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Visual Thinking and Telepedagogy

Catherine McLoughlin

Edith Cowan University



The visual representation of ideas is just as much a part of the learning process as using language and other symbolic representations, yet current theories of learning with technology do not acknowledge this important dimension as part of the learning transaction. The life of Albert Einstein is a reminder of that visual talent may co-exist with verbal difficulties, and than an education which fails to include visually oriented educational principles may never tap the innate intelligence of certain individuals. Einstein's words reinforce the importance of imagery and visualisation to creativity: "The words or language, as they are spoken or written, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought."

Theorists have emphasised that visual thinking is a fundamental and unique part of our perceptual processes (Gardner, 1993; Salomon, 1997), and that visualisation is a partner to the verbal and symbolic ways we have of expressing ideas and thoughts.

The pedagogical function of visual material has usually been associated with its motivational qualities, for the scope it has to act as a substitute for direct experience by presenting objects and events that are beyond the daily experience of the learner. In addition, the presentation of graphs, spatial images and animation are used as complementary aids to knowledge understanding in telepedagogy, or teaching at a distance. However, pedagogy may sometimes restrict itself to the teacher's use of visual stimuli to present information or content.

But what is the role of the learner in applying creative visualisation in learning? To what extent does current pedagogy tap the visual resources of individuals in order to help them learn?

Current philosophies of education and classroom pedagogies which utilise IT reflect an active, constructive an self-guided approach to learning. In these environments both visual and verbal thinking are required and students need explicit practice in representing, interpreting and manipulating the visual aspects of their knowledge in multiple forms.

This paper sets out to achieve three interrelated goals. First, it aims to give an overview of visual thinking and how it relates to learning. Secondly, examples of how telecommunications can enhance the visual dimension of communication and learning will be discussed. Finally, the paper will present a case study from a telematics classroom to show that telepedagogy involves helping learners to construct and interpret representations as part of the process of communication and higher order thinking.

What is Visual Thinking?

Is a picture worth a thousand words? It seems so, as historical accounts of scientific discovery and invention have shown that visualisation is a powerful cognitive tool (Rieber, 1995). The term visualisation is familiar to us from common usage and fundamentally means " to form and manipulate a mental image". In everyday life, visualisation is essential to problem solving and spatial reasoning as it enables people to use concrete means to grapple with abstract images. In mathematics for example, the process of visualisation entails the process of forming images, with paper and pencil, technology or even mentally, to investigate, discover and understand. The original meaning of the Greek word for "to prove" (deiknumi) was to make visible or show. However, the world of mathematics teaching has oscillated between periods when visualisation was regarded as important in pedagogy and eras when it was viewed as hindrance. Practices in mathematics problem solving are often based on linguistic representations that make use of logical connectives in sequential reasoning. Recent research in mathematics teaching (Diezmann, 1997) has for example, advocated the use of diagrammatic explanation in mathematics learning. Pictorial and visual forms of representation can offer advantages over linguistic thinking such as:

In addition, visualisation has achieved huge successes in helping scientists and mathematicians to understand and present their research (eg Gleick, 1987; Cunningham 1994; Klotz, 1994).

In this paper, it is claimed that:

Visual Information in Everyday Reasoning

In everyday life, visual information is part of the way we interpret experience and build understanding. This can be illustrated in three ways. First, visual information is part of the information with which we reason, such as extraction of information from a map, chart or table and representing and expressing it in language. Second, visual thinking can be integral to problem solving, as when we need to use a diagram to explain, document, calculate or show the steps involved in reaching a solution. Third, visual representation can play a role in synthesising information or in identification of concepts as when we need to use diagrammatic and visual forms to communicate information, represent data and show relationships.

The ubiquity of visual messages surrounding our need to process visual information, has led to an emerging an movement for development of visual literacy skills. The case is explained by Seels (1994, p. 99) as follows:

With visual literacy -the ability to both understand and make visual statements- we become sensitised to the world around us, the relationships and systems of which we are a part. Visual literacy integrates personal experience and imagination with social experience, technology and aesthetics.

There is an extensive literature on the application of visual literacy skills and knowledge in improving the teaching and learning process. Some examples are the use of mind and concept mapping as a learning strategy (Buzan, 1996), and the use of dynamic visual support through multimedia to assist language comprehension of short stories (Sharp, Bransford, Goldman et al., 1995). Visual aspects of cognition are recognised as important in instructional design. Research on textbook design by Mayer, Steinhoff et al. (1995) found that when illustrations were placed alongside texts and contained annotated captions of the information from texts, students' recall and comprehension improved. This result was interpreted in the light of a constructivist theory of learning which posits that learning involves constructing connections between visual and verbal representations of a system.

