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Visual-Spatial Thinking: An

Aspect of Science Overlooked by


Department of Chemistry, San Diego State University, San Diego, CA 92182, USA

Received 27 September 1996; revised 22 June 1998; accepted 22 July 1998

ABSTRACT: Thinking with images plays a central role in scientific creativity and com-
munication but is neglected in science classrooms. This article reviews the fundamental
role of imagery in science and technology and our current knowledge of visual-spatial
cognition. A novel analogic and thematic organization of images and visualization within
science and technology is proposed that can help in the generation and evaluation of
classroom activities and materials, and serve as a focus for professional development
programs in visual-spatial thinking for science teachers. Visual-spatial thinking includes
vision— using the eyes to identify, locate, and think about objects and ourselves in the
world, and imagery— the formation, inspection, transformation, and maintenance of im-
ages in the “mind’s eye” in the absence of a visual stimulus. A spatial image preserves
relationships among a complex set of ideas as a single chunk in working memory, increas-
ing the amount of information that can be maintained in consciousness at a given moment.
Vision and imagery are fundamental cognitive processes using specialized pathways in
the brain and rely on our memory of prior experience. Visual-spatial thinking develops
from birth, together with language and other specialized abilities, through interactions
between inherited capabilities and experience. Scientific creativity can be considered as
an amalgam of three closely allied mental formats: images; metaphors; and unifying ideas
(themes). Combinations of images, analogies, and themes pervade science in the form of
“master images” and visualization techniques. A critique of current practice in education
contrasts the subservient role of visual-spatial learning with the dominance of the alpha-
numeric encoding skills in classroom and textbooks. The lack of coherence in curriculum,
pedagogy, and learning theory requires reform that addresses thinking skills, including
imagery. Successful integration of information, skills and attitudes into cohesive mental
schemata employed by self-aware human beings is a basic goal of education. The current
attempt to impose integration using themes is criticized on the grounds that the required
underpinning in cognitive skills and content knowledge by teachers and students may be
absent. Teaching strategies that employ visual-spatial thinking are reviewed. Master im-
ages are recommended as a novel point of departure for a systematic development of
programs on visual-spatial thinking in research, teacher education, curriculum, and class-
room practice. 䉷 1999 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Sci Ed 83:33– 54, 1999.

Correspondence to: J. H. Mathewson; e-mail:

Contract grant sponsor: National Science Foundation (Project VISTA); contract grant number: ESI

䉷 1999 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. CCC 0036-8326/99/010033-22


Science teachers universally complain about the failure of students to demonstrate some
expected fundamental understanding or skill that is needed to embark on a new topic or
activity. Often the prior knowledge about the subject exhibited by students is flawed and
refractory. An example is the appreciation of the nature of shadows, reflections, relative
motion, and frame-of-reference orientation necessary to explore the phases of the moon
(Taylor, 1996). The example I have cited involves visual-spatial thinking and learning1
Richly illustrated texts, TV, multimedia, visual computer interfaces and “hands-on” activ-
ities of all sorts makes demands on the capacity of students to observe, form mental images,
and analyze depictions and displays. Schools — that is, teachers, curricula and texts — are
curiously indifferent to this dimension although there have been some efforts to alert the
professional community (Arnheim, 1969; Holton, 1965; Lord, 1987; McCormack, 1988;
Willows & Houghton, 1987). Mathematics educators have rediscovered the value of vi-
sualization and now use illustrations, manipulatives, and even video games (Clements &
Battista, 1992; Emmer, 1993; Loeb, 1992; Steen, 1990). Geographers have pursued re-
search programs on understanding maps and developed some thorough analyses of the
cognitive basis of the use of visual displays (MacEachren, 1995).

A discussion of visual-spatial thinking and learning must start with definitions of vision
and imagery. There is, of course, a very long history and a vast literature on this subject.
Current research is extensive and often contentious. I will attempt here to create a synopsis
that can be used in this discussion of visual-spatial learning in science education.

Vision and Imagery

Visual-spatial thinking includes vision — the process of using the eyes to identify, locate,
and think about objects and orient ourselves in the world, and imagery — the formation,
inspection, transformation, and maintenance of images in the “mind’s eye” in the absence
of a visual stimulus. Perception is not independent of memory. The range of mental op-
erations between a purely mental image as in a dream or imagined scene and a direct visual
experience is seamless because we rely on prior experience accumulated from infancy to
make sense out of sensation. When a perceptual image is formed by the eye, it is auto-
matically compared to information already in our unconscious memories. As William
James described it a century ago (James, 1984 [1892]):

Part of what we perceive comes through our senses from the object before us, another part
(and it may be the larger part) always comes out of our mind. (p. 196)

1 There is some variation in the meaning of terms used in the literature on visual-spatial (also spelled vis-

uospatial) thinking. Vision refers to perception; visual-spatial thinking (or cognition, or intelligence), visual
thinking, spatial thinking, and imagery are used roughly synonymously for the mental visual images within
memory and higher level cognition. There is some ambiguity in the use of image to include (explicitly or
implicitly) portions of representations in perception and memory formed from other modalities such as hearing,
touch, taste, and smell. The term images also refers to varieties of depictions, graphic displays, and models.
Visualization retains its usual meanings in cognitive science, but also has been arrogated by science and tech-
nology to mean computer-generated displays of data or numerical models. Graphics now refers frequently to
the technology of computer displays as well as depictions. Imaging is used for the technology of indirect sensing
and display in such applications as medical tomography.

