview of research in this area by analysing academic and professional papers published in the United Kingdom on the visual arts in religious education. Studies differ in ways in which visual arts (via a choice of art as a medium) are used in a classroom, and in aims for learners that have been used in re as a subject of study. Some explored the use of arts including images to explore and promote awareness about the ideas of mystery and transcendent (Lealman and Robinson 1981b, 11 as cited in Miller, 2003: p. 201), ‘aesthetic or spiritual development’ (Slee, 1992; Starkings 1993 as cited in Miller, 2003: p. 206), while others include aims such as creativity as a means of thinking and awareness, and visualization (Harris, 1987 as cited in Miller, 2003: 208). Many studies emphasized the importance of using creative arts in the re teaching and learning processes because, in almost all societies, a relationship between religions and creative arts is said to have existed (Engler and Naested, 2002). People have often expressed their beliefs, values, and ideas through drawings, paintings, icons, mosaics, and music that are again often represented through images, photographs, and artists’ illustrations in re textbooks. However, according to Jackson et al., (2010), the visuals in re books are for the most part introduced to either ‘occupy the space’ or as ‘enriching components’ with and without reference to its powerful use. Studies have shown that images are carefully chosen to facilitate text, but they are either rarely used for learning or the text often precedes images in a re classroom (Jackson et al., 2010; Engler and Naested, 2002). This means that when speaking of re, the explicit focus is on interpreting, contextualizing, and challenging texts, and in doing so, images are seldom treated the same. Therefore, in this study, I drew on a critical visual literacy approach that can support students’ critical engagement with visual images selected from the ephd module and outside sources, such as newspaper images along with teacher-facilitated questions, guided tasks, image analysis, and peer and small group discussions, and connections building activities.

Data Collection and Analysis Methods

In this research, non-statistical, qualitative data was collected through students’ perceptions, experiences, responses, and reactions to the use of images in a “real-world setting” (Patton, 2002: 39). The gathered evidence attached to the “qualitative paradigm”, also known as “interpretive methodology,” places an emphasis on exploring students’ experiences and responses to the use of images (Robson, 2011: 24). Since the study was based on teaching & reflective practices, the action research paradigm was used as it “combines a substantive act with a research procedure…disciplined by inquiry, a personal attempt at understanding while engag[ing] in a process of improvement” (Hopkins and Ahtaridou, 2008: 47). This process supported the researcher to bring advancements in the practice of using images whilst developing an understanding of the said practice. Miller (2000: 6) states, that research is a “systematic inquiry conducted by teacher researchers….in the teaching/learning environment”, where actions are teacher-driven, and the researcher is “committed … to affect positive educational change based on their findings” (p. 4). This, therefore, enabled ownership of the process to collect evidence-based data to support claims for the researcher’s actions, and report findings as a product.

Sixteen student participants were engaged to investigate how the use of images positions them as viewers, enabling them to become critical thinkers and readers. Although this sample size may seem large for in-depth examinations of thinking patterns and understanding (Patton 2002), purposive sampling was used to conduct semi-structured interviews with participants after obtaining parental consent. Initially, five students participated in semi-structured interviews which helped determine their perceptions of using images in their learning prior to the intervention. With the aim of gaining more diverse data (for example, differences in schools, examination systems, and gender) the sample size was expanded to participants who had attended the whole breadth and length of the research. Video-recorded observations, focus group interviews, teacher’s reflections, and students’ work were also consulted to triangulate data to increase the validity of claims made. Triangulation is a practice through which a researcher can “look at a research topic from a variety of perspectives” (Denscombe, 2010: 154). Though each method was used differently based on its suitability to the task at hand, they provided corroboration to ensure that reliable inferences could be derived (Creswell, 2002). Thus, a “thematic-coding approach” suggested by Robson (2011: 476) was utilized to examine the collected data; a “generic approach for the analysis of qualitative data… reports experiences, meanings, and the range of discourses” that had taken place in my classroom setting. Since instruction and data collection were predominantly in Urdu language, a part of the process included transcribing and translating the data, mainly students’ responses during the focus group interviews and video-recorded observations were translated into English. All data sets obtained from interviews, observations, reflections, and students’ work were analysed at two major levels. The first level was to search for patterns pertaining to students’ pre- and post-perceptions of engaging with images and how those perceptions have changed over the course of this study. At the second level, emerging themes regarding images supporting critical visual literacy development in the re classroom were identified. To support this inquiry, Powell and Renner’s (2003) analysis process provided below in figure 1, was adapted and implemented, which is illustrated in the diagram below.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Data Analysis Process (Adapted from Powell and Renner (2003))

