Technology and the Visual Acquisition of Knowledge for the Multiple Intelligence Theory's "Visual Learner"


How can we define learning and intelligence? This question has been asked countless times within the context of communication, brain research, educational psychology, pedagogy, and many other fields. Plato discussed similar themes millennia ago. Howard Gardner, a Harvard Psychologist who made a name for himself soon after graduating summa cum laude in 1965 is perhaps now the foremost name in Multiple Intelligences theory, and has addressed the question with a seven part answer. In its simplest form, Gardner proposed that intelligence, and in effect all learning, falls into at least seven separate modalities.


Gardner’s seven intelligences are: linguistic or verbal, musical, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal or understanding of others, intrapersonal or understanding of self, and spatial or visual (Woolfolk, 113-6). Much of Gardner’s research was done with “gifted and talented” students in the area of creativity research (Maker 180), and with persons who have abnormal brains due to accident, disease, or stroke (Gardner 1-49). Gardner’s theoretical contemporaries must not be forgotten when discussing his work. The theories of Spearman, Thurstone, Guilford and Gardner have all described how individuals differ in the content of intelligence. Gardner has even since added other modalities, including “naturalist”, stressing that seven is “not a magic number” (Woolfolk, 113-6); but what is perhaps most significant is the fact that this multiple intelligence theory research identifies learning differences which indicate visual/spatial and auditory/linguistic tendencies in learners. This profound realization sets the foundation for further analysis of these modalities within specific frameworks, each important within its own context, but none more important than the visual acquisition of knowledge within our technology-driven modern society.


Modern educational psychology requires a strong attention towards the visual means of acquiring learning because of our technology-driven environment. Our culture bombards us with a visual feast of input through technology. From television and movies to computer displays and iconic buttons on elevators, everywhere we look we must confront visual readouts and displays which give us the information needed to function within it. At one time radio was a primary form of entertainment in America. Today, however, television and movies are currently the dominant form of entertainment, and even our news, weather, and popular forms of communication such as e-mail, come to us directly through extremely visual means.

While half a century ago television was limited to the few broadcasted channels within range of a given station, movies to the cinema house and telephones were anchored to the wall with a cord; these increasingly visual forms of media have become accessible nearly anywhere and at any time through portable viewing devices and portable media such as DVDs. Even the telephone, a completely auditory form of communication, is slowly being replaced by the video phone within certain contexts such as the board room and home office. It is no longer uncommon to see pictures being taken and sent from one mobile phone to another, or someone checking the weather via the internet on their digital wireless cell phone. This is due largely to the ever-decreasing size and weight of hardware such as computers, monitors, televisions, and the like along with ever increasing rate of high-speed wireless and digital information access to the internet, satellite, and other communication formats by all types of devices. This technology gives us streaming access to visual and other forms of information in a way that has never been possible in any other time in history. It is through this environment of technology that we are able collect data and research which better identifies the characteristics of the visual learner.


It is undeniable that the brain’s ability to interpret “external seeing” is complex and multi-faceted. Through the two processes of “visual simile” and “pattern seeking”, the learner acquires knowledge visually. The associative flexibility of the mind to make visual similes allows learners to break away from objectivity and glimpse a profound reality that lies within an object or idea. Activities in external seeing which are indicators of this type of learning are: upside-down drawing, drawing of objects in motion, and repetition of a doodle pattern. The other part of external seeing is pattern seeking, which is the process of re-patterning or the finishing of complex patterns. This is done through alternate shapes to copy an existing pattern, the process of finding order in chaos, or completing a seemingly meaningless pattern. Viewed together as a part of a process, these two facets of external seeing can help us to define what visual learning is.

Taking all these things into consideration, it is clear that perception, or how we know, and knowledge, or what we know about, are closely related and affect each other deeply. If our knowledge is limited or flawed then we perceive the world to be as well, likewise if our perception is flawed or hindered in some way, then our knowledge and understanding will be likewise flawed (Garritson 82). With all of this visually based technology becoming more and more a necessary and accepted part of our lives, the question arises of whether or not certain people who have a disadvantage because they are not visually oriented are hindered by this shift towards the visual media.


In the furthest extreme, one might ask: “How can a blind person learn if they can not learn visually?” More specifically, does visual impairment automatically indicate a lower intelligence quotient since one of the learning styles has been eliminated? Much research has been done regarding these and similar questions. Just as Gardner used abnormal minds for his intelligence research, those with abnormal sight or even a lack of sight can become avenues of discovery and insight into the modality of visual and spatial learning. Samuel P. Hayes was the first to test the blind for intelligence. His results were limited due to the strictly verbal questions that he chose for his tests, but since his early research many others have continued the work using verbal IQ tests with emphasis on measuring areas of intelligence related to spatial and tactual abilities. For some time it was very popular to compare the results of intelligence tests between seeing and non-seeing persons, but most authorities now believe that such comparisons are virtually impossible because finding comparable tests is so difficult (Hallahan 393).
Kirk reveals in regards to the education of the blind that “the way we interpret the outside world is a function of our brain, experience, and eyes. A visual impairment, then, can hamper the individual’s understanding of the world, but such understanding can be enhanced through extending the experiential world of the child with vision problems.” The tentative conclusion must therefore be that despite the lack of visual input, those with visual impairments are still able to function intelligently by compensating with other modalities. If this is true then perhaps another approach to the multiple intelligence theory’s visual learner must be considered.


Dorothy Lehmkuhl applies a popular classification of right-brained or left brained thinking when she identifies the right brained learner as primarily visual/spatial and left brained learner as auditory/linguistic. She goes on to say that the right brained learner is more sensual, creative, direct and even primitive. Interestingly, it is the left brain that by contrast “responds to basic sensory experiences: sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell – through words, thus losing much emotional value. — The right half of the brain helps you see the whole of what you perceive.” This is significant because it indicates that all learners, that is to say both “brain types” are able to process visual information, though they do it differently and the right brain, by definition is predisposed to be more comfortable with visual stimulus.

Herein lays the possible theoretical breakdown of the visual learner modality within the multiple intelligences model. Certain allowances must be made in regard to this processing of the visual by all types of persons, not just the spatial-visual learner. Otherwise, the seven modalities must be broken apart with linguistic, musical, and logical-mathematical learners tending to be left-brained, while the bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and the visual will tend to be classified as right-brained. Clark argues that Gardner misrepresents the unifying nature of the brain, and that in fact it is the associative nature of the brain that is one of its most noteworthy aspects (28). To say otherwise is to imply that only right-brained individuals can be visual learners, a concept which would be further complicated by the need for visual acquisition of knowledge in the discussed culture of “modern visual technology.”


Finally, it is within the realm of possibility that the true culprit is the technology-driven culture itself. Perhaps this visual technology is simply changing the way we can learn. An athlete for example who is a “bodily-kinesthetic” learner can now view himself again and again through video technology, and must translate this visual information into his native learning style to improve his skills. Similarly, a psychologist may videotape a family at home or in session to help them understand the “interpersonal” dynamic of their family by viewing it. Finally, mathematics is no longer being universally taught through rote “verbal” memorization; instead computers and other manipulatives are standard tools within the early childhood classroom. It is through visual technology that the line between the modalities is being blurred, leaving only the question: is this trend a reflection of changes in learning styles, a more accurate depiction of the way it always has been, or is it the cause and simultaneous cure for a shift towards the visual acquisition of information?


In conclusion, it is easy to see that the visual acquisition of knowledge is a much more intricate process than the original framers of the multiple intelligence theory such as Gardner ever conceived possible. Though there is much validity and worth in studying the aspects of the visual learner modality as it is understood through multiple intelligences, it cannot account for all of the findings when examining the visually challenged or the differences in left/right brain studies. The theory is a wonderful foundation for studying visual learning, and is quite sound when included in either a holistic multi-sensory approach to learning or seen within a multi-faceted and flexible definition of visual/spatial intelligence which includes all types of visual acquisition of knowledge for an ever increasingly visual world. Unfortunately, Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory is an oversimplification of the learning process in our very complex world. No matter which route one takes, however, there can be no question that the human capacity for visual learning will become ever increasingly important in the modern technological age of visually transmitted information.

- Adam L. Brackin

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