Visual Thinking to Manage Learning
Part 1: Visualize Time
Over the last couple of years, there has been a huge shift in education toward fostering critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity in our students. Students are engaging in project based learning, design thinking, and other activities that push students beyond worksheets and memorization, and encourage them to create and present their work.
When we give students choice in what they create, are we also giving them a choice in how they get there? So often, students are given a rubric and a due date, but aren’t always given the tools and processes they need to support them in managing their time, responsibilities, and planning as they move through a project.
Visual thinking can help students see the work they have in front of them, develop ideas that traditional discussion and writing may not, and plan their creations in a purposeful way. Visual thinking is a way to show thinking using images in order to better organize and understand concepts, and goes far beyond sketching and drawing to quickly take notes. In a recent study published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, researchers found that drawing, when compared to writing and listening, results in better recall of words and ideas due to the process of creating an original image when using visual thinking. In this blog series, Manuel Herrera and I will share strategies, structures, and resources to help your students manage their learning through Visualizing Time, Ideas, Relationships, and Solutions.
If you have spent any time in an elementary school classroom, you’ve likely noticed visual schedules displayed for the class to see. These schedules highlight each component of the day with a word and icon – like the word “Reading” with a cartoon picture of a book. The combination of words and icons makes the schedule accessible to all of our learners, and the way the schedule is displayed helps the students see the whole process of their day and make sense of what comes next. However, visualizing time and schedules typically stops after elementary school. Is making time visual any less valuable to older students or adults? Or do we just assume that they are capable of managing their own time?
Project management is a valuable skill for students of all grade levels to learn, but many projects are still designed with the teacher in the role of Project Manager – directing the learning experience and making many of the decisions. Putting students in the role of project manager, and supporting them in the process of identifying tasks, assigning responsibilities, and choosing how they work will help them understand the work that is in front of them, and give them an organized way to work through it.
Traditional project management logs – digital or printed – typically consist of a multi-column table, where students can write a task list in one column, responsibilities in another column, with columns for due dates, updates, etc. for older students. Each row usually has a checkbox so that each task can be “crossed off” as it’s completed.
Task lists and to-do lists are a great way to generate ideas about all of the work included in a large project – but this is where project management should start, not where it should end. A task list is simply a list of work to be done, and doesn’t do a great job of helping students understand how to actually prioritize those tasks.
Taking a task list and turning it into a visual timeline helps students not only see what work needs to be done, but go further and see the relationships between tasks, and how responsibilities and priorities can overlap. A vertical task list that only includes the work to be done can be very overwhelming to students (and adults!), and can lead to procrastination and last-minute work. Visualizing a large project helps students break things down into smaller chunks, and understand which items should take priority and advanced planning, helping them move through their project more efficiently and effectively.
Supporting Students in Visualizing Time
Practice First. When Manuel and I use timelines with students, we never introduce the concept of visualizing time within the project. We always start with a comfortable topic for students, so that their focus can be on how to visualize time. Take 20 minutes and ask students to use quick drawings and words to create a timeline of a task or process they often complete – their morning routine, sports practices, a task they complete at work, etc.
Big Paper. Any time we do visual thinking activities with students, we always give them 11×17 copy paper. This gives them the freedom to spread their drawings out and not worry about how to manage the space.
Flexible Timelines. In any project – from creating animal habitats in 1st grade through forensics in high school – there has to be a level of flexibility. Sometimes checkpoints and deadlines get pushed, new responsibilities are added, or certain portions of a project are taking longer than expected. Sticky notes are a simple way to allow flexibility in a project plan. Sketching tasks onto sticky notes, then arranging those onto a larger timeline allows students to move tasks around and add items as needed. I love these full-adhesive sticky notes that lay flat on paper.
Class Timelines. In younger grades, project management can be done as a whole class. Create a large timeline on bulletin board paper, and let students sketch out the tasks on larger sticky notes and place them on the timeline. Create a “We are here” marker and move it along as the class progresses through the project – this allows students to visually understand where they are in the project, what is coming next, and celebrate the work they have completed! These large sticky notes are great for young students to visualize ideas.
Use Color. Simply adding color to icons, sketches, and notes can be a powerful tool in helping students manage their time. When working collaboratively, students can assign color to each person on a project team. All of Sadie’s responsibilities are written in purple, or are on purple sticky notes, and all of Manuel’s tasks are in blue. Both the team and the teacher can quickly see how they work is divided, and if all team members are completing their responsibilities.
For individual project work, color can be used to create a visual hierarchy – assign red to high-priority tasks, green to low priority tasks. Yellow can be used for any new work added mid-project.
VISUAL THINKING CHALLENGE
It’s your turn to give Visualizing Time a try! Get out a piece of paper a pen, pencil, or some markers. Think about a project that you are currently working or have coming up – it can be big or small, personal or professional. Using a combination of icons and words, create a timeline or “visual schedule” that helps you see the work you have ahead. Think of ways you could show how some tasks take priority, or add details about timing, responsibilities, etc.
Did this challenge help you understand your project better than a traditional task list?
We want to see your work! Take a picture and tweet us @sadieclorinda and @manuelherrera33 and add #VisualThinking