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Everyone’s a Visual Learner – A Conference Report

Posted by on Tuesday, November 15, 2011 in News.

by CFT Acting Director Derek Bruff

Jose Vazquez of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and I co-facilitated a 75-minute session at the POD Network / HBCU Faculty Development Network joint conference in Atlanta last month.  Our session was titled “Everyone’s a Visual Learner: Using Visual Thinking in the Classroom.” The feedback we received on the session was positive, so I thought I’d share some highlights here on the CFT blog.

Here’s the Prezi we used:

Just click the Play arrow to view the Prezi. Once you do so and the content loads, you can move forward and backward through the presentation with the arrows at the bottom. You can also move around the canvas at will using your mouse.

Early in the session, I made the point that there’s no such thing as learning styles since the research in favor of learning styles is weak at best. See my summary of Linda Nilson’s 2010 Lilly Conference keynote on this topic for some details. To my complete surprise, my assertion was met with a round of applause. There’s certainly been some pushback on the learning styles idea in recent months, but the idea is still a very appealing one for educators. I was glad to see my teaching center colleagues up to speed on the latest research.

I also qualified the title of the session, “Everyone’s a Visual Learner.” During Linda Nilson’s keynote on learning styles last fall, I had an interesting conversation with Eric Stoller on Twitter. He pointed out to me that not everyone is a visual learner because some learners have visual impairments. I noted this in the session and moved on, but I hope in the future I’ll get the chance to explore the challenge of adding visual thinking to one’s teaching when students with visual impairments are involved.

During the session, Jose and I asked participants to search for Creative Commons images they might use in presentations, using the Flickr search tool Compfight. Here’s one located and shared with us by former CFT associate director Peter Felten, now at Elon University:

Here’s what Peter told me (later, via email) about the above image, “Evolution” by Premasagar Rose:

We were looking for images linked to change over time, a common theme in history courses. This image strikes me as likely to provoke class discussion — with the “progress of man” imagery on the left side, and then the tear when modern-ish humans appear, leading to the two images of soldiers, ending with the one apparently aiming back at the past. The “progress of man” image typically is seen as being about positive, perhaps even inevitable, development from ape to human (from savage to civilized, etc.). Is (or isn’t) this image a representation of how societies/people actually have developed over the eons?

Peter’s expertise in the area of visual literacy is evident in this analysis. See his “resource review” on visual literacy in Change Magazine for a great introduction to the area.

At the end of the session, we asked participants to create “visual minute papers” in which they doodled their ideas for using visual thinking in their teaching. Jose and I passed out 5″ x 7″ Post-It notes and dozens of markers, then gave participants five minutes or so to document their ideas.

We asked them to post their visual minute papers on the walls of the session room when finished, giving them a chance to see each other’s ideas.

You can see all the visual minute papers over on Flickr: group #1, group #2, group #3, and group #4. Below are a few of the minute papers that struck me as particularly interesting.

From what I know about strength and stiffness as material properties, I can see how this set of coordinate axes could be a useful tool for teaching students about these properties. It’s easy for students to see strength and stiffness as highly correlated.  (Think of a steel beam.) However, if you ask students, “In which quadrant would you place a rope? Or a cookie?”, the conceptual differences between these two properties should become clear.

Want to talk about the need for precision in some particular context? Show students an image of two puzzle pieces that don’t quite match. This is a nice visual metaphor, and I can see it being extended to talk about the difference between precision and accuracy, perhaps.

When you put these two diagrams next to each other, it’s clear that they work in different ways. The Venn diagram is a way to visualize concepts and properties; the fish diagram is a way to visualize arguments in support of a thesis. I’m pretty sure that’s what this workshop participant meant, but I wondered upon seeing this minute paper if “fish diagram” was an established visual tool. It is, but not as this participant used it. A “fishbone diagram” (or “Ishikawa diagram“) is a quality control tool used to show causal relationships, usually those between certain kinds of inputs in a given process and a particular unsatisfactory output. It’s a pretty handy analysis tool that I’m very glad to know about!

For more ideas on using visual thinking in your teaching, see the CFT’s teaching guide on visual thinking, as well as blog posts on the topic here on the CFT blog and over on my personal blog.


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