In the article What a Great Memory! in Issue 7 of TEX, Mark Fletcher wrote about brain-friendly strategies for helping students to ‘encode’ information and so transfer it from short to long-term memory. One of the key factors in this process is the neurological connection between memory and the visual systems of the brain, with more than thirty brain areas involved in ‘seeing’, for example. This second article elaborates on the brain/learning justification for using Visualisation techniques with a class, and the basics of how to get started.

Some background to Guided Visualisation

Computers and television provide wonderful access to images, mainly – but by no means entirely – visual. They also offer great opportunities to develop imaginative layout and presentation skills. They are an enormously useful teaching and learning asset. One small word of caution may not be out of place, however. Virtual reality is becoming more and more a fact of life, and the silicon revolution gives us instant and intriguing standard images.

Are we therefore at risk of undervaluing and eventually diminishing the extraordinary facility of our own brains to create worlds from the sound of a voice or a fragment of description?

Our imagination links memories and feelings into pictures that are completely original and unique, and with which our limbic systems create a sense of identity and ownership.

Many learners find that sitting quietly and allowing pictures to form in the mind, is a welcome and refreshing change of pace from the business and busy-ness of the day. I frequently use a variation of this at the end of an intensive lesson. We sit quietly, relax and put on some gentle music while I ‘talk through’ the key points again. This ties in well with the points on recycling and ‘passive learning’ made in the previous article on memory in the ‘from short to long-term memory’ section.

Guided Visualisation involves creating pictures in your mind whilst following a series of open-ended prompts. Although the image making activity is led by the prompts (usually provided by the teacher), the results will be unique to each participant. We know from studies of the limbic system of the brain that an experience with a powerful attachment to emotion is more likely to be retained in the long-term memory. By inviting learners to engage their feelings, to ‘self-invest’ by using their imagination through visualisation, we can ensure this short to long-term transfer of information has a better chance of taking place. The lesson target may be learning specific vocabulary from a comprehension passage, or being able to summarise an article packed with information, but because of receiving the opportunity and invitation to contribute something of our own imagination we become ‘partners’ in the activity’ and this is highly motivating.

There’s nothing new in this, of course. Writers do it all the time. Below is an example from Shakespeare himself, to lend authority to the case… Sit back. You are in the Globe theatre and the ‘Chorus’ walks on to the stage…

Can this cockpit hold

The vasty fields of France? or may we cram

Within this wooden O the very casques

That did affright the air at Agincourt?

O, pardon! Since a crooked figure may attest

in little place a million;

And let us, cyphers in this great accompt,

On your imaginary forces work

Suppose within the girdle of these walls

Are now confin’d two mighty monarchies,

Whose high upreared and abutting fronts

The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:

Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts:

Into a thousand parts divide one man,

And make imaginary puissance;

Think, when we talk of horses that you see them

Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;

For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,

Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,

Turning the accomplishment of many years

Into an hour-glass:

(Prologue to Henry V)

Shakespeare makes each member of the audience a participant in the act of creating. He takes us through the scene setting with a brief overview… two mighty monarchies… then asks us (in the most wonderful way of course) to do some of the rest of the work ourselves! He uses Guided Visualisation of open-ended prompts so that we experience the scale of the armies… into a thousand parts divide one man… the dramatic sense of movement… ‘horses …printing their proud hoofs‘, the costumes…The tools (in slightly different language, certainly) are those that a teacher might use to set up a Visualisation Ladder before a reading activity. ‘on your imaginary forces work… suppose piece out with your thoughts… make imaginary puissance… think when we talk of horses that you see them… for t’is your thoughts that now must deck…

Using a Visualisation Ladder with a text

You don’t have to be Shakespeare….!

Quite often teachers (or rather, the students) are faced with using data-filled comprehension texts, or factual but bland accounts of processes. A few moments to form an image (a setting, a richer characterisation) provides the student with a right-hemisphere, limbic system ‘investment’ in the materials. The imagination is engaged so motivation is greater.

Let’s take an example from a Negotiation/ Business/English course ‘Enterprise Europe’. The information carrying text is written as a drama in several Acts, and each scene is prefaced by a few Visualisation prompts. We are in So and So’ s office… Is it a very modern office or is it in an older building… Are there any pictures on the wall? What can you see from the window?… So and So is in a good mood. Why?

In a couple of minutes individual students have made their individual connection with the setting and the characters. They pick up the simple technique very quickly and start to apply it for themselves to other learning situations.

Here is an example of using a Visualisation Ladder with a text.

Before you read the newspaper article ‘Carlo the Chocolate maker’ this series of simple, open-ended prompts will help you, the listener or reader, to form a picture of one of the characters in your mind.

(Allow a short pause – about 5 seconds – after each prompt.)

First, imagine the taste and texture of your favourite chocolates!

We’re going to read (listen to) an article about Carlo Melchior.

Carlo is a chocolate maker who came to England fourteen years ago.

I can tell you that he is married to Linda (they work together in the business) and they have some children.

I have no other information.

See Carlo in your imagination.

Is he a tall man?

Or is he of medium height?

Or short? Is he slim? Or heavily built?

How would you describe his face?

What sort of hair does he have?

Does he have a beard or moustache?

Or is he clean-shaven?

Think about his personality…what’s he like as a person?

You know Carlo well.

What three adjectives would you use to sum him up?

He has an interesting hobby. What is it?

He’s married to Linda, and they run the business together.

How long have they been married?

Is their relationship easy-going or rather stormy?

Do they both like the same music?

The same holidays?

Carlo has had some interesting news today.

What is it?

Focus the picture of Carlo on a screen in your mind’s eye for a few moments……and now describe him to your neighbour.

Are your chocolate makers similar or very different?

Some advice. As a student, I get annoyed if I follow the prompts, create a character, then turn to the article and find I’m ‘wrong’ because my mental picture conflicts with factual information in the text. When you encourage students to create their own personally valid picture take care to avoid such a frustration. It works against the intended positive motivation.

Ideas and information on the connection between Brain and Learning and the practical application of holistic ideas to the classroom are developed in Teaching for Success by Mark Fletcher. ISBN 1 898295 62X published by Brain Friendly Publications.

This article first appeared in Teaching Expertise, July 2005.