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The Truth About Visual Learners!

by Sarah K Major February 04, 2016

The Truth About Visual Learners!

read an opinion piece on TED online this morning. The author of this particular piece said we need to stop paying so much attention to visual learners. Visual learners, she claimed, have it made in school while Kinesthetic and Auditory kiddos are the ones who are being overlooked. The author cited the fact that every resource used in the classroom is print: books, worksheets, flashcards, words on whiteboards, etc. All of which, she claimed, worked really well for the 65% or so of our kids who are visual learners. 


Being a visual learner doesn’t mean you learn just by seeing things with your eyes

Obviously there is some confusion about visual learners and how their minds work. Being a visual learner doesn’t just mean you happen to learn optimally when you can see (read) something. If this were the case, the great majority of our kids who are failing at learning to read would be at the top of the charts rather than at the bottom. If what the visual learner sees is material presented in sequential steps, they won’t get it. Just because they can see it doesn’t mean they can learn it. What they see has to be organized in a way that they can make sense of it. 

What does being a visual (right-brained) learner mean, really?

Here are some characteristics of visual, right-brain dominant learners:

  • They need to see the whole thing before they can understand the little parts.
  • They need to know the final outcome or goal before understanding all the little steps.
  • They cannot successfully memorize – well maybe sometimes for short-term cramming type situations, but then again, something a visual learner thought for sure he/she knew can suddenly disappear from memory without warning.
  • They tend to be sensitive to emotions in themselves and in others – they tend to have “radar” when it comes to picking up subtleties.
  • They can be super unorganized with stuff – drawers, papers, backpacks, clothes, homework.
  • They can figure out a “better” way to do something once they understands what the requirement is. Your way may not work for them at all!
  • They tend to remember the mood of a story or movie, the general feeling they had, the broad strokes, but might not recall anyone’s name.
  • They can “see” important ideas in their mind’s eye, but frequently the more vivid the mental picture or the more important the idea is, the more words fail them.
  • They might use animated hand motions to lend meaning to what they are trying to say.
  • They might lose a great deal of their verbal abilities when under stress.
  • Frequently they will prefer to show you rather than try to explain especially if stressed.
  • Often when doing new work in school, they don’t seem to understand verbal directions.
  • When you tell them something, you might get a blank look – that doesn’t signal lack of intelligent life. It might mean they hear a stream of words, but are not able to make a picture to match them in their heads. Or it might mean that the spinach between your teeth caught their attention and they won’t hear you until they can tear their gaze away.
  • They tend to like options and they don’t do well with pressure, being timed, being put on the spot.

It should be obvious based on this list why visual learners DON’T have it made in school! Here’s a bit more of a explanation of what being a visual learner means.

Visual learners think in pictures rather than in words

They have the ability to see a whole concept in their mind – an image complete with all the little parts (very like a map of the state of Idaho) – and sometimes that mental image is more like a video with action occurring. They don’t think in words so words are hard for them. For them to express what they know to the satisfaction of a left-brained teacher (and most teachers are left brained, you know!) they first have to clearly see the image in their head, then they have to figure out how to break that image down into a sequence of parts with a beginning and an ending, and then find the words to explain that sequence. This is just not their strong suit.

How this relates to learning is that because visual learners think in whole pictures, material they need to learn cannot be doled out in little pieces, a step at a time. They will need to start with the finished product first and then break it down later. For example, learning whole words rather than being made to sound out words.

If you give visual learners a task but don’t show them an example of the finished product, they will not be able to create a mental image to guide them in their task. Because visual learners think in pictures, telling them exactly how to do something, asking them to memorize the steps and carry them out is less effective than making sure they understand the goal, the function and then letting them make their own steps (something left-brained teachers cannot live with!)

So what’s happening to our visual learners in school?

