The Power of Images: Visual-Spatial Learners (page 3)
Once upon a time, students sat in rows of straight-backed chairs facing the teacher. Teachers talked; students listened, and recited prose, poetry, facts, and numerical properties that had been committed to memory. The three R's-Readin', 'Ritin', and 'Rithmetic-were the undisputed curriculum designed to prepare children to enter the work force in their adult lives. Teachers taught sequentially. Students learned sequentially. The curriculum of each school year built upon the knowledge and skills taught the previous year, in a nice, neat, sequential progression. As this was viewed as the natural order of things, this system of education prevailed for millennia.
All of this is changing as we move into a new millennium. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are the curriculum of the sequential left hemisphere. They served us well as society evolved from an oral tradition to a written one, but they are insufficient for success in the new age. We are now in the midst of an enormous cultural transformation that began with movies, then television, then computers. The computer is to Age of Information what the printing press was to the Age of Literacy. As it uses both hands, it invites information from the right hemisphere, and integrates the two hemispheres. It has no time-constraints, does not rely on drill and repetition, and it teaches visually. Internet allows access to any information, out of sequence, regardless of the age of the learner. In the Age of Information, the gifts of the right hemisphere are honored and utilized.
Our left hemisphere has the words, our right hemisphere has the images. Leonard Shlain (1998) suggests that talking pictures marked the closing stages of a 5,000-year reign of our left hemisphere, and the emergence of our right hemisphere:
The printing press disseminates written words. Television projects images. As television sets continue to proliferate around the world, they are redirecting the course of human evolution. The fusing of photography and electromagnetism is proving to be of the same magnitude as the discovery of agriculture, writing, and print. (p. 409)
I am convinced we are entering a new Golden Age-one in which the right-hemispheric values of tolerance, caring, and respect for nature will begin to ameliorate the conditions that have prevailed for the too-long period during which left-hemispheric values were dominant. Images, of any kind, are the balm bringing about this worldwide healing. It will take more time for change to permeate and alter world cultures but there can be no doubt that the wondrous permutations of photography and electromagnetism are transforming the world both physically and psychically. The shift to right-hemispheric values through the perception of images can be expected to increase the sum total awareness of beauty. (p. 432)
In the 21st century, images are becoming more salient in our consciousness than words. September 11, 2001 attests to this fact. In the Preface of Upside-Down Brilliance: The Visual-Spatial Learner, I wrote:
On September 11, 2001, life as we knew it changed forever. The world became smaller, and our connectedness became apparent. We were all witnesses, we all suffered. If we had heard the news on the radio or from a family member, it would not have had the same impact. The way many people shared the event with each other was simply to say, "Turn on the TV." For days afterward, I heard, "There are no words; there are no words."
We watched the footage of the first plane crashing into the World Trade Center in stunned disbelief. As we tried to understand what had happened, we witnessed the next plane crash into the second tower as it was happening. We were there-a part of it all. These are images we will never forget. They are indelibly emblazoned on our psyches.
Upside-Down Brilliance is about the power of images. It's about visual-spatial learners, who think in images instead of words. It's about cherishing our mental camera-the right hemisphere. It's about how the world is changing. It's about how we need to educate learners differently in an image-oriented technological era. It's about seeing "the big picture," so that we can understand our interdependence and learn how to inhabit our planet peaceably. (p. ii)
The marriage of photography and electromagnetism is the byproduct of visual-spatial thinking, and the new millennium is job-friendly for visual-spatial learners. Success in our technological era depends upon different skills than are currently emphasized in school: visualization, grasping the big picture, multi-dimensional perception, pattern-finding, thinking graphically, and creativity. Scientific progress relies heavily on the brilliance of people who think in images. And if we are ever to achieve peaceful co-existence, it will take visionaries to lead us there.
Students who are visually adept will have a much easier time gaining employment in adult life than those who are excellent readers, writers, spellers, calculators, and memorizers, but who do not have well-developed visualization abilities. Unless we begin to recognize the importance of visual-spatial abilities and pay more attention to the development of these capacities in school, we may be grooming students for success in a bygone era and dooming them to unemployment in this one.
What is a visual-spatial learner?
Visual-spatial learners are individuals who think in images. They have multi-dimensional perception, which means that they can transform images in their mind's eye, seeing them from many perspectives. It takes more time for visual-spatial learners to translate their mental pictures into words, and word retrieval may be problematic, so they usually have difficulty with timed situations. They learn all-at-once rather than step-by-step. Their learning takes place in great intuitive leaps, when, all of a sudden, they see the big picture. Since they do not learn sequentially, they are at a distinct disadvantage on class and state achievement tests that require them to show their work. They may have a poor sense of time, but a superb awareness of space. Deadlines may escape them. They learn best by understanding relationships, not by memorization. Complex concepts are easier for them to understand than simple, sequential skills. They may master calculus before their times tables. They are highly intuitive, but organizationally challenged. It is easy to see why these children suffer in school. They tend to be late bloomers, getting smarter as they get older.
