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March Issue

Vol 24|No 4|March 2015

Picture this!

Nurturing the imagination and visual thinking of students

by Jamie McKenzie (about author)


What if it snows?


photos © Jamie McKenzie

Schools should be developing the visual thinking and imagination skills of all students.

We know that a student's ability to picture what does not yet exist is a fundamental aspect of creative thought. This article stresses the value of such thinking and suggests ways to enhance both creativity and its partner, imagination.


According to the Apple dictionary, imagination is:

• the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses: she'd never been blessed with a vivid imagination.
• the ability of the mind to be creative or resourceful: technology gives workers the chance to use their imagination.
• the part of th
e mind that imagines things: a girl who existed only in my imagination.

The Mind's Eye

Most students are not conscious of their mind's eye. Teachers can begin their work on imagination and visual thinking by introducing this concept and encouraging students to actively practice use of their mind's eye.

"Each of you has something like a TV or laptop screen in your brain that you can turn on and off to do thinking with images. For example, take the image of a warrior below, place it on your screen and then imagine heavy snow. Let the snow build up on the statue so that the warrior is partially blanketed."


Once they have created a snow-covered image in their minds, the teacher can show them photos like the one below, pointing out that there is no correct answer when imagining things.


The same activity can be done with many different objects ranging from a bicycle or a garbage can to a house.


photos © Jamie McKenzie

Another effective strategy to awaken and strengthen this kind of imagining is to read aloud stories with vivid description and ask students to picture what they have heard.

Imagining images from literature

The teacher reads a description and asks the students to turn on their mind's eye, picturing the details and filling in the missing elements with their own imaginations.

Pick a section from Coal Creek Rebellion that has strong description (http://fno.org/coalcreek/coalcreek.html)

The teacher stops from time to time and asks students to supply details not mentioned by the writer.

  • What colors do you see?

  • How tall are the trees?

  • What kinds of trees are there?

  • What kind of clothing do you notice?

  • Is anyone wearing a hat?

Imagining people from history


As far as we know, there is no image of Joan of Arc available today that was created by anyone who actually saw Joan while she was alive, and yet there are dozens of images available purporting to be Joan, some of them book covers, some advertising movies and others proclaiming her sainthood.

The artists who created these images used their imagination to come up with a picture of the maiden. Some may have read trial transcripts reporting how her friends (and enemies) described her. Others might have skipped research and allowed their imagination to "run wild."





photos © Jamie McKenzie

An activity that works well to develop this thinking engages the students in collecting images from Google Images. They may paste a collection like the ones above into a word processing document or a mind mapping program such as Inspiration™ or Smart Ideas™.


  1. Go to Google Images and find at least ten images of your person from history. Keep track of the locations of these images on the Net.
  2. Once you have your collection, try to rank them in terms of historical accuracy, placing the most accurate on top and the least accurate at the bottom.
  3. While ranking the images, develop a case for why you are ranking them in this way. What is it about the image that lends it more or less credibility than the others? In the case of Joan, there is some testimony in the transcripts of her trials that can be used to assess the accuracy of the images.

Depending on the age of the students involved, the teacher can either point them to specific pages or simply point them to the long, scrolling list of documents and challenge them to find pertinent testimony. In the transcript from “Saint Joan of Arc’s Trial of Nullification” located at http://www.stjoan-center.com/Trials/#nullification, they can read testimony that describes her appearance. The teacher sends them to the testimony of JEAN DE NOVELEMPORT, Knight, called Jean de Metz at http://www.stjoan-center.com/Trials/null04.html and asks them what they can learn from his words:

When Jeannette was at Vaucouleurs, I saw her dressed in a red dress, poor and worn. I asked her if she could make this journey, dressed as she was. She replied that she would willingly take a man’s dress. Then I gave her the dress and equipment of one of my men. Afterwards, the inhabitants of Vaucouleurs had a man’s dress made for her, with all the necessary requisites.

They rapidly learn that it is difficult to nail down the details of her appearance in a satisfying manner. Historians have been wrestling with these issues for years because the comments in the trials were mostly about her conduct and her religious principles. Stephen W. Richey devotes several pages to this challenge in his biography, Joan of Arc: The Warrior Saint (2003, Westport, CT:: Praeger.). He devotes Appendix C to a review of “Joan’s Personal Appearance.”

He begins his attempt with the following admission: "There is not enough surviving evidence to give us any certainly as to what Joan looked like."

Imagining what is missing


photo © Jamie McKenzie

Notice the empty space in the photo above? Using some visual clues, students might be able to fill in the empty space with the missing bakery item. A fun challenge. This kind of thinking is often included on I.Q. tests. What is missing?

There are quite a few Web sites that provide practice with this kind of visual thinking. The Missing Jigsaw challenges primary students to select puzzle pieces that belong in the open spaces. While this may not be as free form as we usually consider imagination to be, it does help to develop spatial thinking.


There are quite a few items missing from the bike on the left.

Can you make a list?

Taking Advantage of Urbex Photos to Imagine Former Glory


photo © Jamie McKenzie

Urban exploration (often shortened as urbex or UE) is the exploration of man-made structures, usually abandoned ruins or not usually seen components of the man-made environment. (Quoting from Wikipedia)

Ask students to visit Flickr.com and search for "urbex." The resulting images will provide a rich opportunity to imagine how various rooms and structures may have looked prior to decay, abandonment and collapse.


photo © Jamie McKenzie - Convict Quarters - Port Arthur

What did the convict quarters above look like when they were first built?

A vivid imagination can transform simple objects or old mansions into magical images. All five paintings below show the same house, modified to emphasize certain aspects over others. Which is the real house? None of them, of course. They are images and adaptations, imaginary visions painted onto canvas.

house 1 house 2 house 4 house 5 house 3

Paintings of one house in Detroit © 1998, Sarah McKenzie, all rights reserved. Sarah's current work is at http://sarahmckenzie.com

What is the value of developing the visual thinking and imagination of students?

Among other things, picturing is central to comprehension of all kinds and the comprehension of text passages, in particular. Note the research cited below.

What does research say about the comprehension of text passages?

Proficient readers use the following strategies:

  • Inferring
  • Questioning
  • Picturing

  • Recalling prior knowledge
  • Synthesizing
  • Flexing

This list is a synthesis of strategies identified by P. David Pearson in his research on reading comprehension in the 1980s, work cited by Stephanie Harvey in Nonfiction Matters: Reading, Writing and Research in Grades 3-81

As one Web site (Reading Rockets) states:

Good readers construct mental images as they read a text. By using prior knowledge and background experiences, readers connect the author's writing with a personal picture. Through guided visualization, students learn how to create mental pictures as they read.

But visualization and imagination are also crucial components of much innovative thinking and synthesis. Students' creative production is more likely to flourish if they possess these skills and know how to conjure up great ideas.


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