Various kinds of optical illusions can serve to convince us that we construct our views
of reality from within. We all have unconscious and unavoidable perceptual bias. Never-
theless, most of what we see of the so-called “real” or objective world is remarkably
accurate, which bestows a strong adaptive advantage. For example, discerning movement
against a background and perceiving location using depth perception can help us hunt or
avoid danger. An image has the advantage of an immediate, global and integrated package
of information that cannot be constructed as rapidly by touch, or by written or spoken
The nature of visual-spatial perception and cognition has been a central concern of
cognitive science (Churchland, 1995; Cornoldi & McDaniel, 1991; Gardner, 1985; Hamp-
son, Marks, & Richardson, 1990; Kosslyn, 1994; Kosslyn & Koenig, 1992; Marks, 1990;
Marr, 1982; Pinker, 1997; Posner & Raichle, 1994; Ullman, 1996). Mental “computa-
tional” processes seem to use both functional and physical (neuronal) networks distributed
over the whole brain but organized into task-specific modular units. A given task such as
vision will utilize a number of localized modules. The eye/brain system partitions signals
from the eyes into three kinds of image components: pattern (including shape, depth, and
texture); color (hue, value and saturation); and movement (Hubel, 1988; Potegal, 1982;
Rock, 1995; Scientific American, 1986, 1992; Wandell, 1995). The primitive perceptual
components are assembled in stages or “sketches” into a three-dimensional mental repre-
sentation. Cognitive science has retained the classic intuitive sense of an interplay between
internal templates and external inputs voiced by William James, bolstered now with mod-
ern empirical evidence:

Current theories of visual perception suggest that the detection and recognition of objects
involves the continuous interchange of perception and comprehension of the external
world. That is, there is a constant interplay between perception and cognition rather than
a single step in which neural signals are integrated into a visual image somewhere in the
visual cortex. Hence, it is no longer possible to separate the mechanisms of detection,
recognition and interpretation of visual images. Instead these processes must be considered
as a single interactive process in which the acquisition of visual information is integrated
with recognition and interpretation, and even consciousness. (Hendee, 1997, p. 154)

The brain has two halves which share structural and functional characteristics, but which
also display functional asymmetry. Visual perception and some imagery processing such
as fixing relative location are concentrated in the right hemisphere, whereas other image-
generating processes such as identifying structural features are dependent on the left hemi-
sphere. This specialization, called “cerebral laterization,” is not absolute but one of relative
efficiency and remains incompletely characterized and understood (Goldenberg, Podreka,
& Steiner, 1990; Intons-Peterson & McDaniel, 1991; Kosslyn & Koenig, 1992; Ornstein,
1997; Richardson, 1991). Laterality has been a popular subject leading to suggestions for
some teaching strategies (Williams, 1986) and analyses of learning dysfunction (Kosslyn
& Koenig, 1992; West, 1991).

Human Abilities
Vision is an early and general biological adaptation in evolution. Primates (including
humans) have evolved a set of mental tools for coordinating, storing, and using sensory
information, and a number of mental capacities or “intelligences” to orchestrate behavior
including spatial ability (Deacon, 1997; Gardner, 1983; Perkins, 1995; Sternberg & Kauf-
man, 1998). Each “tool” in this battery of abilities imparts an independently selected

advantage which modern humans have more or less integrated into a universal adaptability
(Barkow, Cosmides, & Tooby, 1992; Deacon, 1997; Pinker 1997). Individuals with es-
pecially high visual-spatial abilities are called “high imagers” (Katz, 1987) or “strong
visualizers” (Sommer, 1978). Tests and measurements for visual-spatial capacity have a
long history, but questions concerning the nature of what is being measured remain un-
resolved by psychometricians (Eliot & Smith, 1983; Gardner, 1993; Lohman, 1994; Per-
kins, 1995). Factor analysis can be used to demonstrate several components to
visual-spatial abilities that strongly interrelate and correlate with a general intelligence
(“g”). Performance on spatial tasks improves substantially with training and practice. Re-
cently, Neisser (1997) has speculated that the measurable rise in general intelligence scores
all over the globe (the Flynn effect) is due to the gradual increase in the variety and
common use of visual media. A fundamental picture emerges of human abilities with both
contextual domain-specific components and an underlying unitary capacity to understand
and learn.

The prior knowledge upon which cognition depends requires a mechanism for encoding
experience, that is, memory (Baddeley, 1990). Multiple perceptual pathways (“modalities”)
and multiple abilities imply multiple loci for memory including an image memory bank,
a linguistic storage, and traces of auditory and kinesthetic experience. For the strong vi-
sualizers, memory for pictures may be better than memory for words which describe the
same object or event. Whether unitary or modularized, memory is the foundation of learn-
ing, and we cannot take the visual-spatial aspects of training and education for granted.
Although various abilities can be evaluated separately, optimal learning and behavior re-
quires their coordination. The scrambling or “short circuiting” of associated memories
observed in pathological conditions such as synesthesia suggest how fundamental our
cognitive integrating mechanisms must be. In the contrasting condition of dyslexia, as-
sociations of sounds and written words are formed with difficulty in spite of generally
strong imagery capabilities (Kosslyn & Koenig, 1992; West, 1991). Autism (Grandin,
1996) carries a similar reliance on imagery.

The current literature in education describes learning as the conscious and unconscious
“construction” of coherent mental “frames” or “schemas” that serve as expanding and
modifiable frameworks for “assimilating” new information and as the locus for “accom-
modating” discrepant or entirely novel experience through a “restructuring” of schemas
(Anderson, 1990; Lawson, 1994; Loucks-Horsley, 1990; Resnick, 1983; Tobin, Tippins,
& Gallard, 1994). A salient feature of this theory (constructivism) is a description of
learning as an self-activating response to challenges, dissonance, or discrepancy rather
than a purely passive encoding of experience. The development of teaching strategies
that are designed to uncover and recruit (or supplant) prior knowledge has been a par-
ticularly useful consequence of constructivist research (Carey, 1986; Clement et al., 1989;
Sandoval, 1995). The origin of the constructivist model is usually attributed to the de-
velopmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, who lived from 1896 to 1980 (Case, 1991; Good
Mellon, & Kromhout, 1978; Gruber & Vonèche, 1977; Piaget, 1952; Pratt & Garton,
Piaget laid the foundations for our views of the development of visual-spatial thinking

in children nearly 50 years ago (Piaget & Inhelder, 1956, 1971; Piaget, Inhelder, & Szem-
inska, 1960). Piaget’s views were biased toward a genetically programmed model in which
behaviors emerge at characteristic developmental stages, with the capacity to engage in
higher order thinking developing later than modern research suggests. The prominence of
prior knowledge in both the classical and current models of visual-spatial cognition dove-
tails with the constructivist learning models and with the recently revived views on the
importance of the social milieu in the construction of knowledge (Bruner, 1996; Vygotsky,
1978). Ironically, Piaget did not write much about educational practice, unlike his contem-
porary, Lev S. Vygotsky (also born in 1896, but died in 1934). In any event, visual-spatial
thinking is so fundamental that it must be addressed at the practical level whatever the
learning organization and practice in the classroom may be.