Academically successful students are more often auditory-sequential learners, who learn in a step-by-step manner, the way the teachers teach and the way the curriculum is designed. They think in words, so they can express themselves easily. They have good auditory skills and excellent phonemic awareness, which enables them to master reading phonetically, as it is usually taught. They have a good sense of time, are punctual, and usually turn in their assignments in a timely manner. They are fast processors of information, and often enjoy contests, like "Mad Minutes." They are well-organized. They usually have neat handwriting, neat papers, neat desks, and neat attire. They can easily show their work, because they take a series of steps to reach their conclusions. Gifted auditory-sequential learners are more likely than equally capable visual-spatial learners to be high achievers in academic subjects, to be selected for gifted programs, to be recognized by their teachers as having high potential, and to be considered leaders.
Additional differences between auditory-sequential learners and visual-spatial learners can be found in the following chart. Please keep in mind that we all are a combination of both sides, since we all have two hemispheres. However, some individuals fit many more of the visual-spatial characteristics, and these are the ones who feel disenfranchised in school.
Visual-Spacial Learner: Characteristics Comparison
|The Auditory-Sequential Learner||The Visual-Spatial Learner|
|Thinks primarily in words||Thinks primarily in pictures|
|Has auditory strengths||Has visual strengths|
|Relates well to time||Relates well to space|
|Is a step-by-step learner||Is a whole-part learner|
|Learns by trial and error||Learns concepts all at once|
|Progresses sequentially from easy
to difficult material
|Learns complex concepts easily;
Struggles with easy skills
|Is an analytical thinker||Is a good synthesizer|
|Attends well to details||Sees the big picture; may miss details|
|Follows oral directions well||Reads maps well|
|Does well at arithmetic||Is better at math reasoning than computation|
|Learns phonics easily||Learns whole words easily|
|Can sound out spelling words||Must visualize words to spell them|
|Can write quickly and neatly||Much better at keyboarding than handwriting|
|Is well organized||Creates unique methods of organization|
|Can show steps of work easily||Arrives at correct solutions intuitively|
|Excels at rote memorization||Learns best by seeing relationships|
|Has good auditory short-term memory||Has good long-term visual memory|
|May need some repetition
to reinforce learning
|Learns concepts permanently; does not learn by drill and repetition|
|Learns well from instructions||Develops own methods of problem solving|
|Learns in spite of emotional reactions||Is very sensitive to teachers' attitudes|
|Is comfortable with one right answer||Generates unusual solutions to problems|
|Develops fairly evenly||Develops quite asynchronously (unevenly)|
|Usually maintains high grades||May have very uneven grades|
|Enjoys algebra and chemistry||Enjoys geometry and physics|
|Masters other languages in classes||Masters other languages through immersion|
|Is academically talented||Is creatively, technologically, mechanically, emotionally or spiritually gifted|
|Is an early bloomer||Is a late bloomer|
From Upside-Down Brilliance: The Visual-Spatial Learner. Denver: DeLeon Publishing.
Visual-spatial learners and giftedness
I coined the term "visual-spatial learner" in 1981, after observing an interesting phenomenon in testing gifted children. The children with the highest test scores, the ones who went beyond the norms in the manual, achieved these scores by passing visual-spatial items that were designed for children twice their age. They demonstrated excellent auditory-sequential abilities, but their visual-spatial abilities were even more extraordinary. As they tended to be somewhat shy and cautious, I made the connection between visual-spatial learning style and introversion. Introverts (who gain energy from within themselves rather than from interaction with others) may or may not be visual-spatial, but visual-spatial learners are very often introverted (Dixon, 1983; Lohman, 1994). [For more on introversion, please see Chapter 10 in Upside-Down Brilliance.]
Soon I began to notice that not only were the highest scorers visual-spatial, so were the lowest scorers. These were children who fit most of the descriptors on our Characteristics of Giftedness Scale (Silverman, 1990), but fell short of the gifted range on the IQ tests and bombed in school. The main difference between the two groups was that the students who took the top off the IQ tests had advanced auditory-sequential skills as well as advanced visual-spatial abilities, whereas the underachievers had exceptional visual-spatial abilities combined with weak auditory-sequential skills. For example, they could copy extremely complicated block designs and tell how many blocks were in an array with some of them hidden, but they could not repeat 5 random digits.
As I spent more time observing visual-spatial children, I realized that they saw the world differently, three-dimensionally. They saw through artists' eyes, and some demonstrated artistic talent. Some were scientists and mathematicians, able to see the complex inter-relationships of systems. Some were computer junkies. Some were dancers, actors, musicians, imaginative writers. Some were highly emotional, extremely empathic. Some were spiritually aware and psychically attuned. Most were pattern-seekers and pattern-finders, excited with each new discovery. They pursued their interests passionately, sometimes to the exclusion of everything else. They definitely marched to a different drummer.
Children who are strong in right-hemispheric abilities, but weak in left-hemispheric skills, are more likely to become underachievers and drop-outs. They are more often counted among gifted children with learning disabilities (e.g., dyslexia, dysgraphia-difficulties with handwriting, central auditory processing disorder, AD/HD); gifted children from culturally diverse backgrounds; left-handed children; children who had difficult births; and children who suffered chronic ear infections in the first few years of life. Unless they're taught to their learning style, they are also at higher risk for delinquency (Seeley, 2003). Their learning differences are perceived as deficiencies, and most of the attention paid to these children is for the purpose of ameliorating their deficits. Rarely are their visual-spatial gifts recognized and developed in school. Ironically, the most effective way to reach these students is to teach to their strengths.
