Visual Thinking Solves Problems

This diagram, created in Inspiration®, may be downloaded for any non-commercial use.

I believe problem solving is a necessary, learned skill involving vision, strategy and higher-order thinking; all things that educators need to teach and nurture in students in order for them to be successful in school and in life. Since I received my masters in whole systems design and systems thinking, I have a bias toward this way of looking at the world and problem solving. Systems thinking is a holistic approach to understanding systems, looking at all parts and finding how they interact and contribute to the health of a system. Systems thinking methodologies are often applied to looking at, evaluating and solving problems.

I personally apply systems thinking to my problem solving process by incorporating mapping and diagramming to help me see and understand the problem. Mapping the overall system and showing all the parts and interactions helps me understand the relationships between them on the whole so I can identify the problems, causes and effects. In the end, this leads to better problem solving. Introducing systems thinking methodologies and visual thinking methods can give students a framework as well as the tools to be more effective problem solvers. Let’s talk about how.

How Can You Teach Problem Solving With Visual Learning?
The American Scientific Affiliation states that problem solving in education occurs when “a question is raised for inquiry, consideration or solution” in order to change a current situation into a new state.1 Scholastic’s Teaching Resources names four steps to problem solving based on a general model created by George Polya in 1945. These steps include understanding the problem, devising a plan, carrying out the plan and looking back at your problem solving methods and results.2

In the classroom, educators can help students through each stage of Polya’s problem solving method with visual mapping that guides beginners to raise inquiry, make considerations and come to a conclusion. Let’s walk through each of the steps to answer the question “how can you teach problem solving with visual learning?”

Understand the Problem
In Inspiration®, teachers can use the “Problem Solving Process” template or create their own to guide students through the problem solving process starting with questions like the ones below:

  • What information is already known and what information is needed?
  • What are the assumptions?
  • What are the symptoms of the problem?
  • What are the root causes?
  • What are you asked to find or show?
  • What answer do you expect to find?
  • Can you restate the problem in your own words?

Teachers can ask students to answer these questions to help them define the problem. A free-form visual map is a great way to brainstorm and include everyone’s point of view and information about the problem in order to come to collective agreement about the problem definition.

This diagram, created in Inspiration®, may be downloaded for any non-commercial use.

Devise a Plan
Once the problem is defined, students need to plan how they will look at the issue and evaluate the system to ultimately arrive at a solution or conclusion. In order to do so, students will need to think through their approach to solving the problem by answering the following question:

  • How will you evaluate the problem? (e.g. look for patterns, map the system and relationships, compare similarities and differences, look at cause and effect, create a process analysis, use process of elimination, use logical reasoning, etc.)

Carry Out the Plan
Once a plan is developed students can work through their problem solving plan using graphic organizers and visual thinking techniques  to create visual models, compare, contrast, classify, and evaluate the information. For example, if students decided to use the process of elimination, they can brainstorm possible solutions, determine selection criteria and apply logic and reason to determine what solution is the best fit, eliminating others one-by-one. This will allow students to look for solutions and think through each answer to see what additional affects the solutions might have on the problem.

Reviewing the information visually in a diagram helps you see detail as well as the big picture, exposing any inconsistencies, irrelevant information and gaps in thinking. Like Senior Instructional Designer Claudia Escribano, who works in learning and organizational development theory, says on her LifeLongLearningLab blog, “Being able to see relationships between things is often helpful to overcome cognitive load – that overwhelmed feeling you have when you’re trying to work with too much information at once.”3

Look Back at Your Methods and Results
Once an answer is chosen, students can visually map their solution, then step back and look for outcomes, dependencies, and unintended consequences. This will help them evaluate the results and assess their own problem solving effectiveness. Looking at a visual will help students easily answer the following questions:

  • Does the solution fulfill the conditions of the defined problem?
  • What other problems are introduced by the implementation of the solution?

You can also ask students to assess their process and answer the following questions:

  • What did you learn about problem solving during this exercise?
  • Would another method of working through the problem have worked better? If so, what method would you have used and why?

Visual mapping and systemic thinking go hand-in-hand to help students understand and learn to evaluate complex problems while developing educated opinions and points of view. This leads to better problem solving skills and improved academic and life performance.

Take this week’s poll: How often are visual thinking and learning tools incorporated into your student assignments? Next week I’ll be discussing how visual learning helps students communicate in unique ways. See you then!

Mona Westhaver, Inspiration Software, President

Mona Westhaver
President and Co-founder, Inspiration Software

Mona Westhaver, President and Co-founder of Inspiration® Software, Inc., has more than 30 years’ experience in visual thinking, systems thinking, and educational learning tools and technology. She has a passion for helping people learn to clarify thinking and feelings and to communicate knowledge and views in a positive way.
Mona Westhaver
View all posts by Mona Westhaver
  1. “Problem-Solving Skills (and Methods) in Education & Life.” American Scientific Affiliation: A Network of Christians in Science. Web. 29 Sept. 2010. <>. []
  2. “4 Steps to Problem Solving.” Teaching Resources, Children’s Book Recommendations, and Student Activities, Web. 29 Sept. 2010. <>. []
  3. “More on Visual Problem-Solving « LifeLongLearningLab.” LifeLongLearningLab. Web. 01 Oct. 2010. <>. []

2 Responses to “Visual Thinking Solves Problems”

  1. Hi Mona

    Great post- it essential more than ever to give students the tools and the strategies so that they can become more effective problem solvers and innovators. Having tools like Inspiration and Kidspiration allows students to work through problems in visual ways that gives them more insight and allows for reflections. With the complexity of the world as it is giving students these tools and teaching them how to use them is essential

    Brian S. Friedlander, Ph.D.

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to RSS Feed Follow us on Twitter!