Visual Thinking to Manage Learning – Visualize Ideas

Visual Thinking to Manage Learning

Click here to learn more about this blog series and read Part 1: Visualize Time


In Part 1 of this blog series, we discussed using visual thinking to help students visualize time and better understand and organize the work in front of them within a project. Once students understand what needs to be done, and where the priorities are, how can we help them visualize the thinking and ideas that develop as they work?

2. VisIdeasYou have likely heard of sketchnoting – a popular note taking format that uses drawings and icons to capture ideas from presentations, podcasts, videos, lectures, etc. Sketchnoting largely focuses on capturing and visualizing someone else’s ideas. Visual thinking goes further, and gives students tools and processes to visualize their own ideas. Sometimes this means using sketches to represent their thinking. On a larger scale, using visual thinking allows us to get our ideas and thinking out of our head so that we can see things clearly, understand how parts might fit together, and help others understand our thinking.

Stop Brainstorming. Start Visualizing.

D234E67F-0A19-4A60-AED1-1154EF844B60Manuel uses notecards as part of his process to visualize his ideas. When planning a project, his ideas don’t always come to him in a linear, ordered way. Using notecards to quickly sketch or write ideas allows him to get all of his ideas out, then rearrange the notecards into a logical flow – with the flexibility to add or move the ideas around as the project develops.

How many of our students could benefit from this process? So often, students start a presentation by opening a slideshow and starting with their title slide. If given the chance to use notecards to visualize all of the ideas that will go into the slideshow, do you think their presentation would turn out differently? Would it end up being a presentation at all, or could it morph into something completely different?

This process of using notecards is simply an upgraded version of traditional brainstorming. How often, when asking students to develop ideas for a project, do we jump into a brainstorming activity? This usually looks like creating written lists, sometimes individually and sometimes as a group. While brainstorming can be productive, without a structure in place it can become very chaotic. Research shows that unstructured brainstorming in groups often discourages participation by quieter brainstormstudents, and doesn’t hold each individual accountable for participation. The result? Brainstorming sessions end without solving the problem at hand.

Digital tools have increased our ability to do collaborative brainstorming, but have also given us the ability to delete ideas that we don’t like or are embarrassed to share with others. In reality, some of our worst ideas can develop into the best solutions!

Ideas. Not art.

The concept of visual thinking might be intimidating to some, and students often say things like “I can’t draw” and “I’m not good at art.” It’s important to remember, and to help students understand, that visual thinking is about showing your ideas. It’s not about creating beautiful drawings, perfect banners, or intricate lettering. Walk students through this sketching activity to show them how easy it is to create visual representations of their ideas.

  • On a piece of paper, draw a circle, a square, a triangle, a line, a dot, a blob. What 2. Simple Shapesdoing this with students, you can model it, but be sure to tell them that their does not have to look like yours.
  • Next, give them some simple items to visualize – a lock, a tree, a house, etc. Explain how each of these is simply a combination of those first six simple shapes they drew.
  • Think about a topic in your content area that students are already familiar with – explorers, the water cycle, weather. Give them 4-6 vocabulary words and ask them to make those words visual.
  • You will be amazed – some students will use those simple shapes to create an icon for each word, others will create elaborate scenes. This is where you begin to see how each student visualizes things differently – their definitions would have all been similar, but their drawings are drastically different.
  • Ask them to explain their visuals to a partner – chances are you will hear explanations of those terms that are much richer than they would have been if you had asked students to write a definition and compare it with their partner

Once students are more comfortable with the practice if visual thinking, encourage – but don’t require – them to use it the next time they would typically take traditional notes. This can be during a lesson that you teach, an interview during the empathy phase of a project, or as do online research. Using visual thinking will push them beyond simply recording someone else’s ideas to representing and sharing their interpretation and thoughts on those ideas.


A reinvention of traditional brainstorming, ideation is the process of pushing ourselves outside our comfort zones to generate as many problems, ideas, or solutions as possible. Ideation gives us the freedom to create a large quantity of ideas without worrying about quality, then share and discuss those ideas with others.


At its core, ideation is meant to be quick and timely. This is where visual thinking plays a huge role. When we give students the tools (like the simple shapes activity above), they are much more successful when engaging in the process. Fast sketches in ideation activities, when combined with some notes, allow students to quickly get their ideas out of their head and make sense of their thoughts. Here are a few ideation techniques that we love to use with students and adults.

Paper Clip. This is a fun divergent thinking activity to help students become comfortable with creative constraint and ideation before using it within a project or with content. Start by giving students a stack of sticky notes.Tell them they will get 2 minutes to come up with as many ideas as they can, and each idea should be recorded on a sticky note. Then, give them their topic just as you start the timer – Come up with as many alternate uses for a paper clip as you can. When time runs out, you can have them compare to others in their group, share out their wildest ideas, or see who came up with the most ideas. The goal of this activity is quantity over quality, which is why we use sticky notes – they can visually see the quantity. The activity also results in a lot of laughs!

Crazy Eights. This ideation technique is one of our favorites to use when developing solutions in the design thinking process, but it can also be used as a stand-alone activity to develop project ideas, identify problems, and more! Give students a crazy8large (8.5×14 or larger) piece of paper, and have them fold it into 8 equal parts. Tell them that in each section they will quickly sketch one possible solution (or idea). They will get 30 seconds per section – they must stay in that section for the entire 30 seconds, and cannot move onto the next section early. This sometimes results in frustration from students, or they feel uncomfortable because they run out of ideas and aren’t drawing anything. However, that’s when the magic happens – that discomfort that is created by creative constraint often develops the best ideas! Click here for the slides Manuel and Sadie use when facilitating Crazy Eights.

Bad Ideas. The Bad Idea Factory is a great activity when students – or adults! – are truly 2. Bad ideas“stuck” and can’t generate more ideas or solutions. Asking teams for their “worst” ideas or solutions gives them the freedom to be silly, and terrible ideas will flow! For each team, have students generate as many “bad ideas” or “bad solutions” as they can on individual notecards. Then, have the team randomly draw the notecards and discuss the bad idea – why is it bad? What would happen if we implemented this idea? How would our audience feel? Through these conversations, students will begin to develop new ideas that take them to a great solution!

Four Scribbles. Have students fold a piece of paper into four squares. In each square, give them five seconds to quickly make a scribble. Then, beginning with their first scribble, give them 60-90 seconds to turn that scribble into something that could solve their problem. This activity can be difficult, but really pushes students to see things in a new way.


It’s your turn to give Visualizing Ideas a try! Get out a piece of paper and a pen, pencil, or some markers. Start by completing the Simple Shapes activity – draw a draw a circle, a square, a triangle, a line, a dot, a blob. Then, think about a topic that you teach – it can be something simple or something complex. Write 4-6 terms related to that topic. Using combinations of those simple shapes, visualize your definition, description, or thoughts about each of those terms.

Do you think this would help you explain the terms to someone else? Would someone have a basic understanding of the term just by looking at your visuals?

PROFILE PHOTOSWe want to see your work! Take a picture and tweet us @sadieclorinda and @manuelherrera33 and add #VisualThinking



2 thoughts on “Visual Thinking to Manage Learning – Visualize Ideas

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s