I’ve been thinking about visual learners for several years now--teaching them, working to understand how they think and learn, and then creating visual helps embedded in left brain material so they can grasp new material with ease. My goal has been to provide a connection between left and right brain processes so that more and more right-brained learners will be successful. I’ve been primarily focused on getting material into a child’s understanding and memory.
A few short weeks ago, I began thinking more about not only how people process new ideas and information, but then how they re-articulate that once they've digested it. My focus shifted from thinking primarily about channels into the brain, to how people express the learning. I was doing some research in unfamiliar territory, with the goal of first understanding the content, and then distilling the critical parts of the research so I could share it with others. During the process of research, I drew several pictures and mind maps to help me organize the content. When it came time to share the material with my colleagues, I found myself really struggling. What I had digested was so rich and deep, but I felt completely inadequate when it came to verbalizing the amazing ideas I had gained. It dawned on me that the breakdown occurred somewhere between the hemispheres of my brain. I had spent a week reading words, translating them into pictures and visuals so I could learn the material, and now it was time to take those pictures and change them back into words. I think I understood more fully what it really means to be a visual learner. I realized how frequently I think in pictures rather than words. I thought everyone did that. Pictures I make in my mind or ones I see help me remember.
The problem with thinking in pictures
The trouble comes in that I cannot always form a picture from words I am hearing. In graduate school, I recall sitting in a class and hearing strings of words, each of which I had heard before, but being completely unable to extract meaning from them. Particularly painful were the times in which the professor was verbalizing directions for the current class activity, and everyone around me seemed to be totally in tune – except for me. Everyone set to work – except for me. I was too mortified to ask a question and betray my ignorance. Surreptitiously I would peek at what my neighbors were doing, and if I felt ok with the person seated next to me, I would ask him/her to translate for me what we were to do.
In a third type of scenario, I was confronted with problems to solve, which I felt unable to solve until I hit on the plan of drawing sketches of what the problem entailed. When I did this, a solution presented itself.
What if the picture thinker is a child?
At that time when I found myself not understanding the professor, I had grown children. Imagine what I would have felt like had I been a child. If you do a search for terms such as right-brained learner, teach visual learners, reading programs dyslexia learners, or a similar phrase, you will access a lot of information about the percentage of children in the world who are suspected to fall into the category of picture thinkers or visual learners. There are quite a few children that can be described this way. So, what happens when you have a high percentage of children who think in pictures, but our primary means of teaching them is verbal or approaches that use symbols rather than images?
1. Provide images
Certainly it would be advantageous to provide the very young with images as they are learning the critical skills that lead to reading and math. We have written a lot about our products that tie symbols to meaning using embedded visuals. These materials are critically important when you are teaching a young child. Children between the ages of 4 ½ and 7 are highly visual thinkers anyway; that is the time of life in which their right brain is rapidly developing. It makes the most sense to start out right and teach these young learners in a way most compatible with how their brains are working.
We can quite easily provide visual cues as we teach sight words and even explicit phonics concepts. But the great good news is that there are ways to help teach the visual learner to begin to make his own mental pictures. Children are their own best allies when they are helped to understand what they need in order to learn.
2. Show her an example of what you want
To this day, if I am asked to do something I’ve not done before; failure is pretty much guaranteed unless I can see an example of a finished product that is considered to be successful. I need to SEE something to understand the expectations for me. If you ask your child to draw a picture to help him solve a math problem, show her an example of you doing just that with a similar problem, modeling for her your thinking process as you do it.
3. Practice visualization
When young children are working on learning to read, in many cases, they don’t instinctively know that the reason they are learning to read is to extract meaning. There are many, many children who “do not comprehend” what they are reading, but really, did anyone ever tell them to think about what the passage meant? Or did we just tell them the phonics rules, teach them how to recognize high frequency words, or drill them on correct spelling? Did we ever explicitly tell them to visualize what they are reading? As I worked with young children on learning to read, I found it very helpful to prompt them to stop, close their eyes, and make a picture in their minds of what they had just read. If they answered, “It’s just dark in here,” I prompted them to open their eyes and read the passage again with the goal in mind this time of making a picture. I have done this with kids as young as kindergarten. It was not an instant process, but it did work better and better over time.
The starting point was to show them a stylized letter from our Alphabet Teaching Cards. We’d explore the details in the picture, then I would have them close their eyes and wait until they could see the picture in their minds. At this point, they would open their eyes and quickly draw on a whiteboard what they saw in their minds.
Finally, as a child is reading a book, stop him after each thought and ask him to close his eyes and imagine what he read. If you prompt him to do this, visualization will become easier and easier. In addition, he will learn that he needs to focus in this way in order to extract meaning not only out of reading material, but out of people’s words he is listening to. Using our SnapWords® is a next step. The image that is embedded in each word conveys to the child the fact that the collection of symbols MEANS something. The image makes it impossible to ignore the meaning of the word. But again, if you ask the child to close his eyes and “see” the word in his mind, you can even focus in on details. You can show the child the SnapWord® for CLEAN. Talk about the lady with the blue bandana that has not one but two dusting rags. Is she in a hurry to get a lot done? Give the child a chance to study the word, then lay the card down and ask him to close his eyes and see the word again in his mind. Ask him to describe for you what he’s seeing.
4. Write directions out
One easy help to offer your picture thinker is to write out for him what you want him to do. I know it takes me a few reads sometimes to make sense out of directions for a new task. If there are only auditory directions provided, there is nothing to refer back to. A middle aged graduate student might have the motivation to ask for clarification, but I pretty much can guarantee you that a first grader won’t always feel the burning need to do so. We can save ourselves some frustration if we take a few more steps in helping picture thinkers know what is expected.
5. Turning pictures into words
Helping visual learners grasp new information by using images and helping them learn to visualize is great. However, my recent struggle to put words to my research made me understand in a very personal way more about the challenges our picture thinkers have in our traditional school setting. Once visual learners have made pictures in their minds, the other half of the issue is helping them learn how to put their mental images into words. I have thought carefully about how I felt when in the middle of trying to verbalize what I’d learned. I’ve relived the frustration, the suspicion I had that I was somehow a bit slow, and the resulting discouragement, and it makes my heart go out to children.
What can be done?
If so many of our population are picture thinkers, we need to spend a lot of effort reevaluating our teaching approach and materials. Much of our traditional system is not kid-friendly. It hurts me that this is so, and that we are calling children disabled when they can’t learn via traditional approaches. Some of our most creative potential problem solvers and designers are kids who think in pictures. Let’s encourage them to use their giftedness by opening the door to alternate ways of learning and new ways of expressing their learning. We can make it so that all our children love learning.