Everyone has two hemispheres, but no one uses both hemispheres equally. Just as each person prefers one hand over the other, auditory-sequential learners use their left hemispheres more than their right, while visual-spatial learners use their right hemispheres more often than their left. We have to honor hemispheric preference, just as we honor hand preference. We would no more expect children to be equally proficient with each hemisphere than we would expect them to be equally proficient with either hand. The problem, as I see it, is that left-hemispheric proficiency has been emphasized in school for eons at the expense of right-hemispheric development.
Visual-spatial learners and school
The right hemisphere is our mental video camera. It enables us to see the "big picture" rather than just a series of details. It gives us the context into which to place our experience (Ornstein, 1997). It is essential to art, music, dance, drama, sports, mechanics, geometry, physics, calculus, technology, invention, metaphor, intuition, emotional responsiveness, and spirituality. Art is born in images. Scientific breakthroughs and visionary leadership originate with images. Beauty, love and peace are the promise of the right hemisphere (Shlain, 1998).
For thousands of years, school has been primarily dedicated to the education of the left hemisphere. Children enter school with more balance between their left and right hemispheres than when they graduate. They begin Kindergarten with a vivid imagination that expresses itself in their block play, their pretend games, and their dress-up corner. By first grade, they are taught that playing is something they do at recess in organized games, and school is where they work. Children with good phonemic awareness, who learn to read on schedule by the phonetic approach employed in most primary grades, are considered good students. Children who struggle with reading often develop poor self-esteem.
For some visual-spatial learners, reading is Flatland. It is a two-dimensional experience that is difficult for their three-dimensional minds to grasp. If you see the world in three dimensions, you live in a world of moving forms-of dynamic shapes. You may be able to build a Space Station with Legos or create a magnificent horse out of clay, but b, d, p, and q all look alike. They are all the same shape-flipped and rotated. Imagine trying to learn to read when the letters turn upside-down, flip backwards, and even trade places-moving around the page! Visual-spatial learners learn best whatever they can see in their minds. In some countries, children first learn to read words like "mountain," and "lake," words they can visualize, and when they have established a large enough reading vocabulary of these words, then they begin to learn smaller words, such as "the," and "is," that are not as amenable to visualization.
Writing can be even more discouraging. The fine motor skills needed for writing with one's right hand are controlled by the left hemisphere (Springer & Deutsch, 1998). Letters that flip and rotate in one's field of vision will end up upside-down or backward on the paper. Spelling is a nightmare. It is purely sequential. Many visual-spatial children (and adults) speak at one level, and write at a much lower level, because there are so many words that they cannot remember how to spell. They may overuse the same words, because each word is a label for a picture in their minds, and they would no more dream of using a synonym than they would consider changing all the names of the pictures in an art gallery (Grow, 1990). While their ideas may be superb, they cannot express them well because of mechanical difficulties: handwriting, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, grammar, syntax, organization-all the left-hemispheric skills that educators cherish.
Memorizing math facts is yet another roadblock for visual-spatial learners. They are natural mathematicians and scientists, excellent pattern-finders, but they cannot do rote memorization. They understand a concept by forming a visual image in their minds, and seeing the underlying structure. This allows them to arrive at answers to math problems intuitively. When commanded to show their work, they go completely blank, because they did not take a series of steps to arrive at their answers. Show your work may be an appropriate request for an auditory-sequential learner, but it simply cannot be done by someone who uses a visual-spatial thought process.
Time is an anathema to the visual-spatial learner. School is all about time. You must arrive on time, take timed tests, complete your work in class on time, move on to other subjects on time, and turn in your homework on time. According to Leonard Shlain (1998), our time sense originated in the left hemisphere. "Time is the quintessential attribute of the left brain. All of the functions of this hemisphere proceed temporally" (p. 220). Time is essential for linear speech. "A conversation can be understood only when one person speaks at a time. In contrast, one's right brain can listen to the sounds of a seventy-piece orchestra and hear them holistically" (pp. 22-23).
As it is currently structured, school is an unfriendly place for visual-spatial learners, and they do not demonstrate their full potential during the school day. It is a much better match for auditory-sequential learners. But I predict that in the near future, schools will become more welcoming to visual-spatial students. Every day there are more and more computers in schools. At the college level, notes are taken on laptops, and homework is turned in and corrected via email. It is only a matter of time before every student has a computer. A computer is as indispensable to the visual-spatial child as a book is to an auditory-sequential child. It is visual, graphic, unconcerned with time, highly motivating, responsive to the inquisitive mind of the visual-spatial learner, and accesses the right hemisphere. It is the skating rink where a visual-spatial mind can perform dazzling feats.
Reprinted with the permission of the Visual-Spatial Resource. © 2004-2007, Visual-Spatial Resource. All rights reserved.
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