A picture – worth a thousand words?

My visual arts blog this month has a Theory of Knowledge element. I’m in the happy position of teaching both DP Visual Arts and DP Theory of Knowledge. There is a lot of Art/TOK overlap, but one activity that I recently had with ToK and Visual Arts students was very much in the ToK mode of questions…

Sight and Sound (The limits of language)

The ToK starting point was a discussion of Ways of Knowing: how do we know what we know?

Two obvious ways of knowing are language – we talk, discuss, share ideas etc – and sight, using one of our senses – put simply, we know because we can see things.

The ToK guide identifies 8 ‘Ways of Knowing’, and language and sense perception are the frist two (other ‘WoK’ include emtion, reason, imagination etc)

The implication of the phrase a picture is worth a thousand words is that a complex idea can be conveyed with just a single still image and/or that an image can convey meaning or essence more effectively than a description.

Language vs sense perception

The activity was about language vs sense perception. Could language alone provide enough informatio

n to enable a listener to recreate an image?

The group divided themselves into pairs, each facing the other but with a ‘divider’ preventing them from easily seeing each other. One was designated the ‘describer’ while the other was the ‘artist’. They changed roles half way though the class.

I explained I wanted to that tests the limits of spoken/heard language and sense perception (sight) – how far could the spoken word go in enabling the listener to accurately reproduce what was being described?

Of course, most of the group were not part of the visual arts class, so a few started to panic, but I reassured them that it was an activity, not a test.

The images all came from pages cut out and laminated from “The 20th Century Art Book” (Phaidon)



Describers received a page and could choose either side of the page to describe. They were supposed to only use words but within seconds gestures and florid hand movements were being used to ‘enhance’ the descriptions.

The activity was received with enthusiasm.

In fact it was one of the noisiest classes I’ve had since we started in August.

Limits and Nuances

Twenty students (10 pairs) were suddenly animatedly asking and answering questions and, for example, trying to pin down nuances of colour and shape/composition –

“Its dark blue”,

“how dark?”,

“sort of medium dark”,

“like a night sky?”,

“no not that dark”

What do you mean ‘there’s a shape’? What kind of shape? Circular? Square? Triangle?”

The photographs show some of the artwork produced by students, together with the page and artwork on which the drawing was based (not actually seen by the student artist, of course).

The follow up will also be interesting, when they reflect and answer some questions:



  1. What was easy?
  2. What was difficult?
  3. Do you both share the same native language? Does that make a difference?
  4. What are the limitations of spoken language?
  5. What have you learned?
  6. To what extent was spoken language effective in communicating knowledge in this exercise?
  7. What, if any, problems of language did you have?
  8. Were any words unknown to you?
  9. You described images. Is language better suited to express other types of knowledge?
  10. Do any of these words resonate? Why?: communication, clarity, ambiguity, detail, colour…


What OTHER limitations to language as a way of knowing are there?

What are the strengths of language as a way of knowing?


Try it! Can you use words to accurately “paint” a picture in enough detail so that a friend can reproduce it?