Citation: Scottish Educational Review 54, 1 (2022) ; 10.1163/27730840-54010005

Moreover, careful consideration was given to the ethics of the research. Before collecting the data, ethical guidance by bera (2011) and the explanations by Denscombe (2014), were used to inform the ethics of the research, and the same was discussed with my supervisor who was a senior colleague, mentoring my work. According to Denscombe, (2014), it is always essential that participants’ rights are considered, they should never be compelled to take part in a study, and their informed consent always needs to be obtained so that they are protected from any harm. Since the study involved the participation of students under the age of eighteen, they along with their parents’ voluntary consent were obtained. Informed consent can be defined as “the procedures in which individuals choose whether to participate in an investigation after being informed of facts that would be likely to influence their decisions (Cohen et al., 2007, p. 52). To receive informed consent, participants of the study were provided sufficient information about the research project to make their decisions. To do this, an in-person session with participants and their parents was conducted. In this session, participants and their parents were provided a platform to ask any questions they may have had about the research and were explained the topic and purpose(s) of conducting the research. It was also ensured that participants and their parents did not feel coerced into participating due to this research being a rec endeavor, and thus, were informed that their participation must be voluntary, and they had a right to withdraw at any moment if they did not wish to continue to participate. After the session, participants and their parents were given a consent form which included information about participants’ participation, use of their produced work, and confidentiality while reporting participants’ views using pseudonyms. The use of pseudonyms and their consent to use their work was essential to this study to prevent any potentially sensitive data from being disclosed (bera, 2011). Thus, throughout the study, I “ensured that data is kept securely and that … any form of the publication including… the internet does not directly or indirectly lead to a breach of agreed confidentiality and anonymity” (bera, 2011:8).

Findings and Analysis

Students’ Perceptions of using Images

The present study outlines specific pre-involvement factors which contribute to image literacy. Many of them responded positively, stating that images facilitate their learning and development. Rayyan shared that; ‘they are important because not everyone can easily grasp what has been told or taught to them…if we use pictures in our presentation, it becomes easier to understand things.’ Similarly, Hassan stated that: ‘sometimes, most comprehensive concepts can be made easy to learn from pictures/diagrams like the natural cycle of plants.’ These comments reveal that students participating in the interview do understand and realise the importance of using images in their learning.

The findings also revealed that students perceived the use of images as one of the ways to retain their learning for a longer period. For example, in her interview, Kiran mentioned that; ‘they are important in our learning because they become part of our imagination…whatever we learn, our brains try to make an image of it, for us to remember that learning for long.’ Faiz further enhanced this point by highlighting that,

…we try to construct our knowledge through pictures like the painting of the Mona Lisa…if I am only told or given a written text saying that when you look at the painting you may feel that Mona Lisa’s eyes are following you wherever you look in the painting… how would I validate this information if I am not seeing her painting?

These responses show that students who participated in the focus group not only understand the significance of learning through images but that they also acknowledged the role of images in the construction of knowledge and understanding of foreign concepts. Faiz’s response also points out his ability to think analytically about the information he was given with and without an image. On the other hand, Kiran’s response indicated a scientific perspective of how the images used in learning become a part of their imagination which then helped them to remember and recall the information they have learned. Thus, it can be said that students perceive images as significant to their learning. However, these pre-perceptions of students did not provide insights into students’ critical engagement with images to understand how images work and the power they have in shaping their understanding and thinking processes. This missing element was consequently found in students’ perceptions after the intervention was introduced.

The intervention took the form of a question table presented below in table 1 to help students notice, analyse, and question the visuals in the images used in the study.

In post-study interviews, student participants reported that the process of analysing images helped them to be critical in identifying and reading messages that were being conveyed through images. They termed this process as a “new experience”, “new exploration” and “new thing to know and learn”. For example, Zehra shared in the interview.

