Visual Teaching Strategies
Thomas M. Sargent
When you woke up this morning, an internal processor began to hum and churn.
At first, it was slow to work, preferring the state it was in only moments before the alarm
went off. Your feet hit the floor and you took the first steps of the day; it began to send its
first messages of the day. Within a short time, it was delivering those thoughts faster and
faster. Over the next 16 or so hours, it would process and deliver thousands of messages
without you even thinking about it. In doing so, this processor would help shape your
entire day and even affect your future.
A human being's ability to take in and process visual images is uncanny. We look
at something, analyze, assess and process within milliseconds. The end result is a
thought, action, or feeling, something newly learned or added to a base of knowledge,
interest flamed or a motivation to do or avoid. We can't turn it off. Close our eyes and we
see the images in our mind.
Communication occurs at a number of levels; the two most common are auditory
and visual. We can turn off what we hear by plugging our ears, but we can't stop seeing
images. The brain automatically attempts to fill in what is not seen with images familiar
or common, visuals we have experienced or can associate with the present unseen event.
Radio discovered this magic many years ago. Before television, "viewers" would
sit listening to shows flowing over the airwaves, imagining what people and things
looked like. What was heard shaped how tall the radio star was, what he or she often
wore or how they moved. We "saw" on the radio what we could connect to our real
experiences. With the evolution of photographs in newspapers and magazines, television
and movies, and slick advertising delivered via pamphlets, billboards, TV and the
Internet, these images were delivered to us in a carefully orchestrated fashion. Specific
messages, both consciously and sub-consciously, could be delivered. Our "Visual Wold"
was exploding and the human mind was keeping up with the faster pace.
Take a moment, close your eyes and remember the best vacation you ever had as
a child. A series of images flow back to you, setting off a string of feelings, memories,
sounds and smells. So much of what we remember is catalogued using visual cues. The
movie that always makes you cry; you see and remember particular facial expressions
and scenes along with the words and script delivered. The driver you cut off in traffic this
morning... you can still see how he or she communicated with you non-verbally! It's all
stored up there with, probably, unlimited gigs of memory space available. How well we
can access it might be the biggest barrier!
So, the question is, if all of us have and utilize a particular skill so many times and
so well each day, why isn't it a tool teachers use to support and enhance the delivery of all
content each day? Are we missing the greatest teaching tool of all? If students are even
more "visual" than we are (and they have grown up in a much more visual world than we
have), what is it we aren't tapping into in their learning styles?
"Oh", you say, "My second grade classroom has posters all over the walls.
Students read books with so many pictures. Our textbooks are loaded with photos, cute
cartoons, graphs and charts. I must be using visual strategies already!"
I'll never argue with that assertion. Yes, so many of us are, but we don't
understand the power of this tool and we are under-utilizing it. We aren't fully aware of
how our students process visuals. We use it occasionally to support something delivered
audibly, but that's about it. Picture most any kindergarten through about fifth or sixth
grade classroom. Look at the walls; see the books. Glance at the student drawings and
artwork; take in all the visually powerful things in that environment. It is rich in the
delivery of messages and reinforcers, but it often lacks students delivering those same
visuals. Communication is all one way way.
Now picture most any college classroom you ever stepped into. Stripped... bare of
visuals. Many of your high school classrooms weren't much better. All too often our
middle school environments also can be found lacking. Yes, there's a bulletin board on
the far wall, a few fiction book posters to cover faded paint and possibly some charts to
remind students about good character and proper behavior. Somewhere along the way, by
not being aware of the full potential of communicating visually, we began to wean our
students away from a learning strategy that comes naturally to them. We replaced it with
tools they often struggle with... listening and reading skills.
Over the years, rather than see that a piece is missing in our teaching strategies,
we have created numerous other layers of guidelines and sub-sets of skills. What does it
take to be a good listener? How can we improve reading skills? We force these things
with greater emphasis on our students. Instead, maybe we should re-evaluate what
communication includes. We should realize we have somehow dropped an important
ingredient, the art of being visual, and place it back where it belongs... at the heart of
everything we experience.
For most of our students, reading and listening is not a problem. They attain what
is considered a mastery level of proficiency. But, for those who struggle, we just push the
same pieces at them harder and harder. They may the group which needs the visual part
The advancement of computers, the Internet and digital imaging technology has
given us a wealth of teaching tools to use. Like anything new, we have struggled over the
past 20 years trying to understand their value to our classrooms. At first we simply
needed to know "how to". Once we survived those initial learning curves, we began to
consider appropriate integration or infusion of the technology. We are just beginning to
see signs of what I consider to be the final stage in the development of a new tool.
Educators are looking at all this technology and asking where does it sidetrack and
distract students; where does its use take our curricular content hostage?
This stage can be critical to the use of visual strategies in the classroom. Good
visual supports and communications should be effective using technology as simple as a
pencil and paper. The message delivered by an image or series of images is what is
significant, never the tool itself. If a teacher does not fully understand the pitfalls a
particular software program or piece of hardware might pose, valuable learning time is
lost. If teaching students how to use these things is NOT part of the learning objectives of
a particular unit (and half the class is lost in the bells and whistles of the software or the
"cool" of the gadget), the content has been lost and those intended objectives were not
It is most likely that using visual strategies will lead teachers to the world of
multi-media in technology. Images captured from acceptable sources, scanned, created
artistically, or captured by digital camera or camcorder... the slide into this arena is
hastened by the rapidness at which this technology is being improved. We began this
ascent years ago with highly visual Internet web sites, Hyper Studio and Power Point, and
mind mapping, webbing and graphic organizers. More recently the potential has grown to
include the magic of creating "Hollywood type" movies on a desktop. What was
unattainable just months ago, now requires little or no new hardware and inexpensive
Finally, we come full circle and emphasize the content, not the technology.
Remember, if computers scare you, all you learn in the coming pages can be done with a
crayon and paper or by cutting photos out of old magazines. These things I did in third
grade are as valuable a tool as they were then. I just know how to get the most out of
Welcome to the world of visual teaching strategies, where students can
communicate what they are learning using images. Sit back and enjoy the story of
multiplication using double digits, a student-created, "How To" video based on what was
learned in math this week in your classroom. See how students retain things better by
defining them visually. And, watch them show you a thing or two about what can be
done. Just like learning anything computer-ish, they seem to latch on and comprehend
much faster than we do!