Joan Hardy has worked with gifted and talented students in Year 9 to develop their visual learning skills and help them cascade what they have learned to pupils in Year 7

Visual imagery can play a powerful role in accelerating human learning. Complex verbal explanations can often be simplified through visual support – now made more accessible through new technologies. And organised learners use a range of low-tech techniques to make sure that their notes are well-ordered and easy to navigate. These include colour coding, post-it notes, highlighters, etc, to help categorise, prioritise and make the work user-friendly. Many of our students also use a range of diagrams and Mind Maps to give easily accessible visual reminders of what they’ve researched or learned. Used efficiently and regularly, these devices can display large amounts of information very economically and help students to:

  • recall detail and make connections
  • remember facts (when they have a visual connection)
  • clarify thoughts and ideas
  • identify relationships/connections between topics, concepts or characters
  • understand abstract ideas
  • focus and think logically
  • connect new knowledge with prior learning.

Organising and analysing a story
The use of visual tools can enhance learning at all levels, and I challenged a group of students in Y9 to hone their skills so that they could demonstrate and explain the techniques to younger pupils.
To deconstruct and study any piece of text, I have a number of templates from which students can choose, ranging from the simple ‘spider diagram’ to a complex Mind Map.

To introduce the activity, I chose a simple folk tale about a rich man who envied the ‘golden windows’ of the equally rich man in the house across the valley. A short story, but packed with content! It was a good starting point owing to the richness of description, the extended metaphor of deception and the moral stance against greed. We read the story aloud and discussed its meaning. Then we were ready to begin the visual analysis.

Using the ‘single bubble’ we constructed a character study of the man before his journey and a similar bubble after the journey. These were then converted into a Venn diagram so it was clear what had changed and what had not.

This is the beginning of visual analysis and, knowing that the Year 9 students were confident with the technique, I allowed them to demonstrate it to the group of Year 7 students. We provided colours and large sheets of paper and they were soon using a whole range of techniques to record their ideas. These included illustrating the diagrams with stick figures or representational images, and using grids to make judgements about the events of the story.

Analysing non-fiction texts
The process proved so successful that we decided to take it a step further. We had been studying Shakespeare’s original Globe Theatre, to give Year 9 students a better understanding of the setting for Shakespeare’s plays.

The idea was to compare performance conditions in Shakespeare’s time to those we have today, and present the information visually. This project began with the students being shown the short animated version of The Tempest, which was discussed and evaluated. The students were then given a model of the Globe Theatre and were told a number of facts about it, such as that all actors were male and that performances were announced from the roof of the theatre. They were then encouraged to find out more, and to begin to compare their findings with what they knew about theatre today. In groups, the students engaged in research and came up with separate diagrams for each theatre, which they then converted to a Venn diagram.

As the Shakespeare play we were studying was The Tempest, I was able to extend the work to cover aspects of the play. We used storyboard techniques and sequence diagrams to consolidate the plot. Other ideas included the construction of a ‘mood board’ containing symbolic reminders of the major themes of the play and a visual character board.

We are currently discussing ways of using the same techniques in other areas of the curriculum.

Using an interactive staging environment to explore interpretations of a Shakespeare play

Phil Badham created a top-down staging area in ActivStudio 3 with movable character elements, to let students explore the different decisions directors make when staging performances. GCSE English coursework includes pre-1914 and post-1914 drama and both require students to consider ‘stagecraft’ and ‘theatricality’ in their answers. To create a variety of outcomes, Phil used plan views of different types of staging (Proscenium, Thrust, In-the-round, etc) on separate flipchart pages. Students working in groups discussed their choices and then used the IWB to present their ideas to the class. The ‘Recorder’ tool was used to save and review their configurations and then the ActivStudio 3 ‘Reset’ tool to clear the flipchart for the next group.

‘The beauty of this simple flipchart is its versatility and user-friendly nature,’ says Phil. ‘It doesn’t matter which play you are studying; when you are confronted with key scenes with lots of characters in and you don’t have immediate recourse to a drama space, you can easily customise the flipchart and get students to consider the play as more than just a text on the page. I can also model ideas to pupils during the session while they make preparatory drawings on A4 mini-whiteboards.

‘Alternatively, and equally as viable, is to pass around the ActivSlate and get individual students to make changes, explaining them to the class as they do so. I’ve always found the activity draws out meanings in the script and relationships between characters that are original, relevant and always valid. This is especially important when it comes to writing coursework, which requires independent insight as a key to higher grades. When considering the conspiracy scene in Julius Caesar, some students suddenly realised that the script automatically suggested certain necessary proximities between characters. It also meant that students could show the division inherent in the conspirators’ circle or the unity within it depending on their particular reading of the text. As one student later wrote, “…[by] spreading out characters… you can see they have divided views.”
‘Some of the sparkier students used their initiative and made unprecedented changes, altering the stage size or rotating/resizing /reordering parts of the stage furniture for their own purposes, knowing full well they could ‘reset’ the page for other groups.

‘At the end of the lesson, I was inspired by their suggestions to put some of the ideas into a practical format, which made for a natural plenary session.’

Phil asked his Year 10 class to write down their impressions after the session and all agreed that they understood the scene better as a result, that they now realised how characterisation in the text is equally reliant on staging and direction. Consequently, the coursework submissions were significantly better in terms of understanding how stagecraft is part of the process for interpreting a text and appreciating the reasons for directors’ choices. Analytical work done subsequently on other performances of Julius Caesar (1970 and 1956 movies) showed significant improvement compared with previous cohorts.

Phil Badham is teacher of English and head of e-learning at Hampshire Collegiate School

Joan Hardy is head of drama and G&T coordinator at Belper School, Derbyshire