Before this, I used to see images randomly and become judgemental about it… I either like them or dislike them…I never go beyond to find out why somebody has taken or drawn an image in a way due to which I have reasons for liking or disliking them… or what different artists are trying to convey, I never questioned…but now I knew that I cannot take everything as it is shown.

The above response reveals a shift in Zehra’s processing of images, which now takes on a critical lens that goes beyond superficial observations. Hassan’s response demonstrates a similar sentiment.

Yes, observing, questioning, and interpreting images with reasons helped me to understand what we are learning…initially it was difficult for me because in school I never examine any image, but looking at images through various viewpoints helped me in my understanding… and my observation skills became strong.

The above response shows that the process of deconstructing an image in various ways not only helped the student to comprehend his learning but also enhanced his observations skills. These include seeing the image, recognizing its important features, and analysing the information embedded. It was interesting to note that the student was not provided with any such opportunity to examine images before, and therefore, it may have been difficult for him.

Moreover, during a discussion centred on an image,4 students were asked to reflect on whether they thought critical engagement with images was useful to their learning and development. This image was about a mosque surrounded by shops in Cario and was used to unfold the concept of charity, help, and care within Muslim traditions. Anum shared in her reflection:

I think questioning images were helpful…because not everything that I see is right and/or true…the practice of image analysis helped me to search for the artist’s viewpoints; the purpose of creating an image…and look for missing elements, such as did all Muslims responded to the ethical call of Islam by contributing funds… I do not agree…

The response indicates that analysing images by questioning the information portrayed in them developed critical thought. Anum highlighted how questioning not only helped her become sceptical about information she received from the images but that it also allowed her to analyse aspects related to the image’s context and served purposes. Therefore, the data suggest that students found critical engagement with images helpful to their learning and development.

Developing Alternative Perspectives

On various occasions, students highlighted that reading and working with images helped them develop an objective standpoint about the information presented in them, rather than restricting them to what an individual can see and find in the common description. For example, an image of a dazed child who survived an airstrike in Syria was used to help students understand the effects of man-made disasters on people, environment, and community and why the images of those affected people were used in media. After the image analysis through questions and discussion with peers, Rahim shared the following reflection,

When I look at the picture first, I thought it is a picture of a boy who was injured in a blast. I felt bad. But when we start discussing and questioning the picture and when my friends shared their views about child. He is a Syrian boy, and his home is destroyed. I thought that the photographer wants to tell something about the human loss in Syria… And kids are innocent. Now I could know that why a photographer used a photo of a child filled with blood and published in the media.

Rahim’s reflection shows his critical engagement with the image whereby he highlighted a shift in his thought process. Although he held the opinion that what he saw in the image was the truth, he soon recognised that his interpretation was limited to his own thinking; analysis of different aspects of the image, and his friends’ views allowed him to critically examine the intention and choice of the photographer who used the image of a child. Hence, this shows that images can be an effective tool in developing different viewpoints and offering alternative perspectives. This can be further supported by Faiz’s interview response.

when I explored images on my own, I explored them according to my understanding, thinking and the little knowledge that I have…but when my friends share their views…I can see how my thinking is different from theirs… like in the image of an old man and a girl5 [the image represented an experience of a girl aged 12 about the scheme called ‘Adopt a Grandparent’ who joined it after losing her grandparent]…we all had different views that may be she is helping, or she is his caretaker or daughter, I could compare my views with theirs and think about whether I should dismiss my opinion and accept my friend’s or if both are right…and then the description that you gave us later on added to our thoughts…that it also was about values…help, support to elderly..

This shows that not only was Faiz able to examine images based on his own understanding and prior knowledge but that engaging with his friends’ viewpoints enabled him to evaluate his own examinations. Moreover, he identified differences and similarities between what is given in the image and what others had to say about it. My reflection also confirmed that:

Images with guided questions stimulated some students to explore different perspectives. They tried to see the world from another person’s view. Like today, students read the Syrian boy’s image by reflecting on his emotions and what he might be thinking. They also sought to examine the context of Syria and a rationale behind the choice of the photographer in publishing a child’s image in the media.

The above reflection highlights that questioning images provided insight into the lens of various characters; one who was represented in the image and the one who presented the image, and where it was presented; fostering critical inquiry. Thus, “being able to examine an issue from multiple viewpoints, no matter what your own viewpoint may be, is a significant part of developing critical [visual] literacy” (Papola-Ellis, 2016: p. 16).