Is the Problem Significant?

Before considering how visual-spatial thinking may be utilized in science education, it
is important to answer the question: “So what?” Are we not considering the teaching of
science rather than art? In fact, creativity in the sciences and the arts have very important
and fundamental characteristics in common (Miller, 1996). A reading of the literature on
creativity in the sciences provides some insights into the importance of visualization.

The Visual Imagination
Gerald Holton has distilled the essence of scientific creativity into three closely allied
mental formats: images; metaphors; and themes (Holton, 1996):

For while logic, experimental skill, and mathematics are constant guides, they are by no
means adequate to the task of scientific investigation— otherwise a computer could do
original research unaided. When you listen at the keyhole of the laboratory door, you find
that the scientist uses a variety of tools as well . . . three closely related companions that
are rarely acknowledged: the visual imagination, the metaphoric imagination, and the
thematic imagination. (p. 78)

Scientists and engineers are characteristically visual-spatial thinkers and communicators

(Ferguson, 1977; Miller, 1987; West, 1991). Michael Faraday’s visualization of “lines of
force” surrounding charged objects and magnetic poles is frequently cited as an example
of the use of imagery in explanations of phenomena. The inventor Nikola Tesla was able
to visualize entire working models of devices in his head. Albert Einstein used highly
visual “thought experiments” to explore his ideas and described his mental style as “com-
binatory play” with images. Friedrich Kekulé, a pioneer in structural organic chemistry
(who originally had studied to be an architect), claimed to have thought of the cyclic
structure of benzene while daydreaming. Visualization can also play a role in the generation
of fallacies when scientists make fanciful claims based on faulty perceptions (Darius,
1990). A well-known example is the “finding” of canals on the surface of Mars by Percival
Lowell. Scientific work does not become effective science until it is communicated and
subjected to public scrutiny. Science and technology develop through the exchange of
information and much of this is presented as diagrams, illustrations, maps, plots, sche-
matics, etc., which summarize the information and help others to understand it.

The Metaphoric Imagination

Scientists use analogy both for creative thought and in communicating their thinking
(Eisenberg, 1992; Holton, 1986a). Holton (1996, p. 94) describes the use of analogy be-
tween standing wave patterns in light and sound by Thomas Young in the early nineteenth
century. This same analogy was used by Louis de Broglie in developing the concept of
wave-particle duality in quantum physics (Broglie, 1946). The consequence of habitual
analogic thinking in science produces many images, illustrations, diagrams, and models
that are not literal representations but models or analogies. A typical example is the use
of ball-and-stick models or symbolic depictions for molecules in chemistry.
Forms of comparison such as metaphors are fundamental to abstract (i.e., “formal” or
higher order) thinking. As students reach puberty, the capacity for abstraction expands,
and the cognitive demands in classes in math and science increase significantly. In problem
solving, for example, analogical reasoning is required to develop and use mature and robust
mental schemas (Marshall, 1995). Higher order visual-spatial thinking is inherently anal-
ogic; that is, it is based on comparisons of mental representations. In fact, when we describe
the various categories of figures of speech we often use images. Images can incorporate
large amounts of data about objects and phenomena into a mentally manageable and flex-
ible form:

Perhaps the most important influence spatial skills can exert on thinking is through
analogy. The essence of spatial image is that it is a relation preserving cognitive structure.
Many complex relationships among elements are contained in a line drawing or in a spatial
image. Relationships among a complex set of ideas can be maintained as a single chunk
in working memory in a single image, thereby substantially increasing the amount of
organized information that can be maintained in an active state at a given moment. Thus,
when used analogically, spatial images can substantially improve our ability to think about
and to communicate complex ideas. (Lohman, 1987, p. 269)

The analogic power of language is strongest if it evokes an image. Abstract language

may be generated at a basic cognitive level as analogic extensions of fundamental visual
and kinesthetic experience (Johnson, 1987, Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). Johnson argues, for
example, that the category of “container,” which we first experience literally and physi-
cally, is extrapolated into a variety of abstractions with insides and outsides such as “cat-
egory” itself.

The Thematic Imagination

In science there are recurrent general themes that have functioned as unifying ideas,
molding the thought of scientists throughout history (Holton, 1986b). Some thematic con-
cepts are phenomenological such as symmetry, conservation, stability, system, and form
and function, and others are philosophical presuppositions such as the search for unity,
simplicity, and invariance in nature (Holton, 1988). They can be described as “compre-
hensive,” “overarching,” and “interconnecting” and sufficiently broad, basic, and meta-
phoric to extend into the social sciences and humanities. Symmetry, for example, has a
mathematical definition, physical embodiments as varied as subatomic particles and bio-
logical structures, and expressions in human art, speech, and behavior. The interconnec-
tions that form the essential framework of a theme catalyze the process of creativity through
extrapolations into new domains, the restructuring of connections, and the filling in of
incomplete images:

In many (perhaps most) past and present concepts, methods and propositions or hypotheses
of science, there are elements that function as themata, sometimes guiding (normalizing)
or polarizing the scientific community. (Holton, 1986b, p. 8)

Themes are categorical; that is, they are classifications. They reflect the fundamental
proclivity toward classification or categorization found in all humans from primitive people
to scientists (Rosch, 1978). Because thinking with images, or comparisons, or intercon-
nections is so basic, it is hard to come up with “pure” examples; for instance, a visual
representation in science free of analogy. In fact, the strength of the coupling between
these aspects of cognition suggests we are dealing with fundamental mechanisms of higher
order thinking.


By using the characterization of science as visual, metaphorical, and thematic, a list of
“master images” (Table 1) can be constructed from the visual-spatial content of science.
Some of the categories correspond rather closely to items on Johnson’s list of somatic
metaphors mentioned earlier, including balance, container, cycle, iteration, matching,
scale, and surface. Table 1 does not include every significant theme of science. A universal
concept such as energy is excluded mainly because it is a nonvisual propositional concept.
Nevertheless, the descriptions of energy interactions are heavily imagistic — a Feynman
diagram, for example (Holton, 1996, p. 92). Table 1 includes the visual-spatial structures,
objects, and phenomena of science. The visualization techniques of science including com-
munication and ways of thinking are outlined in Table 2. Many of the categories in both
tables have close counterparts to mathematical ideas and procedures. Cycles and symmetry
are good examples. The usual questions of “lumping” versus “splitting” and overlap apply
to these lists, but they provide a point of departure for the consideration of visual-spatial
thinking in research, professional development, and practice in science education.
Many of these images in science take on an independent reality and become the basis
for metaphoric extensions and thematic thinking throughout society, sometimes inappro-
priately. They become “objective” in the popular mind. The familiarity of visual conven-
tions usually protects scientists from the more egregious extrapolations. But, the wider
world filters, expands, and distorts the images of science, with important consequences for
education and public knowledge (Gruber, 1995):

Abstract images can take on characteristics of real objects, and eventually come to be
viewed as uncontested facts. . . . The power of such master images to popularize theory
is clear. (MacEachren, 1995, p. 455)

The solar system is an example of a universal image. The heliocentric diagram is so

familiar to us that we forget that it was originally an abstraction. Until very recently there
were no “real” images of any part of the solar system from space, and its actual dimensions
make it difficult to depict using a linear scale. Some important visualization skills such as
the formation of shadows, frame of reference shifts, and relative motion are required to
really understand the relationship between the motion of the sun, earth, moon, and planets.
It took the invention of the telescope, and a willingness to use an alternative schema by
Galileo and his students, to confirm a heliocentric solar system.
If visual-spatial cognition is fundamental in science, it should be important for the
successful teaching of science. How can we apply the preceding analyses of scientific

Master Images of Science

Category Descriptive Labels Examples

Boundaries Discontinuities, edges, horizons, Air–sea interface, cell membranes,

interfaces, surfaces. cretaceous/tertiary boundary,
weather fronts.
Branching Cracking, clades, fractals; knots, Lightning, trees, watersheds.
Chirality Inversions, polarity, handedness. Electric charge, structural enantio-
Circuits Closed paths, loops, networks; Capillaries, circulatory systems,
labyrinths, mazes. electronics.
Containers Cavities, cells, compartments, do- Mitochondria, thermodynamic sys-
mains; holes, perforations; tun- tems, burrows, caves, pores.
nels, conduits.
Coils Helices, spirals; eddies, vortices. Cyclones, springs, protein alpha
Color Hue, saturation, shade, tint. Pigments, rainbows, vision.
Complementary Fit, matching, negatives, parallels, Shadows, DNA sequences, foot-
structures templates. print cast, photo negative.
Cycles Oscillations, periodicity, vibrations, Earthquakes, light waves, sea-
waves. sons.
Dimensions Scale, emergent properties. Mass, length, time; measurement.
Gradients Slopes; shading. Topography; thermocline, fields.
Groups Clusters, distributions, stratifica- Geological strata, ocean water
tions. masses.
Motion Translation, rotation, internal mo- Heat energy, ocean currents,
tion; flow. winds.
Ordering Hierarchy, iteration, sequence, se- Geologic epochs, evolution; linear
ries. codes (DNA, languages); food
Path Orbit, route, timeline, trajectory. Planetary orbits (solar system),
space flight; particle decay; ani-
mal tracking.
Point Locus, singularity, zero extension. Point charge (electron), lattice po-
Presentation Appearance, aspect, surface tex- Fingerprinting; false eye spots, ze-
ture and features; camouflage, bra stripes; medical diagnosis.
embedded images, illusions,
protective coloration, markings.
Space Extension, continuum, motion, in- Space–time, inertia, relativity.
ertial frame.
Structure Arrangement, form, part/whole re- Architecture, molecular structure,
lationship; homolgies, shape. body plans.
Symmetry Translational, rotational, reflective. Tesselations (tiling); balance of
forces; quantum states, body
Units Atoms, element, particles, quanta; Electrons, molecules, photons,
bit, pixel. quarks; codons, genes, cells.

Visualization in Science

Category Descriptive Labels Examples

Data display Depictions, plans, cross-sec- Anatomical cross-section,

tions, cutaways, maps, navigational charts, com-
charts, animations, meters, pass, speedometer.
dials, scales.
Data manipulation Extrapolations, distortions, Body plan comparison, ana-
expansions/contractions, log/digital conversions, nu-
transformations, resolu- merical modeling.
Encoding Diagrams, graphs, plots, Satellite trajectory plot, mo-
models, analogs, schemat- lecular orbital model, circuit
ics, equations. diagram.
Gestalt Figural closure, proximity, Map reading, medical diagno-
grouping, continuity, simi- sis, geometric thinking, de-
larity, orientation. sign.
Location Locus, site, station. Sampling location, survey
marker; geographic posi-
Ordering Sequences, hierarchies, cate- Timelines, library and internet
gories, classification, search, biological classifi-
groups cation.
Perceptual extension Magnification, imaging, scan- Microscopes and telescopes,
ning, medical tomography, space probes, time-lapse
instrumentation, probes, re- and stroboscopic photos,
mote sensing. x-rays.
Reference frame Alternative viewpoint, base- Longitude, Coriolis effect, rel-
line, coordinates, perspec- ativity.
Signs Icon, index, symbol, signal, Compass needle, electrical
symptom, name, represen- component symbols, safety
tations, marks, labels. icons, traffic signals, com-
puter/user interface, color
coding, body language, ani-
mal tracks; isotope label-
ing, animal tagging.

thinking? The current status of visual-spatial learning in the schools must be considered


Early Learning
Children enter school with a “native” language and nascent reading skills, but they are
also very visual. Infants and young children exhibit precocious visual capabilities (Pick &
Rieser, 1982) and normally young children rely heavily on sight as a mode of learning.
They have “big eyes” as well as the proverbial big ears. The pioneering educator, Johann
Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746 – 1827), believed that concept formation is built on visual un-

derstanding. Charles Dickens evokes memories of this predilection in the second chapter
of David Copperfield (1941 [1850]):

This may be fancy, though I think the memory of most of us can go further back into such
times than many of us suppose; just as I believe the power of observation of very young
children to be quite wonderful for its closeness and accuracy. Indeed, I think that most
grown men who are remarkable in this respect, may with greater propriety be said not to
have lost the faculty, than to have acquired it; the rather, as I generally observe such men
to retain a certain freshness, and gentleness, and capacity of being pleased, which are also
an inheritance they have preserved from their childhood.

Most children in elementary schools are starting their education with a visual-spatial
orientation, which should be encouraged and utilized in learning rather than supplanted in
the push to inculcate the alphanumeric skills of “literacy” and “numeracy.” At its best,
education enables integration of personal abilities and knowledge into effective behavior.
Mental images are coherent encodings of experience that rival language as integrative
cognitive functions and modes of further learning. The period of plasticity in childhood
during which language development flourishes and second languages can be acquired
should also include visualization. Gardner (1982) describes a “golden” window of oppor-
tunity between the ages of 5 and 7 for visual-spatial activity. There are scattered sugges-
tions that making drawings is useful in science education, but the only visual method that
receives much attention is the special case of “concept mapping” (Hyerle, 1996; Novak,
A particularly striking example of the primacy of language over image is the requirement
for words (except in very special cases) in searches for images in libraries and on the
internet (Rasmussen, 1998). Historical attempts at generating a universal metric for images
have failed. Cognitive scientists, artifical intelligence experimenters, and information dis-
play engineers have uncovered many of the components of images that enable visual
perception (Marr, 1982; Pinker, 1997; Ullman, 1996; Wandell, 1995), but have come to
realize the incredible complexity of vision and imagery. Mental images are, in many
respects, sui generis, and therefore need there own educational space (Arnheim, 1969).
Teaching strategies should foster a balance between the use of language and image by the

Language and Image in Instruction

Enhancing visualization abilities or using images to teach a concept is analogous to
developing and using language. In either case, experience molds an inherent capacity into
an ability to handle increasingly complex tasks. Just as a rich verbal environment enhances
language skills, a rich visual environment will help children acquire visual-spatial skills.
But visual communication is not a part of most programs for the professional preparation
of teachers. The comprehensive study of visual-spatial, auditory, and kinesthetic elements
in cognition and learning are relegated to supplementary courses in instructional technol-
ogy, physical education, music, and art. However, courses in linguistics and language
instruction are well-developed. In most classrooms writing about and discussing the topic
at hand, including the sciences, is encouraged. Teachers attend “writing across the curric-
ulum” workshops, but there are never any “imaging across the curriculum” sessions.
When students encounter verbal material using completely unfamiliar vocabulary and
usage, a cascade of aversion, inattention, and disruption ensues. This unhappy circum-
stance arises in classes conducted in a strange language. There are well-established meth-

ods for dealing with English as a second language, and glossaries, dictionaries, and
encyclopedias in classrooms provide available supports. Vocabulary building, writing,
reading, and analysis of narratives builds skills in the use of words. However, preparatory
exercises for visual-spatial material and explanations of illustrations and diagrams that
coach the students in using the visual-spatial domain are rare. Traditionally, the skillful
use of images develops in subjects such as art, geography, geometry, mechanical drawing,
and science laboratories. These subjects tend to be marginalized in curricular restructuring.
The development of visual-spatial analogs to language instruction should be strongly en-

Textbook Codependence
Education depends on texts at all levels and, in modern science classes, there is a reliance
on kits as well. School districts and states adopt texts for the K – 12 “market,” not teachers.
This places substantial influence in the hands of publishers and media producers. Because
so much classroom and independent time is spent with vicarious and passive learning
environments, it is important to examine carefully not only the language of texts and media
materials, but the visual quality as well.
The critical parameter is the ability of the teacher to bring visual-spatial resources into
the classroom, use them effectively and sensitively, and monitor the results regardless of
the pedagogical approach. Elaborately illustrated books, overhead projector transparencies,
videos, CDs, and computer programs are produced in abundance, but the merits of the
visual-spatial aspects have been taken for granted or judged inexpertly by most users. A
scattered literature and expertise on visual communication exists in a variety of fields such
as advertising, artificial intelligence, cartography, cognitive science, computer graphics,
design, educational technology, information science, industrial psychology (human/ma-
chine interfacing), science illustration, and so on (Hall, 1992; MacEachren, 1995; Tufte,
1983, 1990, 1997). The national education reform programs should consider projects for
evaluating the merits of classroom visual-spatial material and activities that can pull to-
gether these scattered resources.
Modern texts designed for science courses are usually copiously and elegantly illus-
trated, and often supplemented with overhead projector transparencies for the teacher.
Large numbers of well-illustrated “trade books” are available for the primary and second-
ary learner. But, in many texts designed for the schools, the information is poorly gener-
alized, inappropriately phrased, and simplified to the point of triviality; it is stripped of
detail, richness, and sometimes accuracy. Often “catchy” examples of phenomena are used
which are special, obscure, or unrepresentative cases. The quality of diagrams and illus-
trations suffer from the same deficits. Scientific depictions will have unexplained scale
expansions or contractions, for example, and “preloading” with tacit conventions for co-
ordinates, color codes, symbols, and perspectives. Illustrations, maps, or graphs with very
poor visual construction and appeal, even when the content is correctly depicted, will not
support learning (MacEachren, 1995). At the other extreme, the aura of authenticity and
authority conveyed by very elaborate and colorful illustrations, but with erroneous content,
are especially invidious, because they will reinforce flawed or incomplete prior knowledge.
A striking illustration or video may capture the attention of students to the exclusion of
learning the associated language, or the visual-spatial material may be ignored or avoided
as confusing, obscure, or irrelevant.
In most textbooks, and often in electronic media, the student encounters several illus-
trations about the same topic, each employing a different dimension of visual-spatial think-
ing. In teaching about form versus function, an illustration of a structure frequently

accompanies an analogical diagram of processes mediated by the structure. For example,

discussion of an organ in a physiology text includes an anatomy illustration and an ana-
logical diagram of the flow, exchange, and transformations of substances and the variations
in the condition of the organ and of the entire organism. Students often have difficulty
relating the diagrams of the dynamic interactions and functional mechanisms with the
associated illustration of the static structure that performs these changes. Similarly, the use
of concept mapping, in which students outline concepts in terms of components, internal
structure, and cross-connections to other ideas, may force inappropriate or artificial con-


The question remains how best to apply our knowledge of visual-spatial thinking to
practical classroom strategies. The key may be in the potential capacity of our minds to
integrate information of all kinds. Vision and imagery are the most integrative of mental
processes. Initially, in visual perception, modular components unite motion, pattern, color,
and surface features. At another level, the visual-spatial, auditory, olfactory, tactile, and
kinesthetic sensory inputs from our attended and peripheral experience automatically in-
terconnect. The brain invokes prior knowledge in a “top down” process and compares it
with the sensory mix from the “bottom up.” The ability of images to encode large amounts
of information economically serves an integrating function. In popular terms we speak of
“getting the picture,” or “I see what you mean.” Images are fundamentally analogic, trig-
gering a web of associations within familiar domains.
An integrative capacity seems to be a characteristic of the expert and skillful use of
knowledge. The well-educated person exhibits coherent abilities, a self-confident affect,
and self-awareness. Ineffective thinking, on the other hand is disorganized, or “sprawling”
according to Perkins (1995). Two closely linked issues are implied when integrative think-
ing is considered — transfer of skills and situated learning (Voss, Wiley, & Carretero,
1995). Cognitive skills cannot be developed in the absence of objects and events that are
the content of thought, and this specific “situation” or context of learning constrains the
transfer of knowledge to novel problems and environments. A characteristic of coherent
thinking is a condition of self-monitoring or “metacognition” that enables the performance
of such notoriously difficult mental tasks as transfer (Larkin, 1989) and problem solving
(Marshall, 1995). Moreover, this conscious “management” of mental tactics and strategies
can be taught (Perkins, 1992; Tishman, Perkins, & Jay, 1995).
Does our education foster coherent thinking? In fact, fragmentation is a salient problem
in American education at all levels. Courses, lessons, activities, and units are cobbled
together with minimal planning or coordination. The shibboleth of “coverage” leads to the
continuous introduction of new topics into curricula at barely a vocabulary level. Curric-
ulum frameworks and standards recommend themes as an antidote to incoherence.


Various state and national standards, guidelines, and frameworks for science education
(American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993; California State Board of
Education, 1990; National Research Council, 1996) include sections on organizing content
into themes as a method for developing coherence in the curriculum. Most of the recom-
mended themes are very broad, and the descriptions of the themes contain little that is
explicitly visual-spatial. Two examples of recommended themes are system and energy.
Students would encounter these themes in contexts such as “energy flow in ecosystems”

or “energy resources in economic systems.” Curriculum frameworks in mathematics, social

sciences, and other areas have embraced themes. A popular approach is the elaboration of
a fundamental social issue such as pollution as a thematic focus and a motivator for
The assumptions behind a thematic approach need careful examination. Themes are
supposed to unify the curriculum, facilitate team teaching by faculties, and foster coop-
erative learning by students. But, the normally specialized professional preparation of
faculty and the high mobility of students makes a sustained coherence problematic. Cur-
ricular themes are built from the interconnections inherent in subject matter, but do not
address the deeper structure of coherent thinking. Presumably, thematic understanding by
students grows gradually and cumulatively, and therefore themes are not the normal pri-
mary focus for single lessons or units, but considered as “extensions” or extrapolations.
Even when a theme is made explicit, the student must assimilate considerable information,
as well as develop reflective cognitive habits, to use a theme to form meaningful and
lasting interconnections between topics. When thematic thinking takes hold, it becomes
“autocatalytic” — that is, it promotes its own growth by creating pegs and pigeonholes for
subsequent learning. Revisiting a theme over a period of years should reinforce the un-
derstanding of a thematic idea itself and help anchor the particular facts and concepts of
conventional topics as they recur in greater and greater complexity in a curriculum. A
substantial amount of reinforcement can also occur outside of the “official” curriculum.
Thematic thinking is a product of science education rather than a means, and therefore
should be used primarily in formative and summative assessment tools. Successful science
students should be able to demonstrate thematic understandings independently of the form
of the curriculum. Students have “mastered” new material only when they can use the
knowledge successfully in unfamiliar situations — to solve problems and be creative. Cre-
ative work relies on integrating and making use of multiple capacities and multiple sources
of information. This is elegantly stated by Marshall (1995):

The need for schemas from the educational perspective derives from a new view of com-
petency and expertise. It comes about in part because of a loss of faith in the prevailing
view of learning. In the view that has been dominant in the past (and that is now rapidly
falling from favor), learning was the accretion of many small and individual pieces of
knowledge. Most educators now believe that mastery of a domain involves more than this,
that mastery occurs when an individual has acquired a coherent and unified body of knowl-
edge about the domain and can use this knowledge productively. (p. 395)


Master Images and Visualization
Perkins (1995) suggests that coherent thinking can be developed with practice in me-
tacognitive thinking, including imagery. The thematic emphasis of current curricular stan-
dards can be made more useful by turning to the underlying visual-spatial and analogical
cognitive skills. The visual-spatial, thematic, and analogic thinking reflected in Tables 1
and 2 occur naturally in many units. For example, DNA is a structure that involves coiling,
complementary matching, symmetry, and structure/function relationships. A notable ex-
ample of a collection of activities based on a visual-spatial theme is a book on building
structures and the associated effects of changes in scale developed at the San Francisco
Exploratorium (Kluger-Bell, 1995). Visual-spatial activities should be a preferred way to
address the usual list of “science processes” (observing, communicating, comparing, or-
dering, categorizing, relating, inferring). Table 2 can be a basis for their design. For ex-

ample, the use of magnifying lenses, telescopes, microscopes, stethoscopes, and other
techniques provides challenging and intriguing encounters with perceptual extension. The
correspondence of categories in both Tables 1 and 2 to unifying ideas and operations in
mathematics provides an opportunity to use the tables in activities designed to bring science
and math together (Rutherford, 1997). The following sections outline some additional
recommendations for visual-spatial teaching.

Visual-Spatial Exercises
Visual-spatial learning can start with the development of visual-spatial self-awareness
and metacognitive visual skills through some direct experience with physiological visual
processes such as focus, resolution, peripheral vision, color, and optical illusions (Gardner,
1982; Kelsey, 1997; Schaefer, 1995; Wandell, 1995). Good examples of activities are
available (Cassidy, 1991; DiSpezio, 1995). Age-appropriate exercises with shadows, mir-
rors, mazes, hidden figures, mental rotations, etc., can prepare the student to use obser-
vation and imagery in all subjects including science. McCormack (1988) recommends the
use of manipulatives such as blocks common in the activity sets developed in the 1960s
for children in elementary schools. The use of visual materials and imagery in education
requires some consideration of separating aptitude from achievement. Various measures
of visual-spatial abilities normally used as aptitude tests such as maze traversal, figure
rotations, or surface development are appropriate as a sources for the aforementioned
exercises or for research.
Skill in using visual-spatial thinking can be enhanced using exercises (Lord, 1985). The
understanding of a cross-section, topographic map, or circuit diagram is not automatic,
even when the information carried in the depictions has already been explored verbally or
explained in a text. Some well-known curricula explore visual conventions in challenging
ways such as the use of circuit diagrams in the ESS unit, “Batteries and Bulbs” (Elementary
Science Study, 1968). Children should be encouraged to depict their perceptions of natural
objects and events in drawings and diagrams (Glynn & Duitt, 1995). In an approach similar
to vocabulary building, students can maintain imagery journals or portfolios to record
confusions, insights, visual conventions, and usage encountered in illustrations and dia-
grams. Search projects that are inherently visual-spatial, using sources such as the National
Geographic and the “Science in Pictures” section of the Scientific American, might be
assigned. Eventually, categories of imagery such as symmetry can be developed in a
thematic approach. By Nature’s Design (Murphy & Neill, 1993), from the Exploratorium
in San Francisco, is an especially elegant example of a thematic trade book.

Active Learning
Schools today must compete with very dynamic and colorful communication media for
the attention of students. Perhaps this was always true when one compares events in a
“real” world with classrooms, however well equipped (Holton, 1965). Organized learn-
ing — schools, texts, materials, activities — can combat the “unreality” of the classroom
by avoiding passivity and taking every opportunity to engage the students in hands-on
activities (National Research Council, 1996). Direct experience provides a rich “situation”
in which the learner may be able to take advantage of cognitive integration, employing
multiple inputs from different perceptual pathways — visual, auditory, tactile, kinesthetic,
and sometimes olfactory — to construct mental connections and reinforcements (Anderson,
Reder, & Simon, 1996). The sustained challenge of physical materials creates the precon-
dition of some mental impasse or imbalance that leads to construction of knowledge.

Passive listening and reading is a less effective learning environment, especially for
younger children, because continuous focus and attention is more difficult. Experiential
lessons may fail for the same reason if a student’s mind is not engaged in creating a
multifaceted schema and the teacher is not guiding the process effectively (National Re-
search Council, 1996; Tobin, Tippins, & Gallard, 1994).

Visual Analogy
Instructional analogies are frequently used in science education (Dagher, 1995). An
example is the use of fictitious scale changes to visualize relative dimensions: “If the
average atom were the size of a football field, the nucleus would be the size of a grain of
sand on the 50-yard line. A nucleus is so dense that, at that scale, the sand grain would
weigh ten million tons. This is why we say that matter is mostly empty space.” Analogic
thinking and visualization seem to lie at the base of effective problem-solving skills (Kauf-
mann, 1990; Marshall, 1995). Because the practice of science and technology requires skill
in problem solving and the use of mathematical representations, the development of these
abilities is fundamental in science education.
We become accustomed to using the common analogs of a familiar arena such as the
sciences unconsciously, and may fail to appreciate that a novice may not be able to read
that particular “language.” For example, in the physical sciences a diagram showing energy
“levels” will usually depict higher potential energies above lower states using a vertical
scale; “higher” and “lower” are actually metaphors for our somatic perceptions derived
from living and thinking in a gravitational field. In a turnabout, oceanographers depict
variations in seawater variables (e.g., temperature) with the surface values at the top of
the diagram and deeper values toward the bottom (of the page, or the ocean). The use of
analogy can be an educational pitfall. When an analogy is used it is important not only to
draw the parallel, but to be explicit about the ways in which the analogy fails (Dagher,
1995; Treagust, Venville, & Harrison, 1995). As noted earlier, popular thinking transmutes
analogic depictions into images of real objects and eventually into uncontested facts.

Methods and standards of assessment are inseparable from any consideration of content,
pedagogy, or teacher development in science education (National Research Council, 1996).
Thematic, analogic, and visual-spatial thinking are higher order cognitive abilities that
cannot be assessed by most common practices such as recall tests, labeling, and traditional
word problems (Doran, Lawrenz, & Helgeson, 1994). The need for authentic assessment
dictates that the use of visual-spatial methods in assessment should accompany the use of
visualization and imagery in instruction. The general availability of computers with pow-
erful graphics clearly invites the use of visual methods in assessment as well as instruction.
An assessment prompt displayed in color, and moving, is far more evocative than a con-
ventional paper test. Science tests should use illustrations liberally. The traditional labeling
of a diagram (organism cross section, machine, chemical structures, etc.) can serve as a
tool for evaluating the interconnections between vocabulary and image, but it remains a
superficial substitute for the assessment of in-depth understanding of essentially visual-
spatial relationships. For example, demonstrating an understanding of the symmetry op-
erations that are possible for a three-dimensional model of a molecule, and explaining how
the chemical properties correlate with the structure, shows understanding beyond the level
of terminology.

