Emma Hart Willard and the concept of ‘visual learning’

October 27, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

Long before the term “visual learning” came into being, Emma Hart Willard knew what it meant and how important it was. So important, she believed, that constructing the tools to put it into effect was well worth time and effort.

In 1846, she drew a chart titled The Temple of Time (below) in which she attempted to show the various empires of history encased in the motif of a Greek temple. Willard’s purpose in constructing this visual tool was to demonstrate that historical facts, to be understood, must be related to one another. Something happens in history happens in context, not in a vacuum.

A second purpose was to give students a framework that they could use to understand and evaluate additional knowledge as they acquired it.

She wrote:

. . . when the eye is the medium, the picture will, by frequent inspection, be formed within, and forever remain, wrought into the living texture of the mind. If this be done by a design whose beauty and grandeur naturally attract attention, then the teacher or parent who shall place it before his pupils and children will find that they will insensibly become possesses of an inner “Temple” in which they may, through life, deposite[sic], in the proper order of time, the facts of history as they shall acquire them. 


Her ideas about cartography aiding in the learning process were groundbreaking, and they were recognized as such at the time. Willard was awarded a medal for her work at the 1851 World’s Fair in London and won praise from Prince Albert himself.

Willard had been working on her ideas about visual learning for years, and her Temple of Time was just the latest iteration of it.

Willard was born in 1787, the sixteenth of seventeen children, into a family that valued education. She quickly realized that females were being short-changed in their educational opportunities, and she spent much of her life trying to remedy that. She began the Troy Female Seminary in 1821 in Troy, New York, two years after she had spoken before the New York State Legislature asking for a statewide plan to educate girls. They ignored her.

She also realized the importance of textbooks and the dearth of them available for her students. So, she set about writing them herself. Her History of the United States, published in 1828, was one of the most widely read and adapted texts of time time. She also wrote A System of Fulfillment of a Promise (1831), A Treatise on the Motive Powers which Produce the Circulation of the Blood (1846), Guide to the Temple of Time and Universal History for Schools (1849), Last Leaves of American History (1849), Astronography; or Astronomical Geography (1854), and Morals for the Young (1857).

She also co-wrote, with William Channing Woodbridge, The Woodbridge and Willard Geographies and Atlases, published in 1823, a book that gave her claim to being America’s first female cartographer.

Willard took her quest for female education across America and later to Europe. 

Willard was a remarkable 19th century woman who broke the bounds that society created for her.

Source: Visionary Maps of Time, Space, and Thought by America’s First Female Cartographer and Information Visualization Designer | Brain Pickings

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