A few months ago, at the CAIS Learning, the Brain, and Applications conference, I met Dave Gray for the first time.  Dave runs XPLANE, a company that runs visual thinking programs and designs graphic illustrations for companies, magazines, church organizations — anybody, really.  He also has a blog at Communication Nation.

Dave inspired me to try out a bunch of different ways of teaching — most of which involved standing back and let the students do the learning.  Initial results were unimpressive, but I think I got some good responses going.  My mistake was to try it originally with ninth graders at the beginning of the year.  The seventh graders at the end of the year did it a lot more successfully.

Some techniques that worked:

  • Post-It® Notes: I had my students build timelines for each unit using sticky notes on a blackboard. The process needed some refinements — namely, some pre-existing structures to put on the wall — but overall the technique worked well for timelining a section of the book.  Equally useful for brainstorming sessions.
  • Cartooning: Two students were reasonably adept artists, who regularly made drawings of historical figures and posted them on the classroom walls. The drawings got noticeably better over the course of the year. Practice does improve one’s abilities; Malcolm Gladwell is right.
  • Teaching the Semigram: Dave Gray’s semigram is actually a useful tool for teaching thinking skills, by itself.  But once it’s taught, you then have to instill the regularDave Grays Semigram practice with it, which is harder.  How does one do that?  Assign mind-exercises and homework which include drawings.  Ask for cartoons of historical events with funny captions.  Ask for comic books.  As for paintings. Ask for sequences and timelines. Every few weeks, reteach the semigram as a reminder, “can’t draw? Here’s how to start.”

Things to try next year:

  • Sequences: Give students wor[l]d problems, and ask them to create diagrams that illustrate how important historical figures might think through their decisions. Example:

King Darius wants to attack Greece.  He will consult his advisors.  Some will suggest using spies to subvert the Greeks; some will counsel war.  If the spies are caught, Darius will give up; if the spies are not caught, Darius will proceed with his war.  If the army attacks, it will win or lose.  If the army wins, Darius will add a new territory to his empire.  If the army loses, the empire will revolt against Darius’s leadership, and Darius will either have to flee for his life, or spend the rest of his life fighting rebels. Draw a diagram that shows Darius’s thought process, and all his options.