What’s in an Image?

One of the basic principles of creativity is that it often entails looking at something in a new way. Flexible thinking can help us look at something from another person’s point of view, from another angle, with another purpose, or in another form. One way we can help students think flexibly is by asking them to transform an idea from one form to another.

One of the most common, but potentially powerful, of these transitions is from words to graphics. Instead of asking, “What does this say?” or “What does this mean?” we ask, “What does this idea look like?”

This kind of transformation is not the same as literal illustrations. For example, there are a lot of illustrations of the classic fairy tale, “The Princess and the Pea.”

But what about this iphone skin, with the same title? It doesn’t give us a picture of the princess. It doesn’t exactly show a pea. And yet the essence of the story is there, in one simple image. The image comes from a series of Minimalist posters of fairy tales by Christian Jackson. Did you click on the link? You must. Go back and look.

Jackson’s images are a great way to teach young people about distilling an idea into its key elements. Of course you could ask students to create similar posters using other stories, but think about these additional options.

  • In a longer work of literature, choose a particular aspect of the piece: a character, the main conflict, or perhaps the setting. Have students create a graphic that illustrates the key idea in its simplest form. Be sure to ask for a paragraph of explanation so that the students’ meanings are clear to you.
  • Do the same thing for a historical character or event. Imagine creating a core image for the shots fired at Fort Sumter, or Napoleon, or the opening of Japan to the west. Any time we ask students to look at the core of an idea we gain insight into their thinking—a great example of assessment FOR creativity.
  • Of course you can do the same thing in science. But remember, there is a difference between a literal model (which is also a great thing to have students do) and a synthesizing graphic. You can find lots of illustrations for basic chemical bonds. But if you wanted a single image that portrays the essence of chemical bonding, what would it be? I sure can’t find it through Google Images. Maybe one of your students will put it there!
  • And, yes, graphic images also work in mathematics. Think about key graphics for addition and subtraction. What about a graphic that illustrates the concept of function, or the commutative property? With those on the wall, you could have the most interesting math classroom around.

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