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Dr Nicola Davies explores the value of visualisation within the learning environment.
Visualisation is imagining and creating events in the mind — not only images, but also sounds, feelings and smells — a complete multisensory experience. Vivid experiences stay with us longer and help facilitate the learning process, which is why it is being increasingly used by teachers worldwide.
The technique has yielded success with a variety of skills and subjects, such as for sports, playing an instrument, languages, arts, math, and building the right psychological state of the learner. Furthermore, visualisation skills have been linked with higher IQ, increased concentration, and improvements in long-term memory.
It lends itself to a variety of uses: it can be a warm-up, a 20-minute activity, pair work, or a teacher-guided activity for large classes. It is easy to incorporate into lesson plans because it doesn’t require anything else but the mind’s eye – and, of course, the teacher’s willingness to guide students on how to use visualisation.
Although not all learners are equally good at visualisation, it’s a skill that can be improved upon. A simple yet effective warm-up activity is to ask students to imagine an object, such as an apple, and then to spend several minutes thinking about it. If it is an apple, they might imagine eating it, touching it, and smelling it. Although in the beginning it may be difficult to hold the picture in the mind for longer than a couple of seconds or minutes, with practice it becomes easier. Visualisation is also a great exercise for improving concentration. In combination with guided breathing it can help relax and focus the mind before an upcoming test or exam.
Jeanie Beales, English Teacher at Northlands Girls’ High School in Durban North, South Africa, explains how she uses visualisation to teach poems. She says, “When I teach poetry I will use a PowerPoint presentation with slides to illustrate various aspects of the poem. Often, I will show two presentations and ask students which one they considered was most effective in conveying the meaning of the poem. This involves discussion and engagement with the imagery of the poem. Sometimes they put together their own PowerPoint’s on a poem. It is interesting to see how words are translated to visual images and how perceptions of a poet’s work differs from student to student.”
Beales also adds that she teaches colloquial words such as ‘couch potato’ and ‘copycat’ by having students draw illustrations of them. A look-say-imagine-cover-write-check method for teaching spelling is another example of the successful application of visualisation.
To use visualisation successfully, teachers ideally need to use material to stimulate students’ minds, such as images, cartoons, movies or photographs, audio stories, a piece of music, or even sounds of nature. Students are then told to close their eyes and imagine what is happening. Next, students can write a creative story, perform a dance, or role-play the imagined scenario to convey their personal understanding of the material. This is a great activity for encouraging self-expression.
Many famous sportspeople and musicians have been known to spend hours visualising themselves practice, such as tennis player Roger Federer and the late classical pianist Arthur Rubenstein. Visualisation used for teaching sports or playing an instrument starts by asking the student to imagine someone else doing the action. Next, the student imagines himself or herself doing the action, in as much detail as possible — every sense, muscle strain, body movement. This activity is repeated until it becomes part of the student’s memory about the action. Once the student’s brain believes it has done the action, it helps to make it easier for them to do the activity for real.
Visualisation shouldn’t be perceived as limited to artistic endeavors or sports, it is also the basis of mathematical problem solving, especially geometry, logic and spatial reasoning tasks. A good activity is to have students close their eyes and visualise a 3D object, such as a pyramid. They need to visualise all its sides, imagine it moving around their head, passing a cube, and cutting it into halves.
Tatjana Glogovac, Mentor at the Regional Centre for Talents in Belgrade, notes that visualisation can help root out psychological obstacles that students might have towards a certain subject. She says, “Many students are faced with the belief that they are bad at languages, slow with math or simply not artistic or creative enough to have a good mark in arts. By visualising themselves facing the problematic situation and excelling in it, such mental obstacles can be overcome. We need to bring students into the right state of mind that will inspire and facilitate the learning process.”
Be it learning new words, solving geometrical puzzles, or writing a creative story, visualisation can be easily incorporated into the classroom. It takes minimal effort, and as a transferrable skill it promises long-term gains. Just five minutes of a relaxed visualisation activity at the beginning of the class can do wonders.
Nicola Davies is a psychologist and freelance writer with a passion for education. You can follow her on Twitter (@healthpsychuk) or sign up to her free blog: http://healthpsychologyconsultancy.wordpress.com/
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