John*, as his mother will explain in an exhausted tone, is an energetic child. He loves Legos, creating unique contraptions, and he appreciates complex conceptual challenges. But in kindergarten and first grade, he struggled with many subjects. While he enjoyed discussing larger math concepts like infinity and fractals, he battled with basic math facts, spelling, and even writing (and was later diagnosed with dyslexia).
John was also very sensitive. When he knew that his teachers or other children were frustrated with him, he, in turn, acted out in frustration. He was eventually asked to leave first grade due to behavior problems.
John is what is called a visual-spatial learner.
According to Linda Kreger Silverman, an expert in visual-spatial learners, children like John “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 auditorily.”
Additionally, visual-spatial learners tend to learn holistically or non-sequentially. This results in their sometimes arriving at solutions without going through the usual steps. Showing your work, often required by teachers, may be impossible and sometimes results in accusals of cheating. Visual-spatial learners may succeed in solving difficult problems while finding simpler tasks a challenge. Teachers might interpret this kind of student as being obstinate or contrary.
In one interaction with John, then seven years old, he informed me that “the parts of a tree are all the same.” I had a feeling he was onto something, so I encouraged him: “But an apple isn’t the same as its bark or its leaves. I can’t eat the bark of an apple tree, but I can eat the apple,” I said.
“Yes,” he said, searching for words to describe a concept that seemed so clear in his mind. “But the leaves, the apple, the bark, the wood, the roots – it’s all the same, through and through.” When I asked how he knew this, he strained to articulate his idea. Eventually, though he wasn’t able to give me the proper term, I believe he was describing what we call DNA.
Most teaching techniques in our schools are designed for linear-sequential learners whose learning progresses from easy to difficult material. Subjects are taught in a step-by-step fashion, practiced with drill and repetition, assessed under timed conditions, and then reviewed. Problem solving and learning is done in a systematic manner, using a series of logical steps: Memorize the math facts and then do algebra, or learn to read and write and then write your own story.
While these techniques work for some learners, they are counter to the visual-spatial style. More and more, I see children on the visual-spatial spectrum who don’t yet have the sequential learning skills required early on in school.
How to recognize a visual-spatial learner
Below are some general identifiers from Silverman. The appearance of one or even several of these does not necessarily indicate a visual-spatial learner. But if many indicators are evident, it’s worth looking into:
● Thinks in images instead of words
● Resists demonstrating what she or he knows
● Has trouble with timed tests
● Takes things apart to find out how they work
● Is frustrated with writing assignments
● Solves problems in unusual ways
● Doesn’t memorize math facts easily
● Reaches correct conclusions without apparent steps
● Dislikes public speaking
● Is not a good speller
● Doesn’t budget time well
● Doesn’t have neat handwriting
● Is extraordinarily imaginative
● Oral expression is much better than written expression
● Is not well organized
One thing I would add to this list is the spatial component of thought. One child described it as thoughts that come in “chunks” or “globs.” Complex ideas present in units, and it’s in this way that many visual-spatial thinkers synthesize thoughts. So, I would add, “thinking in chunks.”
Today, I see many students trying to cope with an education system that doesn’t fit their learning style. Unfortunately, most professionals tasked with helping these children are trained to focus on behavior rather than learning style. As a result, these children are often given labels that only partly address their problem, or that don’t address their problem at all.
What can we do?
Andrew, another visual-spatial learner, was having problems in school. When he finished first grade, his parents decided to homeschool him. At a certain point in the school year, he asked, “What caused WWII?”
With his mother’s guidance, he researched the subject. He watched documentaries, acted out battle scenes, read maps, and used other aids to satisfy and stimulate his visual-spatial needs to find answers. Years later, he could probably still discuss, even reenact, some causes of WWII.
Andrew is now at a school that understands his learning style. Teachers allow him to study in-depth what engages him, even if topics are beyond his grade level.
Jeannie, a highly visual-spatial third grader, was refusing to go to school and cutting her arm daily. A mental health professional told her parents that she may have ADHD and depression. Medication was prescribed.
Instead, the parents decided to pull Jeannie from school. She stopped cutting immediately and exhibited happy behavior. This marked the beginning of the family’s journey in discovering Jeannie’s needs. They’ve since sought my help, and as part of that, have obtained appropriate assessments.
While Jeannie is sensitive, she shows no signs of depression. Her parents’ goal is to help her follow her interests, while making sure she learns the essentials. They’ve found, through some trial and error, that a mix of homeschooling methods, including “unschooling,” are the best fit for their daughter’s learning style.
Jeannie continues to be engaged, and while she previously had difficulties connecting with others, she now has a close group of friends with shared interests.
Schools designed for visual-spatial learners are obviously most appropriate for these children. Based on a homeschooling model, these “micro-schools” follow the intellectual curiosity of the children with project-based and learner-driven techniques. They address the varying needs of children through techniques such as Montessori math, (a process-oriented, tactile, and visual way of learning math), technology, and experiential learning methods. Their high student-teacher ratio and high teacher retention are key to creating and maintaining important relationships that develop over the years.
That there is great concern in our school systems’ ability to educate every child well, and it goes without saying that many parents cannot afford to homeschool or pay for a private school. But we can all agree that, when a child is having difficulties, it’s best to get to the root of the problem, seek resolution, and support the child at the earliest possible age. I speak for many parents who have discovered a successful educational fit for their child.
It is my hope that our public-school system can learn from techniques with which these micro-schools are finding success and incorporate them into their methodologies. Visual-spatial children are key to our societal advancement. As Silverman has found, they are often some of the most gifted creatively, technologically, mathematically, and emotionally.
Visual-spatial children are an integral part of what our future needs to be.
*Names have been changed for the purposes of the article.