Faculty Reflections

Using Images to Mediate Critical Thinking and Dialogue
Jeremy Fyke, Assistant Professor
Department of Communication Studies

“What do you see?” “What comes to mind here?” As instructors, these are two simple, yet powerful, prompts we can use to generate discussion. Yet, as we all know, what we think are sure-fire good prompts don’t always work as well as we’d like. If you’re like me, and you lean on discussions for much of your courses, then you’re always looking for fresh ideas to promote critical thinking and dialogue. I’ve found in recent years that nothing does this quite like images.

Along those lines, I’d like to introduce you to Visual Explorer, created by The Center for Creative Leadership. Having used this approach several times in various settings—including classrooms and corporate trainings—I know of its effectiveness in generating discussion. Photographs are universal in their ability to spark innovative problem solving and stimulate creative thinking. Furthermore, they simulate what good discussion ought to do—draw out different angles (literally) of issues and connect those perspectives to real life.

The activity works in just about any setting and topic, but for brevity I will focus on one particular application I use often—the first day of class. There is minimal advanced preparation needed on the part of the instructor, other than to craft 1-2 framing questions/prompts for the students to use to unpack the images (see below).

This activity may completed in a 50 or 75 minute class period. The activity requires a PowerPoint slide show or white/blackboard. Second, you need space to lay out 1-2 pictures per person, at a minimum, either on the floor or on tables/desks. The number of pictures you need depends upon how many students you have in the class and how many framing prompts you have (see below).

The framing questions are one of the most critical parts of the process, and can be included on a PowerPoint slide. For instance, your framing questions/prompts for the first day of an organizational communication class could be:

  1. Select one image that represents your worst organizational experience (e.g., internship, job, volunteer work).
  2. Select one image that presents your best organizational experience (e.g., internship, job, volunteer work).

I recommend laying out the images at the very start but not telling the students what they are for. It oftentimes generates a little “buzz” in the room as they come in. Then, allow the students to browse the images for as long as possible. It is important to allow plenty of time so the students can select the images that jumps out to them the most. Students will typically have their images within 5 minutes. Instruct them to study the images quietly when they return to their seats. Once they return, then you show them the following instructions. I recommend showing the framing prompts until the students return from selecting their images. Once the students have a few minutes to study their images, place them in groups of 3-4. Instruct them to follow these directions step-by-step in their groups.

  1. Describe the image. Do not connect to the question yet. Look carefully and deeply into the image to make sure you fully understand it. What do you notice, what’s interesting, surprising, odd, etc?
  2. How does it connect to the question?
  3. Each person in their group then responds, noting what they see in the images. What do you notice that is similar/different? How does it represent/not represent your experiences?

After each person has had the chance to share their images, I call at least one person from each group up to the front to share their images. I have them follow the three-step process, and the whole class weighs in via open discussion on what they see and how it connects to the questions.

The debrief generally follows along with the three-step process because of the dialogue that creates by itself. In other words, as students see how differently each other sees images, they begin to make connections to real life and how we see things differently. Specific questions and points to help them transfer and connect further include:

  1. What insights about perspective-taking does this activity demonstrate?
  2. How could we use this to understand how organizational members (employees, volunteers) view their workspaces and activities?
  3. If you were a member in an organization, how could you use images to foster dialogue?

Editorial Note: If you’re interested in using a Visual Explorer kit in a class, you can borrow one from the Teaching Center by contacting Nanci Alsup or you can check one out from the Bunch Library.