Similar and related research on the benefits of mixed sensory mode instruction suggests that in some cases visual instructional formats can enhance learning. Cognitive psychologist working with a theory of cognitive load theory now acknowledge that more effective processing capacity is available if learners work in multiple modes. Working with in this framework, Jeung, Chandler & Sweller (1977) predicted that audiovisual factors would enhance learning only if cognitive resources were not required to relate audio and visual resources.

Differences between Visual and Verbal Thinking

What is the relationship between visualisation and reasoning? Some theorists say we need to envision information in order to reason about it, communicate, document and preserve it (Tufte, 1990). Although visual images are part of human cognition, they tend to be marginalised and undervalued in education. If we consider the differences between visual and verbal forms of representation for instance, we can begin to see the constraints of a purely language based approach to learning. Table 1 shows some of the differences between visual and verbal modes of representation and what can deduced from this comparison is the capacity of visual representation to support cognition and understanding.

Both visual and verbal modes are essential in constructing knowledge, and is indisputable that a great deal of sensory learning is visual (Sinatra, 1986). On these grounds, opportunities should be sought in learning environments to exploit the visual mode of expression and thinking.

Educational systems emphasise the verbal, symbolic and numerical, though recently, there has been a wave of change in education. The visual literacy movement is, according to Avgerinou & Ericson, (1997) gaining considerable momentum, and is all encompassing concept that deals with the multiple aspects of intentional visual communication, for example fostering visual imagery and perception, and use of visuals for the purpose of communication, thinking, learning and creative expression. Trends are converging in education and research to emphasise visual approaches which support learning, which have implications for technology supported environments where students are often learning at a distance, or in the open learning mode. The incorporation of visual resources is evident in graphics oriented computers, multimedia and telecommunications which can support flexible and dynamic knowledge representation. The characteristic pluralism of many support systems is a recognition that learners need to have multiple representational forms such as graphs, maps, narrative sequences, concept nets, causal chains, timelines as well as freely constructed pictorial forms, in order to access information, solve problems and develop communicative skills.

Theoretical Views of Visualisation

Table 1: Differences between visual and verbal representation

Verbal Representation

Visual representation


may reflect temporal and logical relations among events and objects

depicts spatial logical and typographical relations between objects or events


arbitrary and sequential, ie based on semantic coherence

non arbitrary: visual representation may resemble actual object and events

linear, one dimensional exposition of ideas

dynamic and continuous, can characterise multiple aspects of ideas and concepts

One of the reasons why visual literacy has not yet achieved a sound theoretical basis is that it is not a construct with operational specificity, nor is it a discipline or profession (Seels, 1994). Adding to the complexity of the term, there is a pluralistic theoretical basis for the concept of visual literacy.

Visualisation has been accounted for by a number of theorists who have indicated its centrality in reasoning and learning. Bruner (1984, p. 99) characterises two alternative approaches to solving problems, one being intuitive, the other analytic:

In general intuition is less rigorous with respect to proof, more oriented to the whole problem than to particular parts, less verbalised with respect to justification and based on confidence to operate with insufficient data.

Some psychologists relate different modes of thinking to different hemispheres of the brain, the "metaphorical left and right brains" where the right is home to the visual, spatial, and analogical, and parallel processing capacities, while the right is verbal, linear, sequential and logical. The location of the different modes of thought is not as important as the distinction between intuitive thought processes and logical thought processes. For learning, integration of the two modes of processing would seem the best approach; appealing to the right brain to make global linkages and to the left brain to build logical relationships. Much current research has focused on the undue emphasis given to Greek type sequential logic, and current theories of higher order thinking have endorsed a definition of higher order thinking which includes both creative (intuitive) and logical reasoning components (eg., Paul, 1993; Sternberg, 1985).

Several prominent theorists have rejected the notion that verbal communication is the most important means of representing and constructing experience. Gardner (1994) speaks of the theory of "multiple intelligences", but argues for the special status of visual-spatial intelligence in contrast to verbal intelligences. Theorists adopting a social perspective on learning (eg., John-Steiner, 1995) propose the idea of cognitive pluralism, or varying sense modalities, to emphasise the multiple modes and practices that are available to generate, communicate, learn and display knowledge. This interpretation of visual thinking sees it as a form of action, a social activity through which learners can interpret and transform their own thinking.

