Visual tools are a means of graphically representing ideas, conceptual relationships and progression paths. They range from the simple spider diagram, flow chart or time line – to more sophisticated models such as Buzan’s Mindmap or Edward de Bono’s Flowscape which can be used to explore complex relationships and perceptions.
You may commonly use tools such as the spider diagram or mind map for brainstorming, or organising information for revision. In these circumstances visual representation is thought to aid understanding and memory because it better fits with the brains method of processing information than standard note-taking, as the brain stores information in patterns and associations, not linearly.
However, mind maps and other visual tools also have the capacity to be used to stimulate meta-thinking skills. Tony Buzan, who pioneered the use of mind maps back in the 1970s, argues that mind maps encourage creativity.
The process of graphically organising information on the same page stimulates the mind to make associations, and it is through making such associations that the generation of new ideas happens.
Different sorts of visual tool can stimulate different analytical thinking patterns. Steve Williams gives the examples; a fishbone diagram, can encourage the student to see that there may be many causes leading to one effect. Whereas a Venn diagram encourages comparison – identifying similarities and differences.
Using visual tools effectively involves identifying the thinking process that you want students to develop and identifying the relevant visual tool to support that process. You can find categorisation and discussion of a wide range of different visual tools according to the thinking skill that they serve in Caviglioni’s article Make Ideas Come Alive With Visual Tools and the series on visual tools in Creative Teaching and Learning, based on the book Thinking Skills and Eye Q; Caviglioni, Harris, Tindall 2002.
Visual tools can also be useful in developing speaking and writing. Many students, whilst being able to make connections, have ideas, and understand a concept may have great difficulty in expressing this understanding. Making thinking visible helps students to think about their thinking and structure it. Through graphically representing the information, a student creates their own model, or scaffold, to support talk about the subject or a written task. Look at the LogoVisual Thinking website and read Brin Best’s article for an evaluation of the LogoVisual methodology of using visual representation to scaffold a thinking activity.
Finally, in Goodman and Edwards’ article Mapping Meanings you will find further research suggesting that visual tools can be used effectively to help children understand how they learn.