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Upside Down Brilliance - Strategies for Teaching Visual-Spatial Learners
by Linda Kreger-Silverman, Ph.D.

STUDENTS WHO LEARN HOLISTICALLY rather than in a step-by-step fashion are now being identified as visual-spatial learners (Silverman, 2002). These students find it far easier to apprehend complex patterns of relationships than to memorize unrelated facts. Visual imagery plays an important role in the student’s learning process. Because the individual is processing primarily in images rather than words, ideas are interconnected (imagine a web). Linear sequential thinking – the norm in American education – is particularly difficult for this person and requires a translation of his or her usual thought processes, which often takes more time.

Visual-spatial learners (VSLs) tend to experience life with great intensity. It is this intensity that makes them exciting to teach; it also can be their greatest obstacle to successful adjustment.

Observing a group of children and youth in Warsaw in 1962, psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski concluded that creative individuals have an innate capacity to respond with greater neural activity to various stimuli.He used the term “nadpobudliwosc” to describe this phenomenon,which has been translated into English as “overexcitability” (OE); however, a more precise translation is “superstimulatability.”

Dabrowski posited five types of “increased psychic excitability”: psychomotor, sensual, imaginational, intellectual and emotional.

The capacity for greater stimulation has positive and negative effects. On the positive side, the individual may be born with endless energy, heightened auditory acuity, vivid imagination, an insatiable love of learning, and an unusual capacity to care.

The downside, however, is the possibility of excessive energy, overactive imagination, intense interests that hinder adaptation to school schedules, and extreme sensitivity. It is a difficult balancing act to harness all that energy wisely. Students who are successful in the classroom may have less of this stimulation to cope with (i.e., fewer OEs or OEs of less intensity) or may have developed more ability to manage their overexcitabilities than those who have classroom adjustment difficulties. Some children need years of practice and maturation before they learn to regulate this continuous bombardment of stimuli.

Overexcitabilities have been detected in the majority of visual-spatial learners. Whenthese overexcitabilities are extremely strong and difficult to focus, the child exhibits symptoms reminiscent of AD/HD. With maturation, the young person is likely to develop greater impulse control and the ability to manage the excessive stimulation. However, there are many ways to reach visual-spatial children in the classroom, so that school is more fun for them and they experience more success. Many of the same strategies can be used at home to more harmoniously parent these delightfully different children.

Visualization is the key to reaching VSLs.
Their imaginational OE provides them with excellent visualization skills. Children can be taught to spell by having them concentrate on a word until they can create a strong visual image of it.Have them do something wild and crazy with the word in their imagination and then place the word in space where they will be able to access it again when they need it. Then have them spell the word backward. If they can spell the word backward, then a clear visual image has been created. Next, the word should be spelled forward and written once to bring in the psychomotor modality. Visualization can be used as an aid in other subject areas as well.

Children with many overexcitabilities learn best when they are allowed to use several modalities at once. Present information visually as well as auditorally, and involve psychomotor activity whenever possible: acting out a concept, manipulating objects, drawing a picture, etc. They are whole-part learners, so give them the big picture first.Visual-spatial learners are more likely to succeed at difficult, complex tasks than at simple, sequential tasks (e.g., they may grasp algebra before their times tables).When they have trouble understanding a simple idea, try making the concept more complicated! If they grasp complex concepts, but have difficulty with easy sequential tasks, give them advanced work even if they have not mastered the easier work.

They are not step-by-step learners, so allow them to construct methods and solutions to problems in their own way, and don’t insist that they “show their work.”Teach to their strengths and teach them ways to compensate for their weaknesses.

If they have difficulty with eye-hand coordination and speed, allow them to complete their written work on a computer. Tape recorders can assist children who have difficulty attending to lectures.

Avoid timed tests.
It takes VSLs longer to translate their images into words,much as a computer takes longer to download a picture than it does a page of text. Also, eye-hand coordination difficulties may impair the visual-spatial learner’s speed. If they must take timed tests, have them compete against their own past record rather than against other, more sequential students. Students who have pronounced weaknesses in processing or motor speed should be assessed within three years of their college-board examinations so that arrangements can be made for them to take these examinations untimed.

