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Visual Learning: The Long Overdue Revolution

Several published materials on visual learning dedicated reams of paper explaining the ‘left brain –right brain’ theory. Apparently, our language skills (verbal and text) align to the left side (logical) of the brain, while pictures align to the right side (creative) of the brain. According to visual learning, an academic concept explained through a combination of visuals and text activate both the sides of the human brain, thereby ensuring better comprehension as opposed to understanding the same concept using text alone, which activates only the left side of the brain.

Although the scientific credentials of this theory, as of now, are not well established enough to make it a part of any standard school curriculum for science, it is an interesting metaphor to approach visual learning.

This topic, on the other hand, spawns an interesting argument as to which academic subjects can accommodate visual learning.

Much to the chagrin of any visual learning advocate, our education and learning system is heavily focused on text, even though we are born as visual creatures (another scientific study claims that of all the senses, vision utilizes the most of our mental faculty). Linear text/verbal explanations have an advantage over pure visuals, as in they have a well-defined structure in terms of language (which has well-defined usage rules known as ‘grammar’). As a result, we rely heavily on text when it comes to explaining a problem (yes, the exam question papers), and explaining the solution (why else is the word limit specified). While the benefits of text cannot be ignored, most of the explanations come clearer when demonstrated with both visuals and text instead of text alone. A visual activates a different part of the brain, or to put it less metaphorically, brings a perspective that text alone cannot capture. Thus, using text and visuals together is strongly recommended for effective teaching and learning.

Even though the merits for visual learning are in plenty, the harmony of visuals and text is not as widespread as it should be. Students are still saddled with volumes of books that have voluminous levels of text, with occasional pictures added as if as an afterthought. Some moot points that may engender fruitful discussion on visual learning are:

  • We are all natural visual learners: Humans are visual creatures. It is our innate ability to see that helps us go through everyday life, and is the first tool for assessment for a given problem. If we map our thought process, the closest abstraction would be a multidimensional and dynamic visual. Even a child’s thought process is far too complicated to be abstracted through linear text. However, our verbal heavy teaching environment still makes us believe that writing our thoughts is the best way to give them shape – hence, the phrase ‘chain of thought’. What we don’t realize is that while reading through text also, we tend to draw a mental picture to determine the underlying form of the concept explained through the text. Exploring and adopting visual learning will reduce this processing and make the concept more intuitive to grasp. The visuals needed for an effective explanation can vary in their richness – pictures, 3D models, animations, etc. Such visuals, when accompanied by verbal explanation (to set the context and provide detailed narration), provide the most vivid explanation which demystifies the underlying complexity of most academic subjects. Many e-education solutions excel in making lively and intuitive visual explanations of academic concepts, which aids a student’s understanding in a manner that linear text cannot. Hence, awareness of visual learning solutions is essential for a thorough engagement of a student’s mental faculty, especially during the growing-up years.
  • Visual learning is for everyone – even the students comfortable with text alone: One of the common interpretations of the ‘left brain-right brain’ theory is that right-brained people are creative, while left-brained are logical. It is often assumed that only children with artistic ambitions, or the ones having difficulty with linear learning, need to explore the visual learning – the others are better off with ‘traditional’ learning methods. While tendencies in one’s thinking process being logical versus holistic, does seem to have merit, as far as ‘creativity’ is concerned, in today’s knowledge driven environment, innovation is not an option, but a necessity. The primary aim of education should be to make an individual sufficiently skilled to deal with real-life problems, wade through uncertainties and come up with innovative solutions. So even students who are comfortable with the textual format for their education shouldn’t ignore what visual learning has to offer. Also, the adoption of visual learning won’t lead one to abandon linear text (that’s probably not possible in the foreseeable future), but only enhance the ability to learn.
  • Rules favored ‘text’, but digitalization favors ‘visuals’: Generations of text-oriented learning has also affected the overall maturity pertaining to rules and technology related to text. We have strong rules in place in the form of grammar, and the foible of bad handwriting is getting more pardonable with electronic typing. On the other hand, visual thinking as a discipline is yet to gain any universally acknowledged structure and or set of rules. This has inhibited the adoption and advancement of visual learning. However, since the last decade or so, the advent of digital technology in education sector is changing things for good – students have access to variety of eLearning solutions, and have gained awareness of revolutionary teaching and learning methods through internet. Even schools are adopting technology like never before to keep pace with the latest developments in pedagogy and provide a competitive environment to students.

An increased awareness of visual learning in the mainstream education sector can inspire educationalists to develop innovative education solutions (the potential is limitless) – which can indeed allow this long-neglected learning discipline to take its rightful place as the harbinger of an education and learning revolution.


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