Picture this

18th November 2005 at 00:00
Tom Haward explains how visual learning can transform texts, helping to explain difficult concepts and enhancing students' motivation and memory

Ruby was struggling. She was finding some of the language difficult and was stuck on the word "coil." We were looking at the part of the Mexican story of creation where a serpent wraps its coils around the Earth. She had a blank memo pad next to her, so together we sketched the coils of a snake wrapped round the globe. She understood the word straight away and talked about how she found it easier to draw a picture of something to understand it. That's why she had her memo pad: a tool to help her overcome the barriers of language. The coils themselves almost seemed to take on metaphorical significance as a learning tool able to wrap itself round a learning obstacle to conquer it.

So, if it worked for Ruby, I wondered, what about other students? And how could its effectiveness be measured between students of different abilities or gender?

The episode seemed to confirm that some students could benefit from the use of visual images to support their learning. Visual learning - or "graphical ways of working with and presenting information" (see www.inspiration.comvlearningindex.cfm) - is a field that has gained more recognition as the language of multiple intelligences and preferred learning styles has become embedded in schools.

Many writers express a belief in the importance of visual communication - some even go as far as to say the use of icons and symbols "should be a basis of our education system" (in Memory and Learning by Jacqueline Bristow, Philip Cowley and Bob Daines).

It is the potential of visual learning to transform flat text into something more dynamic, thus developing learning and memory, that has excited and motivated me, as subject leader for history at Oriel High School in West Sussex, to continue exploring visual possibilities in the classroom.

My involvement in the visual learning in history project formally started some four years ago when myself and two colleagues at Falmer High School in Brighton embarked on an action research project into the effectiveness of visual learning. This involved collating data from a variety of questionnaires, interviews with students and classroom observations, and seeking the support of Brighton University and the school's educational psychologist.

While not all findings were quite as expected, it became clear that visual learning had the potential to be a powerful tool for students, from the gifted and talented to those on the special educational needs register. It has the potential to promote thinking skills, memory, motivation and achievement in many students. As one in my class encouragingly commented:

"Instead of being told it, you can see it and learn it on your own."

Another key finding was that the impact that visual learning resources have in the classroom is largely determined by the teaching strategies used. It is the way that visual images are deployed to encourage the development of thinking skills that is as important as the images themselves.

I also found that the impact of visual learning was especially enhanced in terms of motivation and memory when used in conjunction with other types of intelligences, such as bodily-kinaesthetic or linguistic intelligence.

Some of the visual activities I have tried have focused on the use of icons and symbols to convey information and aid memory, while others have centred on the use of other visual images to promote understanding and thinking skills.

Initially, my research looked at ways of visualising key words in key stage 3 history as an aid for memory and understanding.

Taking 32 key words in history which are common to almost any topic - such as evidence, bias, exaggeration, reliability and usefulness - I worked on producing a series of symbols to visualise them and make them as clear and meaningful as possible for students. They are displayed round my classroom as a constant point of reference in lessons and their visual nature helps with students' recall and comprehension.

Having each of these words on a set of cards also brings in more kinaesthetic ways of developing learning and thinking skills. One useful strategy I have used is to encourage students in small groups to classify key words and icons under different headings, such as "truth", "time" or "evidence" - a great way of developing thinking, reasoning and interpersonal skills.

Another is by playing a version of the Happy Families memory game in which students have to define keywords in order to keep the pairs they find. One of the most exciting things for the future is to look at developing this into a visual cross-curricular language, which will help reinforce concepts while breaking down subject barriers.

From my research I have developed visual learning ideas into a range of starter and plenary activities. Some, such as visual historical versions of Odd One Out puzzles, are quick to produce and a great way of engaging students and developing their thinking and reasoning skills right from the start.

The example (Figure 1, left) shows one I use during the "Impact of the British Empire" topic. It only took five minutes to create. The "odd one out", by the way, is meant to be Australia, as all the other countries changed their name when they became independent. However, I have heard many other well reasoned ideas that are just as good. I've found visual puzzles like this are a great way to motivate students to ask questions.

A good way to start a new topic is with a Missing Object puzzle. It's based on the classic children's game of presenting students with a tray of objects which they have to memorise, then secretly removing one and asking them if they can guess which it is when the tray is revealed again.

In my classroom, students look at and ask questions about a range of images from a topic. The example (Figure 2) shows icons for the topic Britain 1500-1750. We talk about what the flames might stand for (Great Fire of London) or the barber pole and scissors (barber-surgeons).

These images can quite easily be compiled from textbooks or the internet.

Students have to memorise them and then an image is withdrawn. I do this three times. For this topic, I took away the image of a bar of chocolate, then a sailing ship and finally a bee. Students love the familiar game element to this.

After checking to see if students remembered and identified these correctly, thinking skills can then be developed further by asking students to spot a connection between them (people used honey to sweeten food before goods such as sugar and cocoa were discovered and brought to Britain by ship).

There is great scope to extend this further by asking students to identify other images which could broaden the connection. A challenge is also to encourage students to identify other themes, such as "science and technology", "belief" or "government", and draw coloured lines between symbols that have a connection and explain them.

Already a quick "broad brush" overview of some of the key themes and events of the topic has been developed, with plenty of potential for more able students to look further by asking such questions as: are there any important symbols missing that they would include? Can these missing symbols be prioritised in terms of significance, and what other evidence might they need to look at to do this?

Seeing History: Visual Learning Strategies and

Resources for Key Stage 3 by Tom Haward is available from Network

Educational Press, pound;19.95


Tom Haward is subject leader for history at Oriel High School, West Sussex

Learning visual

* There are great visual links to a number of history topics that don't cost a penny. For example, many pub signs have a story behind them, which can be linked to a history topic - for example, the Red Lion, as a symbol of James I of Scotland, who became king of England in 1603 and wanted everyone to know he was the new king. This was an effective way of communicating the news to a largely illiterate population.

Stamps can also be a fantastic way into teaching the British Empire, by looking at the images and pre-independence names and locating them on a map to get an overview.

* Encourage students to add icons to their work to help them identify and remember what they have written about. I've found this a particularly useful tool for GCSE revision classes. When revising the Vietnam conflict, for example, students found icons such as a snowman, for the Cold War, and toppling dominoes, for the domino effect of communism spreading throughout South East Asia, helped them remember some of the key themes of the period.

By presenting images with no textual clues at the start of a lesson, students were able to remember and verbalise the story behind them and link them together.

* There are many useful ideas for icons in Microsoft Clip Art and on the internet. Sites such as www.Clipart.com and www.Picsearch.com are recommended.

* Students need to be reminded that they don't have to be artists to draw pictures and icons to help explain or remember something. Keep it simple.

Any icon or symbol that is useful to them and helps them remember is good.

Also, try to encourage students to doodle as they listen and make their notes in picture form.

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