Identifying and Discussing Social Issues

Once students were able to consider multiple perspectives while critically engaging with the images, they ultimately discussed and negotiated pertinent social issues such as stereotypes based on clothes and religious ideas while exploring concepts like what determines modern/modernity and tradition/traditional contained. In the data analysed, students identified and discussed social issues contained within the images and reflected on the issues that were prevalent in their society. As Rayyan said.

…analysis of images of the Galata Bridge,6 [in Istanbul, Turkey. This bridge has been important in bringing people of different cultures together in the early part of the 20th Century] and the two women (cartoon image) one7 (the cartoon showed a woman in sunglass and a bikini looking at a woman in a burka and thinking, ‘Everything covered but her eyes – what a cruel male-dominated culture.’ While the woman in the burka looks back and thinks, ‘Nothing covered but her eyes – what a cruel male-dominated culture helped me to break down dominant messages in them… like judging people’s religion or actions by their appearance of clothes and looks…this is the problem of our society… no one can judge me based on what I wear…like jeans are not a religion… so when we come across certain images, we should be mindful of the messages they portray.

Rayyan’s response highlights three interesting concepts. Firstly, it suggests that through the image analysis, he was able to identify a social issue and contest the thinking that he thought could be generated when people interpret images containing problematic representations. Secondly, it shows his critical engagement in examining aspects of problems portrayed in the images, such as judging someone based on their clothing, which then helped him to understand how images shape thinking. Thirdly, not only did he dismiss the dominant viewpoint circulating through the images, but he also justified it by providing a personal response.

A similar discourse can be evident in work done by a group of four students in a worksheet presented in below figure 2. They identified issues of their society and pointed out their effects on them after an image analysis activity where they first deconstructed possible issues portrayed in it and then analyzed its effects on people and the society.

Figure 2
Figure 2

Part of a Worksheet Given to Pupils on Issues of Society and Their Effects on its People

Citation: Scottish Educational Review 54, 1 (2022) ; 10.1163/27730840-54010005

In the above example of student work, the issue of debate between different religious groups in Pakistani societies came out to be a prevalent social issue. The group of students highlighted ways in which they thought that the problem was affecting them and the people belonging to these religious groups, such as people’s inability to practice their own religion or children being targeted violently because of these debates. Their responses show that not only were they able to examine different aspects of different social problems, but they also related those problems to themselves as members of that society. We can thus, see how the image stimulated inquiry in students where they could see how certain images portray issues that bear similarities with the issues that they face either in their lives or in their surroundings which are often left unquestioned and unanalysed.

However, not all students found examining social issues within images an easy task. Video recorded observations reveal that some students found it challenging to see relevance of some of the images and the social issues resented through them to their own life and context. My reflection states

I thought asking students to link what they examined in the image to their own lives would work great… but some students struggled with identifying problems from society because they thought those issues should reflect what they identified in the image.

These observations suggest that some students were unable to make connections between the messages conveyed through images and their own social contexts. Furthermore, students found identifying prevalent social issues, such as religious debates between different groups of Muslims on following different interpretations of Islam in Karachi, Pakistan difficult because they felt that the issues should have been like the ones that they discussed while deconstructing the image. This may have occurred because the analysis format used to decode the images looked for direct application of learning to students’ lives, without discussing what they found through image analysis. To overcome this challenge, scaffolding, peer, and whole classroom discussions and debates on what students found in the images after image analysis were considered integral, which then stimulated students’ thinking and interest. This was evident in Mishal’s response:

I liked the reflection and discussion activities after every image analysis. They allowed us to relate to the learning of the day as well as to reflect on our lives.

This comment elucidates that the use of the above strategies allowed students to make meanings by drawing relationships between their learning experiences and own lives.

Visualising the Learning

The analysed data also demonstrated that working with images along with other tasks such as reading around a concept, understanding it through prompts and articulating the extracted understanding creatively stimulated students’ curiosity and promoted visualization. According to a student’s feedback, learning stemmed from being able to ‘see’ can be considered the first step of comprehension. Usha, for example, expressed the following in her reflection:

the picture of Sabil al-Quattab8 [a water house that was built in Jerusalem in the 15th century by a Mamluk sultan was used to explore in relation to the conceptual understanding of the tradition of sharing, giving, and service in Islam] was interesting. Although it reminds me of old buildings where I used to live, I never thought of a building that serves various purposes, such as education, raising funds and extending generosity to people.

