By Alison Williams
People absorb and process information in three different ways: auditorily, visually and kinaesthetically; the majority (up to 75%) have a visual preference (Fleming, 2006; Fleming & Baume, 2006). It makes no sense to have people with a strong visual preference, and possibly a kinaesthetic secondary preference, sitting talking to each other processing everything in an auditory way. Information is poorly absorbed and links may be missed.
This recipe sets out how groups of people can work together to think together visually: on their feet, moving around, being able to see what each other are thinking as they work together. Letting the images spark new connections, seeing how the images suggest other things, realising where things are not working because the images make it very clear.
Georgia Tech’s Department of Biomedical Engineering has a suite of rooms dedicated to problem-based learning (Newstetter, 2006). The rooms are small – approximately 6m by 8m (20 by 25 feet) – and the walls are covered from floor to ceiling in whiteboard material. Students at all levels use the rooms to work on complex problems set by the faculty. As they talk, they capture their thinking on the whiteboards, drawing graphs, diagrams, symbols and words. As the images build, so the ideas grow, are challenged, are changed, are built, and are critiqued. The level of learning and thinking is impressively high.
The first set of ingredients gives alternatives for creating as large a blank white space as possible. The bigger the better!
- Whiteboards (as large as you can get hold of)
- Talking walls (whiteboard covering floor to ceiling, wall to wall)
- Lining paper on the walls
- Glass walls or windows that can be written on
- Metal walls with magnetic blocks to hold papers in place
- Pin boards or noticeboards
The next set of ingredients is about making the marks and images
- Marker pens of different sizes and types – and lots of colours
- Sticky notes
- Coloured wool
- Drawing pins
- Masking tape or other adhesive tape
This is an iterative creative process, flowing from individual to group and back again several times. Here are some alternatives.
- Make a diagram of the issue at hand. Map its progress. Invite others to critique it. Map the conversation as it emerges. Capture everything – there is nothing too trivial to contribute.
- Gather solo thoughts on sticky notes (one thought per note) then put them up on the wall. Cluster them roughly, then more thoughtfully. You will need one or two or occasionally three iterations, depending on the group, the task, the focus etc. Invite people to add more, to ask questions, to draw links from one cluster to another.
- Mind map the issue (Buzan 2002). One person draws the basic map with main branches, consulting the group about what is central or core to the issue under discussion. People are then invited to add more branches, twigs etc. To add words and pictures, icons and symbols, emoticons etc. Then, using one colour that has been kept back (ideally red), start making links/arrows between the different areas. See where the lines go – pay attention to where they cross over other groupings – there will be something to see/infer there. Pay attention to gaps in the map – something needs to emerge there. If you have a giant mind map spread out over a whole wall, you can use wool to show the links.
Notes on ingredients
If you can’t write on the walls, use the windows. If you can’t make images on the windows, use rolls of lining paper spread across the tables or over the floor. If you haven’t got any paper, go to the beach and draw in the sand. If you haven’t got a beach…look at the Rebel space recipe.
You may need a facilitator to help people to get started. Sometimes at the start of a session people need permission to make marks – and a gentle invitation to make or capture a point. Each person should have a marker pen or the means of making marks that has been agreed on: no ‘holding the flipchart’. There should be empowerment of every individual: an expectation that everyone will contribute to the whole picture. Once curiosity takes over, any reticence about making marks/adding to the image will fade, self-empowerment will kick in and everyone will contribute.
You have to give yourself permission to write on the walls, to stand up and get stuck in (see Workshop space, Rebel space and Make do and mend). It takes nerve to commandeer a wall or window, but remember: ‘It is better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission!’
BITE: Recipes for Remarkable Research is available in paperback, hardback and as Open Access from: