How I Struggled In School As a Visual-Spatial Learner. There’s a Solution.
After having my own child and as I helped him and other children find their learning styles, I learned that my style of thinking and learning had a name: visual-spatial. I was elated to know that I wasn’t alone in my ability to think in images and then translate into language. What I was finding out, however, was that many of these visual-spatial learners are acting out or becoming bored, sometimes even being labeled as defiant, or having other challenges in school. Perhaps a visual-spatial child’s defiance is a way of saying, “Couldn’t we make this more interesting?”
Visual-spatial thinkers and learners see things in pictures and feel them in spaces before converting them to language.
Visual-spatial learners are individuals who think in pictures and see or feel them spatially rather than in words. They have a different brain organization than auditory-sequential learners. They think and remember things better visually than auditorily. They learn all-at-once, and when the light bulb goes on, the learning is permanent. Repetition and drill detracts from their learning.
They thrive when they can “see” the bigger picture before learning the details. They need to see where this particular puzzle piece fits before understanding it. Sequential learning does not always serve them. Showing their work can be extremely difficult. They may have difficulty (or impatience) with easy concepts and ideas but show an amazing ability with difficult, complex concepts and ideas. They think systemically — so everything is related and if they don’t understand the relationship (personal or conceptual), they may not be able to learn what you are asking them to learn. They tend to have executive functioning differences and can easily miss details. They are often gifted creatively, technologically, mathematically and/or emotionally.
In our schools, most teaching techniques are designed for linear-sequential learners whose learning progresses in a step-by-step manner 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. It approaches problem-solving and learning in a systematic manner, using a series of logical steps:
- Memorize the math facts and then do algebra.
- Learn to read and write and then make up a story or “write.”
This is the counterpart to the visual-spatial style. By adulthood, we typically use both of these styles to a certain extent. But more and more, I see children who are further on the visual-spatial spectrum who don’t yet have the more sequential learning skills that are required in school at an early age, (and who often develop them later than a typical child). Since our education system does not, for the most part, support visual-spatial learners, we have many children who are not equipped for success in our schools.
Some cultures are dominantly visual-spatial cultures. Here in the United States, it is possible that there is a higher percentage of children from African American and Hispanic backgrounds who are visual-spatial learners and who are gifted. In my own experience, it seems that families from various cultures outside the United States tend to be more open to understanding visual-spatial thinking. For many of us, it can be difficult to see that the norm in the US and in our education system is the linear-sequential thinking style because we are immersed in it. And most visual-spatial thinkers, I’m guessing, like me, don’t know it has a name, or even that some people don’t think the way they do.
The following is my own experience that I think can illustrate, to some extent, how growing up as a visual-spatial learner impacted my education as well as my self-esteem.
In third grade, I remember my older sister helping me memorize math facts with flashcards over and over. I looked up to my sister and enjoyed her attention. I would have let her test me with flashcards forever, if just to spend time together. As am I, many of these kids are relational learners — it’s all about who they are learning with! Above all, I wanted to get it. But many of the math facts did not stick. Before third grade, I had lively, creative teachers, but that year I had a boring, crotchety teacher who focused only on facts. I remember sitting bored and spaced out in class, and it was as though the lights went dim and everything turned grey. I believe that this was the pivotal moment when a light went out in me. I no longer brought my curiosity to school, and perhaps unconsciously, knew that school was not where life happened. School was all about memorization; I would buckle down and get by. But in the process, I became disconnected from a part of myself; from my heart and my own intelligence. From that point forward, I learned test-taking skills that would allow me to memorize facts, but not connect them to meaning. I would forget them in a week.
In high school, I remember trying to memorize the symbolism of Shakespeare for a test. Rose equals love. I memorized it and checked that box on the test. I got by with mostly “C’s.”
However, I remember enjoying high school history. I loved the stories and the way my teachers told them. But the tests were painful. One of the test questions I studied for was “List the causes of WWII.” When my own son was having problems in school and had to be homeschooled in second grade, he asked me what caused WWII. We researched it. He watched documentaries, listened to historical fiction, enacted battle scenes, and found many answers to his question. At first, if you were to ask him, he could probably tell you a story about some causes and perhaps a not-so-helpful treaty from WWI. The more he learns, however, the more complicated he understands the answer to be. Recently, a few years after his initial question, he became obsessed with reenacting Dunkirk at the beach with friends. This was his way of synthesizing his knowledge of WW II, as well as processing the movie. I need only to go along for the ride with him to know that he is learning. Over time. No quiz necessary. I continue to find educational methods and teachers who understand his learning style, where he can study in depth what is engaging to him, even if the topics are beyond his grade level.
