Many teachers try very hard to accommodate the various learning styles of their students, but this can be an overwhelming task, as some of the learning styles inventories and models are quite complicated. As a former classroom teacher myself, I know that there are a limited number of hours in the day, and even the most dedicated teacher cannot plan for all the different learning styles and intelligences of his or her students. Take heart! There's an easier solution.

The visual-spatial learner model is based on the newest discoveries in brain research about the different functions of the hemispheres. The left hemisphere is sequential, analytical, and time-oriented. The right hemisphere perceives the whole, synthesizes, and apprehends movement in space. We only have two hemispheres, and we are doing an excellent job teaching one of them. We need only become more aware of how to reach the other, and we will have happier students, learning more effectively.

I'd like to share with you how the visual-spatial learner idea originated. Around 1980, I began to notice that some highly gifted children took the top off the IQ test with their phenomenal abilities to solve items presented to them visually or items requiring excellent abilities to visualize. These children were also adept at spatial tasks, such as orientation problems. Soon I discovered that not only were the highest scorers outperforming others on the visual-spatial tasks, but so were the lowest scorers. The main difference between the two groups was that highly gifted children also excelled at the auditory-sequential items, whereas children who were brighter than their IQ scores had marked auditory and sequential weaknesses. It was from these clinical observations and my attempt to understand both the strengths and weaknesses that the concept of the "visual-spatial learner" was born.

Visual-spatial learners are individuals who think in pictures rather than in words. They have a different brain organization than auditory-sequential learners. They learn better visually than auditorally. They learn all-at-once, and when the light bulb goes on, the learning is permanent. They do not learn from repetition and drill. They are whole-part learners who need to see the big picture first before they learn the details. They are non-sequential, which means that they do not learn in the step-by-step manner in which most teachers teach. They arrive at correct solutions without taking steps, so "show your work" may be impossible for them. They may have difficulty with easy tasks, but show amazing ability with difficult, complex tasks. They are systems thinkers who can orchestrate large amounts of information from different domains, but they often miss the details. They tend to be organizationally impaired and unconscious about time. They are often gifted creatively, technologically, mathematically or emotionally.

Parents can tell if they have one of these children by the endless amount of time they spend doing advanced puzzles, constructing with LEGOs, etc., completing mazes, counting everything, playing Tetris on the computer, playing chess, building with any materials at hand, designing scientific experiments, programming your computer, or taking everything in the house apart to see how it operates. They also are very creative, dramatic, artistic and musical.

Here are the basic distinctions between the visual-spatial and auditory-sequential learner:

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

At the Gifted Development Center, we have been exploring the visual-spatial learner phenomenon for over 2 decades. We have developed strategies for working effectively with these children, guidance for parents on living with visual-spatial learners, and techniques to help visual-spatial students learn successfully through their strengths. This information is now available in Upside-Down Brilliance: The Visual-Spatial Learner (Denver: DeLeon Publishing, 2002) and Raising Topsy-Turvy Kids: Successfully Parenting Your Visual-Spatial Child (Denver: DeLeon Publishing, 2004).

Over a period of nine years, a multi-disciplinary team created the Visual-Spatial Identifier-a simple, 15-item checklist to help parents and teachers find these children. There are two forms of the Identifier: a self-rating questionnaire and an observer form, which is completed by parents or teachers. The Visual-Spatial Identifier has been translated into Spanish. With the help of two grants from the Morris S. Smith Foundation, the two instruments have been validated on 750 fourth, fifth and sixth graders. In this research, one-third of the school population emerged as strongly visual-spatial. An additional 30% showed a slight preference for the visual-spatial learning style. Only 23% were strongly auditory-sequential. This suggests that a substantial percentage of the school population would learn better using visual-spatial methods.

Please visit our websites, and, for more information about visual-spatial learners. Or call the Gifted Development Center (1-888-GIFTED1) or Visual-Spatial Resource (1-888-VSR-3744) to order a copy of Upside-Down Brilliance, Raising Topsy-Turvy Kids, the Visual-Spatial Identifier, or articles about visual-spatial learners. We also offer presentations for groups and phone consultations for parents.

From Silverman, L.K. (2003, Winter). The visual-spatial learner: An introduction. Soundview School Dolphin News, pp 6-7.