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Visual thinking (I): cognitive labels to optimize the ability to solve problems

“The perception of shape marks the beginning of concept formation.” This idea by the German psychologist and philosopher Rudolf Arnheim, for whom all thoughts are of a perceptual nature, gives rise to the concept of visual thinking, which we analyze in this first article through a study by Palma J. Longo. From this idea, a new strategy of knowledge representation and metacognitive learning was developed, named visual thinking networks. The use of this strategy in scientific teaching improves substantially the ability of the students to solve problems.

Madrid - April 4, 2019. The knowledge organization strategy proposed by visual thinking networks (VTNs) is framed within the knowledge science theory that defends that the way information is processed determines the persistence of [said information] in memory. In this sense, the more deeply we process information – through images, associations of ideas, or mental representations – the more easily we will remember it.

VTNs introduce a new method based on the creation of visual labels or knowledge units, usually isolated names or ideas referring to a concept and serving as a reference for students to codify or structure the experience and knowledge they acquire in the learning process. These labels are correlated, yielding a coherent integral structure that the student controls autonomously at all times without a teacher’s intervention.

To understand how VTN strategies can improve the learning process compared to other knowledge organization methodologies, a study was conducted among 9th-grade Earth Sciences students by Palma J. Longo (an associate professor of Biology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, USA), O. Roger Anderson (a professor and head of the Department of Mathematics, Science and Technology at Columbia University, New York, USA), and Paul Wicht (a professor of Science at Byram Hills High School in Armonk, New York, USA).

Earth Sciences as a test
The 56 participating students included 34 female and 22 male teenagers between the ages of 13 and 15 years who were randomized into three classes. The VTN method was used in two classes (referred as the experimental group), while in the third class (control group), a method of writing strategies was used to express the students’ understanding of a set of concepts. The aim was to represent the knowledge acquired during the academic year by working on three main thematic units (Earth in space, atmosphere, and solid Earth/Earth history) using paper diagrams drawn with colored pencils or a black ballpoint pen.

Both groups received the same list of concepts to represent (with terms like "eclipse," "latitude," "solar energy," or "summer solstice"), and the experimental group was given the additional option to reflect on or code these concepts in four different ways: conceptual black and white labels, conceptual color labels, black and white labels with symbols or drawings, and color labels with symbols or drawings. The next step was to connect the labels to each other using lines and other connecting resources to represent the relationship established between them, creating a network or diagram.
The results were analyzed with the AGI/INSTA (American Geological Institute/National Science Teachers Association Earth Science Examination) test, developed by the US National Association of Science Teachers and considered the most accurate tool to assess knowledge acquired by 9th- to 12th-grade students about Earth and space.

The results showed a significant causal relationship between improvement in learning of Earth Sciences and use of VTNs, especially in terms of the students’ abilities to solve problems, which was superior in all of those using VTNs compared with those following the writing method. The achievement gains were 26% and 12%, respectively.

The results also showed the importance of using color when applying this methodology, a key fact given that until now, no study had incorporated this characteristic as an element to assess learning and student’s performance. Improvements in problem-solving capacity were found to be more significant in students who had opted for color in elaborating their diagrams and, among them, in those who had greater aptitude for abstract reasoning and those less gifted in establishing spatial relationships.

Gender differences and open questions
Another aspect highlighted by the authors was the effect of the use of color in improving problem-solving among female students, who were more likely to use this model of labeling than their male colleagues. According to Longo and her team, future research should assess this result more thoroughly, since a comparative analysis of the differences observed in “network construction between males and females may contribute new insights on the differential nature of knowledge building [according to gender].”

The results confirmed that VTNs are a useful asset for students, enabling them to represent, organize, and revise the scientific knowledge learned autonomously, helping them take charge of their own learning. VTNs also improve one’s ability to solve problems, an effect that according to the authors is more significant when color is used. The study also demonstrated how VTNs enable students to choose meaningful colors and symbolic representations to build mental images of scientific concepts learned.

Along the same lines, Longo points out to the importance of offering students different alternatives or ways to integrate their thinking, like the use of VTNs when configuring and structuring scientific knowledge. In the classroom, it is convenient to contemplate the application of multimodal sensory learning experiences. Questions remain in terms of whether these results could be extrapolated in the case of using a computer instead of hand-built diagrams and on the integration of these findings in the light of current theories of metacognitive learning of neurobiology and neurocognitive sciences and as part of instructional strategies.

As a note, Longo underlines the ENACT-AC model, or the activation theory of the anterior cingulate, which wraps around the corpus callosum and seems to play a determining role in certain rational cognitive functions like decisions and anticipation of rewards or verbal inhibition. Learn more about this topic in our second article on visual thinking and problem solving. Coming soon!



Longo P, Anderson R, Wicht P. Visual Thinking Networwing Promotes Problem Solving Achievement for 9th Grade Earth Science Estudents. Electronic Journal of Science Education (September 2002) Vol. 7 No. 1:1-51

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