Visual-Spatial Learners

Are you one? Rich is. I didn't know it until my friend Aly pointed out the similarities between our struggles with him and those she experienced with one of her girls. Inability to work while sitting still, hatred of worksheets, reluctance to read, near hostility at having to write. Strong intuitive skills with building materials (Legos, K-Nex) and computers. Only stays engaged while working with his hands. She introduced us to the term "Visual-Spatial Learner" and it's completely changed the way we approach Rich, not only in school, but in every aspect of life.

Visual-Spatial learners are often mis-labeled as having ADD, being lazy, unmotivated, or simply un-teachable. VS learners think in pictures, not words. This makes the way we teach literacy in school very difficult for them - they can't convert their pictures to words very quickly, which is a nightmare when it comes to timed spelling tests, creative writing, and copy work. But let them act it out, tell a story, make a video - you usually get exceptional work and comedic gold. They love jokes.

They are also usually "big picture" thinkers. They aren't interested in the details - but they can visualize the finished product in great detail. That's why they don't pay much attention to instructions. For instance, Rich seldom spends much time building the toy pictured on the front of the Lego box. Even if he does, he cannibalizes it (usually within two days) because he wants some of its parts for something HE imagined and wants to build. He skips tutorials in video games. He'd rather get it wrong 100 times and figure it out on his own, than stop and read the instructions and get it right the first time. And in the end, he's more proficient because of it.

In other words, he learns pretty strictly by DOING, not by hearing, writing, or even a demonstration. And it drives me nuts, because as a Sequential Learner I approach things in a very step-by-step, linear fashion. It's taken me quite a while to figure out that what works for me doesn't work for him. AT ALL.

In fact, I've realized that most times, it's not that he isn't paying attention - it's that he's thinking ahead for ways to shortcut and get to the end as quickly as possible. Big picture - the details are irrelevant, unless they involve taking something apart. For instance, just today Rich sat down and diagrammed some complex sentences with very little instruction from me. He'd never done it before. But if I were to ask him to create a series of his own sentences out of thin air, it would have ended in tears. Such is the twist with VS wired brains.

He also likes to move. We've given him a squishy ball to keep his hands busy if we MUST lecture or give instruction - it satisfies the right brain's need to move, while freeing up the left brain to listen to what's being said. He usually stands up while doing work, so he can shift his weight. He taps out drum rhythms while reading and in between writing assignments. We get better, more focused work from his as a result.

This is good news. Many VS Learners have gone on to become CEO's, astronauts, engineers, artists, designers, architects, and so on. It's just that our Sequential style of teaching in traditional school really doesn't connect with them, and they don't realize their intelligence until college or beyond. I love that we can help him capitalize on this different learning process early, instead of when he's burnt out and fed up with lectures and workbooks. But I've had to retrain myself to make it work, and so has he. He got so used to suppressing his right brain in school in order to get by, that it's taken him time to realize the freedom that comes with learning in a way that satisfies him both physically and intellectually.

Of course, regardless of how much hands-on learning you do with a kid, they eventually have to face the ACT and SATs and take college exams. But there are some good books Aly pointed me to that teach the VS learner how to adapt to traditional classrooms and testing. Just meeting him where he is turns out to be 90% of the battle. Montessori and Reggio Emilia schools typically tap into this very well by centering curriculum on fine arts and allowing freedom of interest and movement, but they can be expensive. My hope here is that if anyone else, whether child or adult, identifies with common VS issues - they will realize they're not dumb, they don't have a "condition" and they don't need medication (usually). They simply learn in a way that doesn't connect with the "assembly line education" they suffered through in school.

Check out these books at Amazon for more info:


  1. This is so your Brother Darrell.

  2. If you can catch 'em young, you can possibly save them the frustration of getting by in a world that doesn't value or cater to this type of brain-wiring. There're few places we can thrive without the resources we know we need. I'm very happy to hear this, for Rich and all of you as a family.

  3. Hey there. I'd like to share some of myself with you cause I'm a visual-spatial learner, labeled as dyslexic. And now, I'm currently doing my undergraduate in University. As a child I've always been spontaneous, often though, in the high-school setting I was often lost, in certain relationships but very smart and creative and popular... I shined most when I had some leeway with presentations which I got high 90% for but did horribly on anything written until now. I barely passed high-school. However, I was the vice-president of student council (which i was very good at), head of equipment committee and in 2 bands which I played guitar.
    I always felt smart compared to my peers however.

    It has only been recently that I understand how I work in relation to my educational setting in a way that will allow me to succeed. I think this is something all VSL deal with, as we have to learn how to learn, in traditional education. When we find our passion you will succeed. Many VSL are different, but one thing they must understand is to trust their intuition and imagination! Those are never wrong, but whether they like it or not, words attached to those imagination is important for school.

    Now I'm studying psychology to help all students, children who have trouble with learning.

    That's all I wanted to share really. I hope this helps.

    - From a fellow VSL, dyslexic.

  4. Hi Jayps! It's encouraging to hear that you are doing well in college as a VSL. We are really struggling with our 10 year old (Rich) when it comes to spelling. Most of the traditional VSL methods don't seem to work. He reads and communicates very well, but spelling, particularly vowel usage, eludes him. What worked for you, and at what age did spelling start to click?

  5. Hello! Thank you for connecting stream of cartoons on this topic; they're easier for me to get than verbal words ;-) and I can relay my experiences to other people quickly by showing them cartoons!

  6. this exactly me & the way I think, I want to know more. This would help me so much in school. I'm excited because I finally understand & can explain the way I think