Faiz gave a similar response:

A picture provides us an opportunity to think visually…like we create pictures with our mind’s eyes…like whenever you [referring to me] asked us to recap previous learning, we instantly started thinking in pictures like what we did in the last class and how.

The above comments indicate that images stimulated visualisation which sequentially enabled students to situate their learning not only from the content but also through reflecting on their own learning experiences both inside and outside of the classroom. Moreover, when students were encouraged to illustrate their ideas and understanding of the lesson’s key messages by creating an image or using visual thinking maps, it fostered students’ cognitive development. Video-recorded observations indicate that in the beginning, students found it difficult to present their thoughts in the form of an image, but gradually, engaging in the process of image reading helped them to overcome this difficulty. This was evident in Mishal’s response.

…in the beginning, I could not understand how to present what we learned in an image…but slowly image reading helped me to question the presentation of figures within them which helped me to visualise how those figures can be represented differently…like the image of the lady in the veil we discussed, is not representative of all Muslim women… a model in a scarf can be a Muslim.9

The above statement demonstrates how deconstructing images not only enabled the student to overcome the challenge of visualizing learning but also encouraged her to question the representations, deconstruct the convention and visualise a different presentation than the image portrayed. Moreover, the student overcame her struggle of creating images to present her ideas by using a multimodal approach which encouraged using words to ascribe meanings to their visual presentations.

As we can see in figure 3 the student uses a combination of words and pictures of two different roads, which, for him, represents different ethical paths leading to different results. The student tried to orchestrate pictures, using the path as a symbol and words together to articulate his understanding and communicate his message in a distinctive way, presumably one that enables elaboration (Maver, 2003).

Figure 3
Figure 3

A Student’s Representation of What ‘Ethics’ Means to Him

Citation: Scottish Educational Review 54, 1 (2022) ; 10.1163/27730840-54010005

Teacher and Learners’ Challenges

Data also revealed that both the teacher and students faced challenges while teaching and learning through the focus of images; these will be discussed below.

1. Analysis and interrogation were difficult. Since the use of a critical approach to examine meanings from the images was a new experience for some students, they grappled with the issues of analysing and interrogating an image. While analysing video-recorded observations, one significant challenge was that some learners demonstrated a general tendency to accept dominant representations without questioning them. For example, during an image analysis discussion on issues that humans are facing today, Arshad mentioned,

Like there are different religions in a country, there are also different cultures where people use different types of clothing…. like in this image the lady in a veil seems to be a Muslim and the other one in revealing clothes seems to be a Christian.

It was interesting to see how the student drew from his prior conception of associating clothing as an indicator of religious identity. What I found missing in the above response was the student’s questioning if a dress can be a marker of religious identity. This is to say the student took the image at its face value. He expressed what he saw without questioning what he saw. This was further reflected in some students’ comments when I asked how the women were being presented in the image [indicating the projected image], Rameen responded, ‘the lady in the veil looks well-mannered and the other one looks ill-mannered.’ Mishal added, ‘one looks like a westerner and the other one looks like an easterner.’

These accounts reflected the students’ tendency of accepting the information presented through images passively without engaging from a critical standpoint whereby they viewed mannerism and being an easterner or a westerner as linked with the style of clothing. The attempt to go beyond the superficial observations of clothing as not the only representation of mannerism or cultural identity was missing. Similar was expressed by Areeba in the interview:

I struggled with thinking more about an image except for what it is visible in it…like you once gave an image of a mother and child…I thought what else should I think about it… She seems like a mother who is worried for her child…I did not get what other meanings I could take.

Hence, deconstructing an image for deeper meanings was not an easy process for all students like Areeba faced difficulty in looking for meanings other than what was visible in the image. This student’s difficulty was found to be linked with my challenge as a teacher of selecting an appropriate strategy to employ images.

