A Global View of Strategies for Visual Spatial Learners

I have been following the development of Linda Silverman’s model of the visual spatial learner (as distinct from auditory sequential) since the article “Invisible Gifts, Invisible Handicaps “was published in April 1994. The model proposes that some gifted children show the characteristics of a gifted visual spatial learner but have problems that prevent them from being good auditory-sequential learners. The model has become well accepted because many parents of gifted children who were underachieving at school “recognised” their child from the characteristics listed by Silverman. As the model developed, so did the strategies used to overcome their problems.

This article identifies many other strategies that already exist by mapping the characteristics of Silverman’s visual learner onto those identified in other educational models. By showing that some existing teaching/educational models are, at least partly, applicable to teaching visual spatial learners (VSL), parents and teachers instantly have a much greater choice of strategies.

Silverman’s model

According to Silverman, the characteristics of an auditory limited visual spatial learner are:
· Whole part learner
· Learns concepts all at once
· Systems thinker
· Sees complex relationships
· Good at mathematical reasoning
· May be inattentive in class
· Needs to be shown
· Poor at phonics, needs a sight/whole language approach
· Poor at spelling, needs to visualize words
· Poor at rote memorization
· Excellent with abstraction
· Poor at timed tests
· Poor handwriting, should use a keyboard for assignments
· May be disorganised
· Learns complex systems easily
· Struggles with easy work
· Prefers to develop own methods of problem solving
· Learning usually permanent, -turned off by repetition
· Arrives at correct solutions without taking steps
· Good at geometry and physics
· Creatively/technologically gifted
· Late bloomer

Recurring ear infections during the first two years of life were identified by Silverman to be the most likely ailment contributing to the development of a gifted VSL.

Silverman and her followers have explored a number of strategies to teach these children. Some of these appeared in Lesley Sword’s article “I Think in Pictures, You Teach in Words: The Gifted Visual Spatial Learner”, (Gifted, Issue 114, June/July 2000) and Linda Silverman has published a book “Upside-Down Brilliance: The Visual Spatial Learner” (Paperback - November 2002).

The psychologist’s approach adopted by Silverman and Sword was limited by its focus on individuals and individual tasks and I delved into other models. Initially I was struck by the similarity of Silverman’s VSL to the cognitive functions said to occur primarily in the right hemisphere of the brain. There was also a good match between Silverman’s auditory sequential learner and the cognitive functions attributed to the left side of the brain. Having seen the similarity, I research “right brain/left brain” theories, including the neurological evidence.

I have for a long time been impressed with Howard Gardner’s analysis of how we learn and have researched extensively the neurological and developmental evidence on which his theory was based. His educational model, multiple intelligence, was a must for my melting pot of strategies: the neurological evidence closely matched both Silverman’s and right brain/left brain models: the visual spatial strategies were designed to show educators how to teach children who learnt most effectively using the visual spatial part of their brain: employing the linguistic strategies would help strengthen and develop their auditory sequential abilities. There was also a body of knowledge that seemed to suggest that some visual spatial learners perform better in language and arithmetic type activities, if they start with a visual spatial activity.

Teaching your child through their strengths.
I strongly believe that gifted visual children should be given strategies to develop their gifts in much the same way as gifted linguistic children are given opportunities to develop their gifts. Under the current system there is no celebration of your visual spatial gifted child’s gifts, only a struggle to improve their achievement.

If a VSL is encouraged to understand that the strategy they naturally use - the visual spatial strategy - is powerful and effective, they will learn to employ it more effectively. If they are taught how to develop their strategies further, they will learn more. If they are taught using visual spatial strategies, they will learn most effectively. Although this sounds obvious to us, the traditional educational system has not come to terms with believing that this can be a powerful way of learning. It has been seen as a useful back-up tool. (Use of multi-modality teaching is now thought to be contra-indicated for some auditory limited children - see later.) Yet adult education in the workplace is strongly biased towards visual spatial materials: videos, charts etc. What about “A picture is worth a thousand words”? When has an illustration been allowed as the answer to a problem, with words clarifying the picture? This is very similar to the first time this article appeared - the mind map, which was the visual representation of the ideas, was not published. Editors are very language-based sequential learners!

If your child is empowered to learn through their visual spatial abilities, they will not only improve their performance at school but their self-value will naturally improve ( if only because they are achieving). They also improve in unrelated areas of school work (there are some subjects that are not easily taught through visual spatial techniques), possibly because of the improvement in self-value and possibly because they learn to approach the subject through a different neurological pathway.

Visual spatial models
The most powerful strategies are those found in educational models based on Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences. You can use strategies that teach through music, through visual or spatial aids or through doing (learning through experience), all of which are predominantly right brain functions. There are many websites and books that can be accessed for more information on these models. (for details see Gifted Issue 118, April 2001 or the article “Variety is the spice of life” on the NZAGC website).

I have also found appropriate strategies within books and articles aimed at the development of creativity and lateral thinking, both of which are right brain functions. Teaching strategies for use with the hearing impaired can also be used to effectively teach our VSLs, as they are based either on visual spatial or kinaesthetic (movement, touch etc - doing) strategies. Use these words in search engines on the Internet or your library catalogues to find possible literature. Lesser-known keywords you can try are “gestalt” (whole brain) thinking and “visual meditation”.

© Kay Pittelkow October 2003

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