The advent of the graphic user interface for personal computing stations and easy access
to international communication networks that are increasingly visual has started an imagery
revolution in classrooms (Glennan & Melmed, 1996; Klein, 1985; Papert, 1980, 1993;
U.S. Department of Education, 1996). The use of computers, motion pictures, videos, and
now CD-ROM discs provides an effective alternative instruction and assessment domi-
nated by text. But, computers cannot substitute for pedagogical skill and content knowl-
edge in the teacher any better than texts and activity kits.
Computer activities can be used to teach problem solving, schema construction, and
visual-spatial thinking as a content-independent procedural skill (McClurg & Chaillé,
1987). Some schools have tapped into the variety of images available on web sites. It is
salutary to find earth sciences and astronomy taught with the powerful images from the
Hubble telescope and the weather service. We have now entered a new era in computer-
enhanced visualization within the scientific enterprise itself with the universal use of com-
puters and microprocessors for data acquisition and analysis (Friedhoff & Benzon, 1989;
Hall, 1992). The rapid progress in imaging programs enables supercomputers to reduce a
large volume of data or a complex numerical model to an image that moves and is color-
coded. Very frequently, the trained observer will see relationships in the visual represen-
tation that are otherwise obscure. These research programs are now entering classrooms
and interactive exhibits at museums and “exploratoriums” where their power for teaching
as well as research becomes evident.

The Affective Dimension

The affective or attitudinal overlay in all our conscious and unconscious mental pro-
cesses must also be considered when designing visual-spatial activities and materials for
science education (Damasio, 1994; Niedenthal & Kitayama, 1994; Perkins, 1995). The
emotional impact of entering strange territory is a major barrier to learning for some
students but a motivation for others. Practice in using visual-spatial activities may provide
affective support — a set of training wheels or water wings — for intellectual ventures into
unfamiliar media, methods, or topics. In fact, an aversion to science may arise in the first
place in part from a deficit in spatial abilities (Lord, 1987; Siemankowski & McKnight,
1971). This is significant when considering strategies appropriate for coping with differ-
ences in gender, culture, and global origin.


The lists of master images (Table 1) and science visualization (Table 2) may serve as
organizers of visual-spatial topics in developing research programs, in-service workshops,
and teacher education as well as the development of activities, lessons, and assessment
instruments. Experienced teachers are accustomed to learning novel methods within a
relatively short time in workshops or short courses. The initial education of teachers should
include the visual-spatial content of science and the fundamental issue of coherence. Pro-
fessional development of teachers is considered in the last section.
Preparation of new materials or reexamining existing ones also raises some fundamental
questions about visual-spatial learning that remain unanswered. Some questions for re-
search and development are:

● What is the relative importance of visual-spatial aptitude compared with other

mental abilities for the learning of science?

● Do students with high visual-spatial ability have a motivational edge in science

● Does an early interest in science help students develop integrative, imagistic and
analogic thinking, or does an interest in science grow out of these habits of thought?
● How should science education emulate the nature and practices of science?
● Do the themes in science support or even dictate an integrated restructuring of
● How does teaching a topic in a verbal form compare with a strongly visual-spatial
● Under what conditions do visual-spatial factors in activities and materials reinforce,
or interfere with, the learning of parallel verbal material?
● What would comparisons between visual-spatial modes of assessment versus lan-
guage based challenges demonstrate?
● What would be the differences between prior knowledge evoked from verbal chal-
lenges versus visual challenges?
● Can we generate genuinely novel classroom techniques that take advantage of vi-
sual-spatial thinking?
● What is the impact of visual-spatial teaching on differences in performance attrib-
utable to gender and ethnicity?
● How can we integrate text and depiction in books, materials, activities, and tech-
nological resources?
● Is the transference of visual-spatial insights more or less successful than verbal
● What are the developmentally appropriate levels for various visual-spatial teaching
● How can visual-spatial methods be integrated with other reform initiatives?
● What are the best approaches to use for introducing visual-spatial thinking into the
professional development of teachers?


The rapid pace of change in science is a serious problem for science educators. In
addition, our concepts of cognitive development in children have evolved, and more so-
phisticated and realistic models of the way science functions as a portion of human knowl-
edge and as a social system have developed. We are in the midst of a rapid growth in our
electronics communications system that is bringing into almost every classroom the con-
tents, good and bad, of the media and the world-wide web. Schools and governments have
a heightened interest in reliable and valid assessments of progress toward educational
goals. With all these changes, the dedicated science teacher must have heroic professional
habits and a generous support structure for professional renewal. On the “good news” side,
practitioners in science and technology are again engaged in cooperative endeavors with
our schools:

What is needed, it seems to me, is the systematic training of visual sensitivity as an

indispensable part of any educator’s preparation. (Arnheim, 1969, p. 315)

Teacher development is the key to incorporating visual-spatial teaching and learning

into science education through in-service and teacher preparation programs. To the well-
educated and experienced teacher, master images and visualization methods in science are
familiar, evocative, and useful. Visual-spatial thinking ought to be a systematic and integral
part of planning, teaching, teacher preparation and research in education. My hope is that

coherence and integration in all aspects of science education, including visual-spatial learn-
ing, will evolve with reforms in science education.

During the preparation of this study, the author received support from Project VISTA, directed by
Dr. Alan McCormack and Dr. Cheryl Mason, San Diego State University Center for Research in
Mathematics and Science Education. Their hospitality and patience were greatly appreciated. Advice
and encouragement from Dr. Sue Mathewson and Dr. Michael Seitz are gratefully acknowledged.
Portions of this work were presented at the Sixth Annual Conference, Program for Teacher En-
hancement in Science and Technology, University of California, San Diego, July 9, 1996.

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