Creative Visualization


Exploiting imagination to support learning

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … insight
  • Knowing is … seeing
  • Learner is … see-er
  • Learning is … coming to see
  • Teaching is … showing; orienting perception; leading/guiding imagination




Visualization refers to any thought process associated with purposefully imagining an actual phenomenon in order to enhance understanding and/or consolidate memories of that phenomenon. Visualization techniques are used across a wide range of discourses, including Psychotherapy (e.g., to address such matters as negative emotions, self-perception, and social competence), athletics (e.g., envisioning performance, or minimizing pain), and disciplinary studies (e.g., imagining subatomic particles, or hypercubes, or characters in a novel). Several subdiscourses have emerged over the past few decades, including the following:
  • Auditory Imagery – an experience of imagination that experientially resembles hearing an external auditory source. The vibrancy and precision of the experience varies dramatically from one person to the next, and has been shown to improve with practice and education. (Technically, of course, Auditory Imagery cannot be a type of Visualization. Indeed, the phrase itself is oxymoronic – a fact that reveals the primacy of vision among sensory modalities and in popular understandings of how the mind works.)
  • Guided Imagery (Guided Affective Imagery) involves a teacher/practitioner helping a student/client to summon or simulate various sensory perceptions (usually focused on, but not limited to visual perceptions). It is applied in both formal learning situations and in therapy settings.
  • Mental Imagery (Mental Image; Mental Picture; Visual Imagery) – an experience of the imagination that experientially resembles the viewing an object or scene
  • Mirroring refers to the unconscious imitation of another’s actions (gestures, expressions, speech patterns, etc.). It is seen as essential to virtually all categories of learning, but it is especially vital to social behaviors and engagements.
  • Motor Imagery (Mental Practice of Action) – a mode of Visualization focused on rehearsing, simulating, and/or performing a specific action
  • Psychoneuromuscular Theory – a theory concerned with the tole of mental imagery in physical performance, positing that the brain sends impulses to relevant muscles as one imagines the performance
  • Scientific Visualization refers to a cross-disciplinary interest in both imagining and generating computer-based images of scientific phenomena.
  • Spatial Visualization is a component of Spatial Reasoning, typically concerned mainly with the mental manipulation of shapes and figures.
  • Symbolic Learning Theory – an umbrella notion that can be applied to any theory concerned with the role of mental imagery on learning and performance. Most versions are Correspondence Discourses, as is evident in reliance on (computer-based) processing and programming metaphors, along with notions of mental blueprints. (Contrast: Psychoneuromuscular Theory, above)
  • Visual Thinking (Visual–Spatial Learning; Picture Thinking; Real-Picture Thinking) is properly included among Cognitive Styles Theories. It is grounded on the notion that some people prefer using mental imagery (versus, e.g., words or logic) as their principal or exclusive mode of thought.
Importantly, while some schools of though ascribe a level of Visualization to all thinking, others disagree:
  • Imageless Thought (Oswald Külpe, 1890s) – thought without images or visual content, including judgments and activities that cannot be easily framed in terms of sequences of images


Visualization is sometimes embraced as a recent and innovative learning practice. However, in effect, it is nothing more than a revitalization of the notion of “imagination,” in the original sense of the word (> Latin imaginari, “to form a mental image”). Thus, rather than seeing Visualization as a major new insight into learning, its prominence in contemporary educational discourse might be more appropriately read as a recovery of ancient wisdom that has been eclipsed through recent centuries of indefensible, image-poor practices across subject areas.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences


Status as a Theory of Learning

Visualization is a core learning process – but, in the field of education, associated discourses are typically less concerned with understanding the process and more focused on deploying it as a tool for teaching.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Within education, Visualization is most often engaged as a strategy for or emphasis in teaching.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Humans devote vastly more brain space to sight than any other sensory capacity, so it is hardly surprising that Visualization would be a powerful and ubiquitous means for making sense of the world. Much research has been devoted to the phenomenon. Unfortunately, within education, relatively little of the associated research has been attentive to implicit metaphors – and, accordingly, much if not most of current discussions of Visualization are aligned Folk Theories (especially Cognitivism and other Brain-as-Computer Discourses). For that reason, despite extensive and compelling accumulated evidence, the discourse on Visualization within education cannot be characterized as either consistent or scientific.


  • Auditory Imagery
  • Guided Imagery (a.k.a. Guided Affective Imagery, Katathym Imaginative Psychotherapy)
  • Imageless Thought
  • Mental Imagery (Mental Image; Mental Picture; Visual Imagery)
  • Mirroring
  • Motor Imagery (a.k.a. Mental Practice of Action)
  • Psychoneuromuscular Theory
  • Scientific Visualization
  • Spatial Visualization
  • Symbolic Learning Theory
  • Visual Thinking (a.k.a. Visual–Spatial Learning; Picture Thinking; Real-Picture Thinking)

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2022). “Visualization” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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