2. Selection of appropriate strategies to employ images. Was the selected image appropriate? This question was often asked and reflected upon especially when the students in the analysis process found interrogating information from images used and drawing connections between the image analysed and the content studied challenging. One of the identified reasons was the use of multiple teaching strategies at a time by the teacher to employ images to facilitate learning. My notes say,

Students could discuss images by deconstructing what emotions are depicted, why particular figures are only used, use of natural symbols, and so on…but during the debriefing of issues of development, those deconstructed ideas from the images were not referred to by students to make the connection with the content.

The above note suggests that the use of images was effective when students analyse or interpret information on their own, but they were unable to correspond their exploration with the learning of the content. Therefore, a need to change my strategies was felt not only to use images for introducing the content, but also as an entry point for inquiry, meaning making, and offering opportunities to think of various ways in which they can apply their learning. However, using images in such different ways also sometimes made it hard for students to follow their learning and thought processes. This was echoed by Munir in the interview:

In the lesson on din and duniya (faith and the world), I liked the picture gallery activity whereby I had to think about why I like this picture. I also enjoyed the worksheet you gave us, but I was confused when you gave a description of the image to read and question it… and then we discussed another image…I was lost…I could not make connections between the image analysis we did individually and the discussion we had on how din and duniya (faith and the world) are inseparable concepts.

The above account reveals ambiguities in understanding the purpose of using images in student learning as well as finding relevance between what they did and learned. Munir’s former response represents his engagement with the image, but the latter part of his response reveals his inability to draw connections between the image analysed and the content studied. This may happen because, students were expected to use the images to support content learning as well as to deconstruct them to make meanings, both at the same time. Whereas these two tasks should not be done simultaneously, but rather one after the other. Another possible reason may have been the lost sight of the objectives of the lesson plan as maintaining a balance between the different roles such as a teacher and a researcher was found to be difficult.


The present study utilised critical literacy theory and questions to outline how engaging with images with a critical lens may lead to the development of critical visual literacy. Eliam and Gilbert (2014) argue that in education systems like Pakistan, there has not been given adequate prominence to the development of critical visual literacy, but rather assume that students will develop the necessary competencies as they encounter visuals. However, my findings were different and support what researchers like Metros (2008); Box and John, (1995), and others have supported for years, that is, students can learn to develop their critical visual literacy skills in the same way they develop their reading and writing skills-through instruction and application. Although the initial students’ responses evidenced that most students have had prior learning experiences where images were used to support their learning of the content they study, there was no evidence found to support that the students were encouraged in critical reading of those images to understand the information presented or if they use the skills beyond classroom learning. After engaging in the process of critical reading of images, my research reveals changes in my students’ perceptions and experiences of how an image can be viewed. For example, in post-group interviews, students expressed that analysing and interpreting images from various viewpoints helped them to be critical in the understanding of whether the presentations portrayed in images are true or not; and how images contain an illustrator’s perspective. As Heinich et, al (1999) and Comacchio (2006) both argued in their research that assisting students to decode and encode images from visual stimuli by analysing and interpreting and creating meanings can develop their critical perspectives; ultimately help them become critical viewers of the images used. This was evident from the findings that students in this research not only demonstrated their abilities to critically decode messages embedded within images but also found the use of images helpful in solidifying their understanding of curricular concepts and making meanings of those concepts. Moreover, students found the use of questioning, reasoning, and evaluating the information received from images useful to their learning and understanding of how an image can shape and manipulate ones’ thoughts and ideas with its encounter, and how one should respond to those manipulations. This aligns with the claims of Schieble (2014) and Roth’s (2010) research where they both suggest the incorporation of critical literacy texts in the classroom can create a safe environment for students to discuss dominant perspectives, be it about religion or ethical values or culture and gender representations, circulating through images and find connections to their lives. Hence, it can be said that although engaging with critical visual literacy was a new exploration for students of this study, they found it constructive to their learning and help them develop high order thinking processes.