Visual-spatial learners learn best with teachers who show that they really care about them, who are willing to adapt their teaching styles, who have a good sense of humor, and who get the students emotionally involved in the subject matter. Many VSLs become smarter as they get older; they are late bloomers. They need the most support during elementary school where the focus is often on rote learning and sequential instruction. These children are often better equipped to deal with the greater complexity of high school work than with the simple, sequential learning of the earlier grades. They thrive on complex, abstract ideas; they are natural pattern finders and problem solvers. If given the opportunity and appropriate learning environment, VSLs can be our most brilliant learners.

Chart 1. Visual-Spatial Learner - Learning Characteristics Comparison Chart*

The Auditory-Sequential Learner
The Visual-Spatial Learner
Thinks primarily in words Thinks primarily in images
Has auditory strengths Has visual strengths
Relates well to time Relates well to space
Is a step-by-step learner Is a whole-part learner
Learns by trial and error Learns concepts all at once
Progesses sequentially from easy to difficult material Learns difficult concepts easily, struggles with easy skills
Is an analytical thinker Is a good synthesizer
Attends well to details Sees the big picture; may miss details
Follows oral directions well Reads maps well
Does well at arithmetic Is better at math reasoning than computation
Learns phonics easily Learns whole words easily
   
Can sound out spelling words Must visualize words to spell them
Can write quickly and neatly Much better at keyboarding than handwriting
Is well-organized Creates unique methods of organization
Can show steps of work easily Arrives at correct conclusions intuitively
Excels at rote memorization Learns best by seeing relationships
May need some repetition to reinforce learning Learns concepts permanently; does not learn by drill and repetition
Learns well from instructions Develops own methods of problem solving
Learns in spite of emotional reactions Is very sensitive to teachers' attitudes
Is comfortable with one right answer Generates unusual solutions to problems
Develops fairly evenly Develops quite asynchronously (unevenly)
Usually maintains high grades May have very uneven grades
Enjoys algebra and chemistry Enjoys geometry and physics
Masters other languages in classes Masters other languages through immersion
Is academically talented Is creatively, technologically, mechanically, emotionally or spiritually gifted
Is an early bloomer Is a late bloomer

Chart 2. Visual Spatial Learner - Learning Characteristics*

Strengths
Weaknesses
Thrives on complexity Struggles with easy material
Loves difficult puzzles Hates drill and repetition
Fascinated by computers Has illegible handwriting
Great at geometry, physics Poor at phonics, spelling
Keen visual memory Poor auditory memory
Creative, imaginative Inattentive in class
A systems thinker Disorganized, forgets details
High abstract reasoning Difficulty memorizing facts
Excels in math analysis Poor at calculation
High reading comprehension Low word recognition
Excellent sense of humor Performs poorly on timed tests

* © 1997-2002 Linda Kreger Silverman, PhD, Gifted Development Center, a service of the Institute for the Study of Advanced Development. All rights reserved.

For more information on visual-spatial learners and effective teaching strategies in all subject areas as well as helpful hints for raising VSLs, please see Upside-Down Brilliance: The Visual-Spatial Learner (Denver: DeLeon Publishing 2002) available at www.gifteddevelopment.com, www.visualspatial.org, or call 1-888-VSR-3744. To print out a copy of the Gifted Development Center's Visual Spatial Identifier Self Report click here, to obtain the Visual Spatial Identifier Observer Report click here. For other books for and about Visual Spatial Learners, click here

To hear more about Visual-Spatial Learners, listen to IP Editor-in-Chief, Sandie Sedgbeer's radio interview with Alexander "Allie" Golon, on the Inspired Parenting Show, via the World Puja Network to be broadcast in February 2009. For more details of broadcast time click here.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

DR. LINDA KREGER-SILVERMAN Linda is a licensed psychologist who has been studying learning differences for over 40 years. She is a noted author, researcher and popular international speaker. Her Ph.D. is in special education from the University of Southern California. For nine years, she served on the faculty of the University of Denver in counseling psychology and special education. In 1979, Linda founded the Gifted Development Center, where more than 4,600 children have been assessed. In 1981, Linda coined the term “visual-spatial learner” and has been developing techniques, creating identification methods and improving teaching strategies for this population for 26 years. This information can be found in Upside-Down Brilliance: The Visual-Spatial Learner (Denver: DeLeon, 2002). She has spoken all over the world on this topic, including Australia, Canada, England, Ireland, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Singapore. A special seminar was held on visual-spatial learners at Green College, Oxford University, in 2000. Linda has written over 300 articles, chapters and books related to gifted, learning disabled and other learners, including Counseling the Gifted & Talented (Love: 1993). For further information email Linda at gifted@gifteddevelopment.com.

 

 
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