Left-brained people currently rule the world. They write the textbooks, design the curriculum, create the tests, and teach in our classrooms. It is currently a left-brain dominant world. And left-brained adults can no more understand why a visual, right-brained learner fails than they can fly. If it is true what the TED article said and 65% of our kiddos are visual learners, it is no wonder so many of our kids are failing to learn to read and do math. They are being taught steps and rules by left-brain teachers using left-brain resources and being given a left-brain test.

So our kids are learning as early as kindergarten that they don’t measure up. They feel it as they sit in the classroom by a little left-brained child who can recite the alphabet, sound out words and just remember stuff they think they also should be able to remember also.

They are intuitive and sensitive, so they pick up on the teacher’s impatience and maybe their bafflement over why all their little visual learners are not getting it. They understand that they are falling short when parent teacher conferences end and they hear their parents discussing worriedly what to do about the fact that their child is falling further and further behind.

Many children exit kindergarten having lost any belief in their own ability to learn. This loss is a tragedy because it will affect much of what they do for the rest of their lives – unless they are lucky enough to find an adult to advocate for them. Children have to believe in themselves if they are going to succeed. If that belief dies, they will fall far short of their potential.

Other nonsensical things

Whenever I read an article and there are reader comments, I love scanning them. This morning someone said that the very idea of right-brained learners is nuts. There apparently IS no such thing! They say the notion is crazy because of course we use our whole brain when we are doing anything that requires a brain at all. And obviously this is true.

When we speak of someone being right-brain dominant it doesn’t mean they are only accessing their right hemisphere while the rest of their brain withers away from lack of use

When we speak of someone being right-brain dominant it doesn’t mean they are only accessing their right hemisphere while the rest of their brain withers away from lack of use. What it means is that these people have a certain strong preference for how material and ideas are organized, how they are presented, and how they are best remembered.

Visual learners remember by making associations. The learning piece will likely be a left-brain type of thing, such as a math problem, but the WAY the visual learner chooses to embellish that left-brain nugget so that they can make sense of it and remember it later has something to do with the right-brain: an image, a rhyme, a wee story, a metaphor, a hand motion, seeing where it falls in the whole and so forth.

This map has been embellished with some elements that might be helpful to a visual learner. There is color coding, images lie on the map so the child can remember the characteristics of each country by where the images are on the page, relative size is accentuated by coloring the continents in different colors.

So, yes, we DO use our whole brain when we do anything we do. If we are reading words on a page, those words – the letters and the sequence of the letters – are firmly planted in the left hemisphere. But the richness of the meaning, ah, now that resides in the right-brain. The images the reader conjures up are right-brained. The emotion attached to what is being read – right-brained as well. For a strongly visual child, the only thing that makes sense is to utilize right-brained elements when you teach. The point of school is that the child learn. Not that the child learn a certain way, right?

So what’s the bottom line?

Every day that our visual, right-brained learners go to school, our schools and the people in them, try and force these picture thinkers to function mostly in their left hemisphere, learning sequences, rules, steps, memorizing facts, practicing, reviewing, regurgitating for a test. What these educators don’t understand is that doing so is like trying to make a fish swing by its tail from a vine in the jungle. It just isn’t going to happen! What they have not figured out is that every book they pick up, every lesson they write is left-brained. So all those tests? They are not really showing a child’s potential. What they show is how students rank on the left-brain to right-brain continuum. Those strongly left-brained learners will thrive in these classrooms. Not so much the visual learners. I love this cartoon more each time I see it. Our way of teaching and testing children in school makes about as much sense as this does.

In order to bring about much-needed change in our schools, we must act together on behalf of our bright visual learners. We need to advocate loudly and tirelessly on their behalf. Refuse to let anyone call their good bad. Determine that if the lesson is not working for the child, scrutinize the lesson – not the child. Badger school decision makers to branch out and use materials that are friendly for visual, right-brained learners.

Sarah K Major
Sarah K Major


Sarah's absolute belief in every child’s ability to learn, and her passion to empower the child by supporting his/her own unique giftedness have fueled her life’s work and provided a new pathway for children to succeed academically.