21.2 Breaking through the textual barrier, an odyssey in visual and kinaesthetic learning

This talk by Kaye Towlson (from De Montfort University) was a very practical introduction to visual approaches to learning. Despite a classic PowerPoint set up, we were easily engaged with mini activities using felt tips, A4 paper and postcards. The textual barrier of the talk referred to the fashion students Kaye works with and their relative discomfort working in a purely text based environment. This can be overcome by balancing it out with creative and visual methods.

For example, we all drew a 6-petal flower on a sheet and took notes using this, filling each petal with a distinctive point or concept, to literally ‘grow ideas’.  Other approaches explored included collage, image enriched mind-maps, Groppel Wegner’s ‘dress-up doll of formality’ – a bit like the flower for growing ideas, but using the outline of a basic human figure – where like in the conventions of academic writing you ‘dress it up’, using the doll to think creatively about themes and key terms e.g. as items of clothing, organs, tattoos. A lot of this work all revolves around making visual connections between ideas, enabling free association.


The research plait uses three strips of paper. You write your title/topic on one, then add the key words for your theme (derived perhaps from the dress-up doll stage of brainstorming and free association), and then you use these to locate e.g. one book and one article that is relevant to your chosen subject. You write the references to these on the final strip of paper. The literal act of stapling these strips together and plaiting them, interweaves the three key elements, representing what you are doing when writing up your work.

The final part of the process for the fashion students is to draw their research ‘road map’, where they started right through to how they felt at the end, mapping out the various highs and lows on the way.

I really enjoyed exploring these ‘new ways of doing’, particularly as I am a very text based learner, perhaps because education has drummed the visual side out of me, so it is refreshing to engage with this. I was quite taken with the tools for research postgraduates e.g. use of mood board collages, literal framing of research objects as talking points and to represent the PhD theme. I even completed a postcard with the key things I learnt from the conference to be posted back to me soon. This was another tool, the ‘Dear me…’ postcard, providing some self-encouragement and guidance on where you want to be with your work. These would typically be posted out to students in a few weeks, to keep them on track.

library signage fashionOther techniques covered included drawing frames within frames on a sheet of paper and labelling these what, who, when, where, why? This was great for ideas generation and sharing/exploring with others. Also ‘thought trees’, made with pipe cleaners, which you hang idea labels from. Another useful tool – again a bit like the dress up doll and flower, was the project handprint. Draw around your hand and fill each finger with things to do. Other uses for visual mapping included employability – making a collage and connecting the different elements with string and blue tack.

These techniques all take time and support a variety of learning styles and enable reflection. It can help to spend a bit of time on a warm up exercise e.g. badge making. Playing music during a session also helps students relax. Bringing all the elements together satisfies the ‘kinaesthetic’ approach, combining ‘doing’ with memory and creativity.

Kaye finally recommended we look at the HEFCE funded Writing PAD (Purposefully for Art and Design) movement online: http://writing-pad.org/ which uses visual and textual learning combined.

Overall I found it a fun and informative talk, as well as quite playful – even the session title was a sort of joke about the textual barrier and jargon. It also helped that it was followed by a talk on Visual Literacy. The two sessions helped explore these complementary concepts and how we can encourage students to research, learn and reflect in more creative ways.

Review by David Stacey

Shelf signage photo: Sally Bell
Kinaesthetic diagram image: David Stacey



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