Visual Thinking for Writers

Visual thinking involves using images as tools to allow the creative and emotional part of the brain to process information in an intuitive manner.

Suzanne Choo, of Teachers College at Columbia University, in an article published by The National Council of Teachers of English, advances the question: What if visual thinking were given special emphasis in the English classroom? She proposes
"...a curriculum grounded on three principles: (1) sense and perception as starting points; (2) meta-conceptual links between visual and verbal texts; and (3) the art of visualization in the writing process.

The emphasis on sensory experience, perceptual thinking, and visualization is a deliberate attempt to challenge reason, critical thinking, and linearity of thought that have come to dominate the teaching of writing in contemporary English classrooms.

Typically in such classrooms, critical-thinking skills in various forms are emphasized, such as the ability to write a persuasive argument using logical reasoning or the ability to write an informed response by analyzing and evaluating a given text."
But, in traditional teaching, critical thinking dominates visual thinking. So, Choo recommends that both skills be given a more equal balance through a multimodal approach of teaching. Two benefits are gained from this method:
"First, visual texts provide an easier access to printed texts, particularly for English Language Learners, via the facilitation of meta-conceptual links. Secondly, for native speakers of English, the inclusion of strategies that promote visual thinking along with critical thinking is especially relevant given the image-saturated, mass-mediated societies that they are likely to be immersed in."
Numerous scholarly works have identified that although most school systems support a language-centered curriuclum based on linearity of thought, more recent generations of students have been raised with greater exposure to visual stimuli, through television, computers and mobile devices. It's understood that instructors must broaden their focus "from grammar and genre to meta-concepts related to aesthetic composition in visual and printed texts."

An opportunity, Choo suggests, would be created to allow students to use visual design techniques to construct and organize their written work.
"The primary goal of such an approach is to provide creative spaces in the writing classroom that would empower students to become not just writers but also composers of texts."
By turning abstract ideas into visible concrete ones, visual learning techniques help students to understand and interpret information. These techniques can provide structure for writing and reporting -- through tools such as storyboarding -- as well as analyzing and discussion, and can help students to focus their thoughts and ideas.

Research by child development theorist Linda Kreger Silverman suggests that less than 30% of the population strongly uses visual/spatial thinking, another 45% uses both visual/spatial thinking and verbal thinking, and 25% thinks exclusively in words.

Harvard University art professor Rudolph Arnheim coined the phrase "visual thinking" in his 1969 book of the same name, explaining how the development of imagery can allow us to make connections and apply the pictures in our mind's eye to the world around us, helping us communicate more effectively. He wrote, "The clarification of visual forms and their organization in integrated patterns as well as the attribution of such forms to suitable objects is one of the most effective training grounds of the young mind."

In 1981 Roger Sperry won a Nobel Prize for his split brain research.The right hemisphere -- the non-verbal hemisphere -- he concluded, is indeed a conscious system in its own right, perceiving, thinking, remembering, reasoning, willing, and emoting, all at a characteristically human level, and that both the left and the right hemisphere may be conscious simultaneously in different, even in mutually conflicting, mental experiences that run along in parallel.

More recently Stephen Pinker wrote in The Language Instinct that because we are not born with language, we therefore cannot be engineered to think in words alone.

Writing is linear; our brains are not. Our writing processes can be improved if they better reflect the way we think. Many writers have found that visual thinking offers a powerful creative tool for translating our non-linear thoughts into clear writing.

See Sean Kelly's video on visual thinking.