Visual Instruction Movement Essay

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Visual instruction, as a movement, has its roots in the efforts of reformist educators and theorists, who revolted against formalism and verbalism in educational practice during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and sought to emphasize the role of the senses in learning. Although the term visual instruction did not evolve until 1906, many developments and trends were already crystallizing into a distinctly new movement in American education.

The visual instruction movement sought to emphasize the role of the senses in learning. The movement was characterized initially by the use of common educational apparatuses such as timepieces, maps and globes, slates and blackboards, and textbooks. Later, the introduction of film led to the formation of organizations and distribution channels within school districts, universities, and state bureaus of visual instruction that concentrated on the collection and distribution of a wide variety of visual media. The federal government used film to disseminate information and support military training during World War I. This entry provides a brief summary.

Early Visual Media

Prior to the Civil War, common educational apparatuses used were timepieces, maps, globes, slates and blackboards, textbooks, and the abacus or numeral frames—most of which were extremely simple and required very little engineering in their manufacture. Visual apparatuses or aids, in terms of their early role in elementary and secondary schools, also included field trips to museums—providing such aids as exhibits, charts, photographs, illustrations, lantern slides, and maps.

As the Civil War came to an end, there was a flood of educational publications in the form of journals, reviews, and weeklies. States began to publish their own educational journals to keep teachers informed. Commercial producers and distributors of such new visual media as stereographs, lantern slides, maps, models, slide films, and motion picture films envisioned an extended market for their wares and eventually christened this new movement visual education. All contained articles and advertisements from the school furniture and apparatus companies with enticing illustrations and glowing sales claims—all of which were likely instrumental in persuading many in education to see inherent instructional value in the new apparatuses that were becoming available.

The film industry began in Chicago in 1907, when Albert S. Howell, a farm boy from Michigan who had studied engineering at night, and Donald H. Bell, a movie projectionist, developed one of the first precision film projectors. The first films for instructional uses were usually theatrical films for general purpose or entertainment interest. Later, as the motion picture industry began to expand, it was thought that theatrical films had educational value as well. The earliest forms of educational film were the newsreel, travelogues, and scientific motion pictures.

The use of film in education was brought about by the success and popularity of illustrated lectures on the lyceum and Chautauqua lecture circuit, establishing academic respectability for the use of lantern slides and film in the classroom. World War I provided impetus to the visual instruction movement by the effectiveness and extensive use of films: The Committee on Public Information used film media to disseminate information concerning activities of the federal government, and the War and Navy departments had organized film divisions for the twofold purpose of supplying informational films to the public and preparing officers and men for war.

A Movement Emerges

As educators gradually began to recognize the significance of instructional films, visual instruction as an important new movement in American education emerged as the use of aids in the classroom gained momentum. The theoretical foundation supporting film use was built on the concept that the film medium brought reality and concreteness—breathing visual reality into the spoken and printed word, stirring emotions and interest, and requiring far less time than traditional instructional methods of the time.

State agencies established separate visual instruction divisions to support the statewide use of visual film, publish visual instruction materials, and serve as lending libraries for visual materials and a resource for training teachers and administrators. The first school use of motion pictures was in 1910 in the City of Rochester (NY) public schools, where the school board adopted films for regular instructional use. In 1917, the Chicago school system organized a visual education department, and in the years following World War I, other large school systems established similar departments or bureaus.

During the 1920s, there emerged a growing realization that current, text-based instructional practices were inadequate to meet the needs of increased school enrollments. Teachers were beginning to carry larger teaching loads and, in many instances, had grown dissatisfied with older teaching methods—seeing them as slow, ineffective, and often wasteful. As a result, many educators gradually became receptive to the faster, more direct teaching process provided by instructional films.

On the other hand, there were the teachers who had misgivings about this new technology. Opposition to new educational apparatuses revolved around issues such as the perception that they were too complicated; nightmares of schools being converted into educational factories where the teacher would be little more than a mechanic manipulating the apparatuses; or the fear that motion pictures would bring commercialization into the classroom and used more for showmanship, status, or prestige symbols by schools rather than as effective teaching tools.

  1. Dean McClusky, Director of Visual Education in Pennsylvania during this period, urged that teachers be given an opportunity to learn the advantages and disadvantages of visual instruction through formal and informal training, and that such courses of study should be introduced into normal schools.


  1. Anderson, C. (1961). History of instructional technology, I: Technology in American education, 1650–1900. Washington, DC: National Education Association.
  2. Dent, D. (1969). Landmarks in learning: The story of SVE. Chicago: Society for Visual Education.
  3. Heinich, R., Molenda, M., & Russell, J. D. (1989). Instructional media and the new technologies of instruction (3rd ed.). New York: Macmillan.
  4. Saettler, P. (2004). The evolution of American educational technology. Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.

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