Cognitive apprenticeship models of learning (eg, Collins, Brown & Newman, 1989) are related to the notion of cognitive pluralism, or the use and application of a variety of experiential modes in learning. Rogoff's (1990) emphasis on learning as increasing participation in "communities of practice" is based on the Vtgotskyan notion of learning as activity. Increasingly, there is a focus on integrating perspectives from the cognitive and social sciences, to develop situated theories of learning where active participation in a social context or in authentic practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991) has redefined the nature of expertise and learning. A range of processes and experiential tasks envisaged by the cognitive apprenticeship model can be mediated by computers. For example, representation of expert knowledge, externalisation of internal knowledge construction processes and supportive interactions that lead to problem solving can be achieved in multimedia learning tools. Conventional learning systems have relied heavily on verbal and symbolic modes of teaching, but recently there has been evidence that cognitive apprenticeship forms of learning, which emphasise participation, modelling and authentic activity are informing the design of multimedia learning tools ( eg, Herrington & Oliver, 1996). The multimedia tools enable the learner to experience, observe and participate in activities which would otherwise be out of reach or not possible in formal learning contexts (eg, Whalley, 1995).

Visualisation as a Cognitive Strategy

Rieber (1995) gives an interpretivist overview of how visualisation and imagination lead to scientific and mathematical generalisation. He concludes that "we can turn to almost any object within our reach into a tool for visualisation". Multiple visual modes of thinking, varying in style and formality have characterised thinkers drawn from a variety of domains. Writers use generative notes to trigger imagery while sketches and jottings are a familiar way to note down thoughts that are later expanded, showing that the condensed private thinking that individuals do must be expanded and elaborated for communicative purposes.

Rieber (1995) argues that the instructional materials should enable visually oriented problem solving approaches and generate multiple representations, rather than confine the learner to abstract visual strategies. Salomon (1997) reinforces this view, suggesting that if education is concerned with merely transmitting actual knowledge, then a chalkboard is probably the right technology. Computer visuals and simulation tools provide objects and representation, to model and activate cognitive processes. Primarily, these representations are visual, ie symbols, pictures, graphics, simulations and animations. These visual and sensory modes of teaching and learning with computers can achieve what Salomon & Globertson (1991) have called a "cognitive residue" where there is improved cognitive ability, for example, in self-regulation and mindfulness. Computer assisted learning has the potential to support cognition, to be used to extend intelligence. Interesting examples of these uses have been found where computers are used for a variety of purposes, to enhance both visual and linguistic aspects of learning (Klotz, 1991; Hoyles, Sutherland & Healy, 1991).

In many disciplines, like mathematics and physical sciences, visual-spatial approaches have been dominant for some time (Zimmerman & Cunningham, 1991). In arguing a case for other forms of reasoning other than deductive inferences, Barwise & Echmedy, (1991) have emphasised the importance of visual non-linguistic inference. Some theorists are often sceptical about such reasoning as it is intuitive and does not have the sophistication of the semantic basis of linguistically based reasoning.

In the next section the potential of telecommunications to support learning and thinking is illustrated by a short case study of telematics environments in Western Australia.

Information Technology and Visual Learning

Telecommunications and technologies connect people in a range of different locations and enable them to share visual images, text, graphics and communicate by voice and text based messaging (Mason, 1994). In Western Australia, desktop videoconferencing and audiographic conferencing are used to connect learners in remote areas and to deliver curricula to students living in rural and isolated areas. Using the software Electronic Classroom, students can create and share graphics while communicating with student at other remote sites in what has become an "extended classroom" model of education (Burge & Roberts, 1993).

Observations of these classrooms show that telecommunications can expand the educational process and enhance the visual/sensory mode of communication among students who access the curriculum via telematics. One of the characteristics of telematics classrooms is that the computer can be used to share visuals and graphics. The screen can provide a number of interactive support for learning:

In telematics classrooms, the technology can, when used appropriately, be used to scaffold higher order thinking outcomes, (McLoughlin, Oliver & Wood, 1997). However, the reliance on verbal communication can sometimes tend to diminish the effects of how visual presentation of images, such as graphs and charts, can become means of informing and supporting students to convey meaning and communicate across geographical distances. So far, little research has focussed on how such visual and expressive means can scaffold thinking and reasoning processes. This case study of telematics classrooms can provide initial insights not only into teaching and learning in these environments, but also emphasise the tools available to students to support visual representation of ideas.

Case Study: Visualisation in the Electronic Classroom

In 1996, The Education Department of Western Australia (EDWA) decided to expand its curriculum delivery via telematics, to enable academically gifted students tin rural and remote areas to access the curriculum via audiographic conferencing. This project offered an opportunity to observe first hand how students utilised the technology to support communication and learning.

Telematics classrooms are asynchronous learning environments where verbal communication is achieved via a two way audio-link. Documents, diagrams, drawings and pictures can be sent between computers via the telephone lines. In this real time environment the modem linkup can support dynamic exchange of ideas and information. In telematics classrooms, the teacher is not physically present in the classroom, and with the lack of gestures, cues and facial expressions, there is a consequent reliance on oral and verbal means of communication. Laurillard (1995) characterises such environments as 'discursive', as they enable interactive voice links through asynchronous communication while providing a shared, adaptable visual focus through use of computer technology.

