Friday, October 23, 2009

Visualization is Essential to Thinking

While no state education agency or university recognizes visual literacy as a core skill (like verbal communication and numerical literacy), it is clear that even scientists and mathematicians rely on visualization skills to solve complex problems.

Look carefully at this photo of a Nobel Prize winning scientist in a seminar room. Look at the blackboard and notice that, along with words and mathematical formulas, there are drawings. Look at the tables and notice that there are models of various Fullerene structures. Even consider the fact that these structures get their name from the famous architect, Buckminster Fuller, who realized early on that these were very stable structures and used them as the basis for his famous geodesic domes.

The drawings and models are standard visual techniques used in science, mathematics, the social sciences and the humanities to solve problems too complex, too large, or, in this case, too small without the aid of visual images and objects.

Professor Sir Harold Kroto (right), recipient of the 1996 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, is shown sitting in one of the seminar rooms of the University of Sussex on the day after his Nobel Prize was announced. He won the prize with Robert Curl and Richard Smalley for their discovery of C60 (Bucky balls) and other Fullerenes, models of which are shown in the foreground.

It is time for state education agencies and universities to quit pretending that visual literacy is not as "scholarly" as mathematical and verbal literacy. It is time for all to admit that human brains use not only words and numbers to process ideas but also sounds, movements, images, objects, environments and experiences.

There is an entire lobe of the brain devoted to visual imaging (the occipital lobe at the back of the brain in both the left and right hemispheres). How can every leading educational institution in the country continue to ignore that visualization is a key way humans learn, think and communicate? How can our school systems pretend America can remain competitive in scientific, technological, mathematical, economic, or any other area, by focusing on English and mathematics to the exclusion of visual thinking?

1 comment:

Burt l. Swersey said...

Many thanks for this incredibly important, but largely overlooked area of education. This semester, we have made model making, from quick "duct tape" models to more advanced ones, a major part of the design process... and it has led to some wonderfully innovations in design of devices to provide safe drinking water. I strongly support the idea that visualization skills are critically important and need to be taught.. and a little time spent here goes a long way.