A significant facet that emerged from the data suggests that students’ critical engagement with their learning through images would have been a sign that critical visual literacy was a catalysing process. Along the lines of Freire’s idea of learners’ relationship with literacy as a process of “origin of dialogue, an active participant in communication,” “an awakening of the consciousness of the world through a critical approach” (Freire and Macedo, 1987; Endres, 2001: 401), students in this research were perceived to have progressed cognitively by willingly trying to refine their critical abilities and acknowledge their growth. For example, students in this study demonstrated their abilities to engage in critical visual literacy by examining an image through multiple perspectives; identifying and discussing issues like stereotyping based on clothing and religion; locating hidden conventions like artist’s purposes, image audience, and contexts; and by creating and presenting their learning visually to communicate with others. This resonates with Newfield, (2011) and Chung’s, (2013) studies where they both identified similar aspects as some of the aims of critical visual literacy development. However, critical visual literacy in this research was not found to be the same for all students. This is because every student as a reader-viewer tried to approach the images according to their own interpretation and perspective which may have been unique to others, as confirmed by Kurki (2015). Students in this research were also not only found to be drawing on their individual life experiences while engaging with images but also approaching those images with the lenses that have constructed their socio-cultural and religious realities, however, only some students demonstrated abilities to question and critique those constructs. Thus, this study found incorporating images in a re classroom learning was useful in creating spaces for students where “imagination, exploration and expression play a major role” (Miller, 2006: 206) to consequently (re)construct their understanding (Roth, 2010).

Another important theme that emerged was the understanding that critical visual literacy as a skill can be taught. Since the use of images in developing critical visual literacy does not function automatically, it emphasises the role of teachers as central to students’ learning (Vadsariya 2014). My interviews suggested that although students found the use of questions, worksheets, and guided tasks helpful to their engagement with images, the selection, and sequence for appropriate strategies used found to be a challenge that was at times overlooked by myself. Hall and Piazza (2010: 93) argue as teachers, “we are always at risk of not being able to see issues from our students’ perspectives”. From this research, I learned that adhering to a single format [table of guided questions] of treating and analysing all sorts of images, was, at best, earnest as it allowed students to start with the process of critical engagement with the information presented in the images; and was, at worst, based on social constructs that put more emphasis on judging visible aspects of images, and too little emphasis on the many different aspects that an individual can encounter within their lives. This slightly affects their understanding of ethics and morals which is considered a part of religious or spiritual development. Comacchio (2006) believes for teachers to become comfortable in the integration of critical visual literacy practice, a deeper understanding of theoretical, content, and pedagogical knowledge is imperative. This is to say because introducing critical visual literacy through images in this study found their effects on students’ engagement with the process. For instance, unclarity in teachers’ instructions for analysing images hindered students’ capacity of making connections to the content; and guidance on what criticality entails left students with limited evaluations of images. Thus, I believe substantial theoretical and pedagogical knowledge about critical visual literacy is significant to its implementation.

Despite some challenges, this study opens up a door to see the relationship between visuals and religious education or how can visuals help in educating religious narratives which often have long-lasting impacts on a community. Thus, the study can be taken forward with different kinds of texts that are now available in different digital formats.


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A branch of Shia Islam, the Shia Imami Ismailis is generally known as the Ismailis form one of the two branches of Islam, the other being the Sunnis. The Ismaili community spread across the different countries throughout the world, believing in the hereditary succession of the Prophet Muhammad through Ali and his wife Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter.


The institute of Ismaili Studies (iis) is a higher education and academic research institute, established in 1977 and based in London, to promote scholarship and learning about Muslim cultures and societies. It has developed the Secondary Level Curriculum which is an international, multilingual program in and for religious education and the humanities for the global Ismaili community.


Institute’s Department of Curriculum Studies (2010), Ethical Pathways to Human Development, Islamic Publications Limited for the Institute of Ismaili Studies.


An image of a mosque surrounded by shops in Cario was used to unfold the concept of charity, help and care within Muslim traditions. The image was taken from (ephd, 2010: 43).


The image depicts an experience of a girl aged 12 about the scheme called ‘Adopt a Grandparent’ who joined it after losing her grandparent. The image was taken from (ephd, 2010: 27).


The Galata Bridge in Istanbul, Turkey, in the early part of the 20th century. This bridge has been important in bringing people of different cultures together (ephd, 2010; p.16).


Evans, M., (2011), Burkas and bikinis: Digital cartoons. Available from: [Accessed 31st January 2022].


A sabil (water-house) was built in Jerusalem in the 15th century by a Mamluk sultan (ephd, 2010; p.43). The image was explored in relation to the conceptual understanding on the tradition of sharing, giving, and service in Islam.


Londoner Mariah Idrissi in a recent H&M campaign (2015), Evening Standard. Online Image. Available from: [Accesed 07-02-2022].

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