In college, I read the science fiction novel, “The Making of the Representative for Planet 8,” by Doris Lessing. While reading it, I remember feeling sadness about my mom who had died a few years earlier. I can’t remember what I wrote in my essay, but I remember flat, snowy plains, and having feelings of loss. When I received my essay back, it was filled with red ink. The teacher wrote that I was wrong; the novel was about the extinction of a race. It is interesting that because Lessing is such a descriptively rich writer, I had somehow absorbed a deeper meaning of the novel and felt it, but was not able to process it into my intellect. Did my teacher think that I hadn’t read the book? That I was incapable? That I didn’t care? Or that I was not very intelligent? I’ll never know. What we now know about visual-spatial learners is that we need more time to translate our images (visual-spatial) into words (which are linear). In my case, since I had essentially been cut off from my natural way of learning, I needed help knowing that my images and feelings mattered and, in fact, were my way of knowing and experiencing the world.
Today, I see many students trying to cope with an education system that doesn’t fit their learning style. Unfortunately, many professionals in education and psychology who are trying to help these children are trained to focus on behavior rather than learning style, and these children are often given labels that only partly address their problem, or that do not address their problem at all.
I think we can all agree that when a child is having difficulties, it’s best to get to the truth of the problem, seek resolution and support the child at the earliest possible age.
One highly visual-spatial third grader was refusing to go to school and daily cutting herself on the arm. Her parents were told by a mental health professional that their daughter may have ADHD and depression. Medication was suggested. Instead, the parents decided to pull the child from school. The child stopped cutting immediately and was exhibiting happy behavior. This was only the beginning of their journey in discovering what their child needed, but these parents took a risk and trusted their own knowledge of their child.
Schools designed for visual-spatial learners are going to be the most successful fit for these children. Based on a homeschooling model, these are micro-schools that follow the intellectual curiosity of the children and are project-based and learner-driven. They are able to address the varying needs that children have by using techniques such as Montessori math, a process-oriented, tactile and visual way of learning math. They will also use technology and experiential learning methods that relate to real-world use. Their high student-teacher ratio and high teacher retention are key to creating and maintaining important relationships that develop over the years. These schools also benefit linear-spatial learners by helping them to access their creativity and problem-solving skills, as well as applying their skills for practical use.
I hope our public school system can learn from the techniques with which these micro-schools and homeschoolers are finding success. It goes without saying that many parents cannot afford to homeschool or pay for a private school. I think I speak for many parents who have discovered a successful educational fit for their child, that there is great concern in our school systems’ ability to educate every child well.
I recently spotted a student being observed by one of his teachers. She was looking at him with a knowing gaze, that, without any words communicated how she saw him: she understood how complex his thinking was, he was working hard to communicate it, and she respected him. How amazing would it have been for me to have been given recognition from a teacher as a child? To smell a rose as a way of understanding what Shakespeare was referring to, to be trusted enough to explore what I thought it meant for me, and what it meant in the context of his play? What if I had been able to know that my own agency and intellect had a role to play in figuring it all out? And, more importantly, what if I had had this all reflected back from my teachers that I was getting it, that learning was fun, and that my experiences and thoughts mattered?
How many more children today could be benefiting from a teacher’s knowing gaze? How much more joy could come to both teacher and student if teachers were given the opportunities and resources to really know their students and be able to honestly say, with or without words, “I see you, your intellect, your heart, and I admire what you are doing.”?
How amazing would it be for all learners to be allowed to experience education this way?
© 2017 Teresa Currivan (revised 2021)
Teresa Currivan is a mother, licensed marriage and family therapist, school therapist, and author of the book, My Differently Tuned-In Child: The Right Place for Strength-Based Solutions. She is recognized for The Currivan Protocol™ Assessment specifically designed to understand the co-occurring symptoms of differently wired children.
She has connections to SF Bay Area schools and gives talks to parent groups and faculty there. She leads support groups for parents of differently wired children at The Right Place Learning Center, (Now on Zoom Video Call). She has been published on sites such as Mother.ly, Filter Free Parents, and is a blogger at GHF (Gifted Homeschoolers Forum,) and Hoagies Gifted Education page. Follow her on her Facebook at fb.me/TeresaCurrivanCoaching.
**Teresa offers assessments and coaching. Email her to schedule your free 20-minute consultation.**
© 2017 Teresa Currivan (UPDATED 2021)