Visual Thinking to Manage Learning – Visualize Relationships

Visual Thinking to Manage Learning

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

Click here to read Part 2: Visualize Ideas. The simple drawing activities we share in this post will set students up for success in the strategies we’re sharing here in Part 3.


In this blog series, Manuel and I talked a lot about using visual thinking to help visualize your own ideas – pushing beyond using sketches to capture someone else’s presentation, podcast, etc., and using drawing to see ideas clearly and communicate your thinking to others.

In project and design work, students are generating lots of ideas as they engage in research – whether that’s through interviews, observations, or finding sources on the internet. With different types of information coming from various sources, it can be difficult for students to organize and understand all of this information, and see how things are connected. Using visual thinking, we can give our students the tools and supports to see the connections in their research and ideas, and begin to visualize relationships between people, ideas, processes, and more.

Ditch The Diagrams.

Asking students to record and outline their research and learning isn’t a new concept.Venn.jpg We’ve likely all outlined a research paper. Graphic organizers are a popular way for students to organize information and ideas – but are they really effective in helping students synthesize information and make connections between ideas? Venn Diagrams are a popular way to compare and contrast – and have gained new life with digital tools like Google Drawing. However, the learning taking place with Venn Diagrams, and many other graphic organizers, is often low-level – students are making lists, recalling information, categorizing items, and comparing/contrasting.

Using visual thinking techniques provides structure to help students organize information, while still giving them the freedom to see all the information in front of them, synthesize that information, and draw their own conclusions. Remember, visual thinking doesn’t always have to mean drawing or sketching – visual thinking means getting ideas out so that you can better understand, organize, and communicate those ideas.

Empathy MapEmpathy Maps. A popular component in the Empathy phase of the design thinking process, empathy maps help designers better understand the experiences, emotions, and needs of their audience. The maps are wonderful for design thinking, but can be used outside of the design process as well. When researching in history, geography, or government, students often use graphic organizers to list dates, information, and traits of different people, places, or events. Replacing those graphic organizers with empathy maps push students to go beyond making lists, and start making connections between those people, places, or events. For example, if I am researching the events leading up to the American Revolution, I could complete an empathy map for the Colonists and another for the British Soldiers – this would help me see how two different groups of people experienced, and acted upon, the same events. Click here for a printable Empathy Map.

Observation map

Observation Maps. While empathy maps capture emotions and experiences, observation maps are used to capture detailed observations of people, places, or processes. The five columns of an observation map – Activities, Environments, Interactions, Objects, and Users – gives students a solid structure to capture – through simple drawing or quick notes – detailed observations and visualize connections between the things they are observing. Click here for a printable Observation Map.

2.-Sticky-Notes.pngMind Mapping. We’ve all completed mind maps – we start with one concept in the middle of a paper, and lines come off that concept in spokes leading to related ideas, characteristics, etc. Like other graphic organizers, this structure is pretty straight forward – which can sometimes mean we get stuck in that structure. What if we encourage students to start with visualizing ideas, rather than starting with a structure? Start by making a “brain dump” of all the ideas, research, information, etc. that need to communicated or included in a project. This can be through sketches or notes, in any format you choose – sticky notes, notecards, a large whiteboard, etc. Then,  take a step back and look at all the information you made visual – do you see any commonalities or trends? Can you make groups or subgroups? What connections do you see among all this information? Are there any large factors that separate ideas? You might start to see a “mind map” form – but the key is that you started by getting your ideas out, and were able to visualize relationships and connections among those ideas.

Check out these amazing maps that @ajrisedorph shared from his classroom.

Visualize Connections.

Sketching 1As students read stories and novels, we often ask them to keep notes on the plot and characters in order to better understand complex stories. What if, instead of listing character traits, Sketching 2we mapped out the stories in a non-linear way? As we learn more about each character, we use icons from our visual library and quick notes to visualize those traits, and use connectors and icon combinations to show the relationships between characters and plot points.

A high school teacher I work with is using visual thinking with her students to work through the characters and places in Greek mythology. Think about how complicated those myths can be! Zeus was the king of gods, and he had four wives. He married Hera, the queen of gods, and they had two children, Ares – the god of war, and Hephaestus – the god of fire….I could continue to list names of people and try to explain how everyone is connected. Or, I could just show you this visual and spend time discussing the characters, the stories, and how they are connected.


Manuel also shares this image the students at his high school made to make sense of The Great Gatsby as they read the novel. Visualizing stories and books can be done individually, or as a group to help think through a story and understand connections.



It’s your turn to give Visualizing Relationships a try! You can print out the empathy map linked above, or just get out a piece of paper and a pen, and dividing the paper into four equal parts. Think of a person or character from your favorite book. Complete the empathy map for that person, really thinking about not only their characteristics, but also their experiences in the story.

Do you think this would help you explain the character to someone else? Would someone have a basic understanding of person 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


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