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Why Instructional Designers Should Learn Visual Thinking

The five steps to problem-solving 101 are 1) define the problem, 2) determine the cause, 3) propose possible solutions, 4) select and implement a solution, and 5) evaluate the outcome.


Let's use a household problem of a water leak. First, we need to define the problem – the faucet is leaking. Next is to determine the cause of which the valve has failed in this example. Possible solutions are to call a plumber or go to the hardware store for a DIY repair kit. In this case, we'll implement the solution by fixing it ourselves and buying a repair kit. All done. Turn on the faucet and evaluate if there is no more leak. Simple enough.


Not all problems are quickly identified, though. Step 1 is often hidden or vague, and following these basic steps proves impossible if we can't first define the problem.


You can't solve a problem until you see the problem.


Visual thinking helps with mapping out the context of what may have led to the problem. Let's use our leaky faucet example again, although we notice the water bill has tripled in one month this time. That is a problem! However, after further inspection, you can't "see" any water leaks and are puzzled why the water bill is so high.


Visual thinking is a process where we can sketch out a landscape sans any emotion to help us see the logic and define where the problem occurs. In our increased water bill example, we may sketch out known water sources coming into the home.

Now we can dissect this landscape and continue our investigation by eliminating one source at a time until we can identify and define the problem. Our example includes the exterior where the water meter and main water line come into the home. The water meter is typically located on the side of a house or in the yard. But our visual map helped us discover a wet area of the yard even though it hadn't rained in several days. The discovery of a broken line from the meter to the house is the problem. The problem is identified, and we can clearly define the problem and continue with the remaining problem-solving steps.


As instructional designers, we are presented with problems that we can't see more than we are presented with clearly identifiable problems. The solutions we implement are in the form of training that solves a learning problem, but we still need to see the problem first.


There are several tools and techniques for visual thinking, from simple pencil and paper sketching out a landscape to 3D metaphorical modeling using LEGO bricks. There is an element of creativity to problem-solving, too. Have you ever heard yourself saying a version of the phrases, "I need to get creative to solve this problem" or "This problem requires creativity?"


Understanding the fundamentals of visual thinking is the gateway to enhancing your skills in creative problem-solving. Our organizations, clients, and customers need us to help them solve complex problems—challenging problems like retention, knowledge transfer, talent development, behavior change, etc. We can't be good partners if we're focused on the solution (a course) before we can see the problem that needs solving.


If you found this article intriguing and want to learn more, I invite you to attend the Step Away experience. An immersive experience to learn the tools and techniques of visual thinking in solving real learning problems. The problem is not a canned exercise but a problem you want to solve. We'll help you define it! At Step Away, everything you learn is grounded in theory and research from visual thinking, story, and game mechanics to help you reach a creative solution. That's right! You bring the problem, and we teach you how to solve that problem using visual thinking and game design.


Your journey awaits!

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