Typically, a teacher would have a distributed classroom spread over several sites, with 3-6 students at each site. Interaction and communication betweens sites is achieved via the audio link and the computer which is used as an interactive whiteboard. Using the software Electronic Classroom the teacher can interact with students and send visual materials. Students have at their disposal a keyboard and graphics tablet with which they can draw, write, present and display visual representations of ideas. Each student can share his or her work, and the teacher can view the strategies used by students as they use the drawing tools to display their work.

Several observations were made about the quality of learning in this environment, to assess whether the technology can support visualisation and articulation of ideas in non verbal modes. In one classroom, students collaborated around the computer, and took turns successively adding to or modifying their ideas on octagon loops. The objective was to create a plan for a report they had to write on an investigation of the octagonal links they had been working on in class. As they articulated and discussed a starting point for a report on their investigation, the drawing tool was used to create a concept net to display ideas and show connections. (Figure 1)

This enabled students to construct their own representation of the problem while talking about it and explaining it to students at other sites. The diagrams had a richness and complexity that was greater than a traditional linguistic document, and was a mental model of how students perceived the investigation of octagon loops. The concept map was not only a collaborative effort, it also became a focus for discussion and led students to modify and refine their ideas.

In constructing their conclusions, students used language a means of articulating and expanding their understanding of how to investigate octagon loops. Language provided a means of expression ideas, but it was the visual image on the computer screen which could be revised, referred to and shared provided a more powerful means of scaffolding their cognition. The provisional and dynamic nature of the conceptual map also instigated reflection on the product that was jointly created by students.

Figure 1: Concept map of octagon loops investigation created by students

In the electronic classroom, the technology mediates learning and communication, and has the potential to support discussion, adaptation, reflection and interaction, the components of the learning process (Laurillard, 1995). In the classroom observed these elements were present as students displayed their ideas, they could also remodel and adapt them, gradually constructing new versions and depicting them visually, as a means of expressing their own understandings and to create common, or shared knowledge.

Observation of the learners using the drawing tools while they interacted showed that they moved through a continuum from visual thinking through visual learning, to visual communication (Figure 2). This progression, from manipulation of visual forms, to construction of knowledge though interaction with visual representations, culminated in the sharing and communication of these ideas, in both visual and verbal form, to other students in the extended classroom.

Telematics classrooms up to now have had an underutilised resource, the capacity to use the technology to support graphical representation in reasoning and generative thinking. When learners collaborate across in geographically isolated sites, using the telematics software, their verbal interactions initiate conversations but it is the act of representing these thoughts leads to extension and amplification. The visual tools enable students to display ideas, open them to multiple interpretations and them revise them in the light of feedback from peers. These processes of exploratory dialogue are part of the process of higher order thinking (Mercer, 1996), while the visual dimension of experience and expression is an integral part of the verbal reasoning that occurs. This is an example of how in telematics environments, technology mediates the learning process and offers support for visual and higher order thinking

Conclusions: visualisation tools in telelearning

Telecommunications and computer tools can support the dynamic nature of reasoning, by supporting dialogue and articulation of ideas in multiple forms. In the telematics classrooms observed, the software tools allow provisional and dynamic expression of ideas and this provides a powerful means of collaborative knowledge building. These preliminary findings suggest a visual dimension to learning in telematics environments. For learners in a distributed classroom, and participating in synchronous audio communication, the expressive /visual mode of representing information and understanding can play a critical role in learning and scaffolding higher order cognition. The software tools and the computer screen can serve a scaffolding role in relation to dialogue, reflection and learning, becoming in effect "cognitive tools" for learning (Jonassen & Reeves, 1996; Lajoie & Derry, 1993), by allowing learners to function at levels beyond their existing zones of understanding.

These observations, though limited, underline the current research in many areas calling for students to have "multiple representations" or forms of expression to enable them to appreciate that visual forms of representation are important in the development and communication of understanding (Greeno, 1997; Salomon 1997) . Increasingly, learning must take into account the range of symbolic and visual forms that enable construction, analysis and refinement of ideas. In telepedagogy, where teachers are at a distance from students, visual and discursive media can support the learning process by enabling active participation, while encouraging dialogue and construction of knowledge by students. This is achieved by providing learners with tools and activities where meaningful relationships between concepts can be explored both verbally and pictorially, so that visual thinking progresses to visual communication, which is at the heart of the social process of learning.

Figure 2: Continuum of visual thinking


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(c) Catherine McLoughlin


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