The Case for Visual Thinking – Thoughts on “Visual Meetings” by David Sibbet

One of my goals over winter break is to read Visual Meetings: How Graphics, Sticky Notes & Idea Mapping Can Transform Group Productivity by David Sibbet. Sibbet is an expert graphic facilitator and president of the Grove Consultants International. I’ve seen a few graphic facilitators at work, including Peter Durand of Alphachimp Studio, who demonstrated his skills during a workshop on visual thinking I helped facilitate back in the spring. I’ve read and enjoyed The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam, too. (I blogged about Roam’s book and potential applications to education here, here, here, and here.)

I’ve started using more visual thinking tools in my teaching and workshop facilitating, and I’ve been really happy with how they help make sense of complex information and create more useful records of group collaboration. I’m hoping that Sibbet’s book will provide me with more useful tools and inspiration to begin using these tools more regularly.

I’m just reading the introduction to Visual Meetings now, but Sibbet’s list of “Drivers of Change” on page xv got me thinking about parallels between his world (business meetings) and my world (teaching). Here are some parallels that occurred to me:

  • “There is a lot more information and it is harder to get people to make sense out of it.” – How many of us have taught a course where there seemed to be more information than time to cover it? Whether your discipline is mathematics, chemistry, history, sociology, or something else, there always seems to be a laundry list of things that are important for our students to know in our classes. Can visual tools help our students make sense of massive amounts of information? Yes, I think so. See my argument near the end of this post.
  • “Pressure to get results makes alignment and followthrough from meetings critically important.” – What does “alignment and followthrough” look like in educational settings? A course goes so much more smoothly when students and faculty have shared expectations for the experience. When that kind of alignment is missing, the learning process often breaks down, usually in ways that show up quite negatively on course evaluations! When students and faculty expectations for teaching and learning are in alignment, students are more likely to produce the kind of work we’d like them to. Can visual tools help with this kind of alignment and followthrough? Check out Billie Hara’s recent ProfHacker post on graphic syllabi for one approach.
  • “Many problems are systems level challenges, that require groups to be able to think big picture, over longer periods of time.” – Cognitive science research tells us that novices in a field (e.g. our students) have trouble seeing the big picture. That is, they have trouble understanding the various relationships among the concepts and ideas in a field. Which concepts are related and how are they related? Which concepts are more or less important in understanding a field? How can key concepts and frameworks help make sense of particular examples? These are tough questions for novices to answer. Often they stop trying and fall back on memorizing lots of details, but even that’s hard to do when you don’t have the big picture. Helping our students develop that big picture is critical in helping them develop expertise in our fields. Can visual tools help here, too? Check out this Back of the Napkin post of mine for some ideas.
  • “Rapid change requires everyone to upgrade their mental models of how things work on a frequent basis.” – Frequently upgrading one’s mental models? Our students have to do that throughout their college career. Upgrading one’s mental models is one way to define the process of learning. When we help students visualize their own mental models and perhaps see more expert mental models, we give them very useful tools for improving their own understanding over time. While some disciplines have long traditions of visualization tools (think of those Tinkertoy models of molecules in your chemistry class), many of us still have a lot to learn about tapping into visual thinking to convey mental models. Here’s one example: a recent attempt of mine to help my students visualize a debate in my cryptography course.

Given these parallels between Sibbet’s change drivers and what I’ve observed in educational settings, I’m excited to see what kinds of tools I can learn about from Visual Meetings that might enhance my teaching. Stay tuned for more here on the blog.

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