An Interview with Linda Silverman on Visual-Spatial Learners

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An Interview with Linda Silverman on Visual-Spatial Learners

Haley Bowen, Atholton High School, Columbia, Maryland

 
Haley Bowen is a G/T independent research student in Maryland, working under the direction of Lynette Burns. She came across a couple papers written by Linda Silverman about the visual-spatial learner and requested an interview with Linda in March, 2016. “I believe that knowledge on this subject would help me further my research.”
 
 
1. How did you develop the concept of a visual-spatial learner?
 
I told the story in the first chapter of Upside-Down Brilliance: The Visual-Spatial Learner.  In 1979, I started the Gifted Child Testing Service, which eventually became the Gifted Development Center. The visual-spatial learner construct came to me as I was trying to make sense of the puzzling behavior of some children during IQ testing.  A 4 year old we tested is a good example. This profoundly gifted boy kept saying, “I don’t know” to every question. When he was coaxed, he got all the answers right. (I think his puppet was asked the questions a second time, and he had a very smart puppet!)  I tried to figure out why he thought he didn’t know, when he really did. It occurred to me that when he was asked the first time, he might have gone blank. Perhaps answers just came to him all at once in an “Aha!" He didn’t know when that would happen or how he got the answers. Maybe he saw things in his head, but didn’t take a series of steps to get to his answers, so he couldn’t retrace his steps. All he could do is wait until the answers popped into his head. Then I noticed other children like him. They could answer correctly visual-spatial items way above their age level, but they couldn’t tell the days of the week in order and they couldn’t repeat a series of digits in order. They, too, had a lag time before they could access what they knew.
 
I began to think that there might be two basic types of learners: auditory-sequential and visual-spatial. Auditory-sequential learners (ASLs) have a left-hemispheric preference, while visual-spatial learners (VSLs) favor the right-hemispheres of their brains. Auditory-sequential students often do well in school, and visual-spatial learners who are just as bright may not be high achievers in school. Their amazing abilities, such as 3-dimensional perception, are not usually valued at school.
 
 
2. Are people born with their particular learning style or does that develop as they grow?
 
I believe people are born with a particular learning style. If one parent is an artist and the other is an inventor, there is a strong chance that their child will be a visual-spatial learner. But there are also environmental factors that can contribute to learning style. Problems at birth can lead to a child favoring the right hemisphere. When there is a long labor or lack of oxygen, the left hemisphere is more likely to be affected. And children who have had numerous ear infections in the first few years of life are more likely to be visual-spatial learners, because they use their visual processing to compensate for auditory weaknesses, and this builds visual-spatial circuits in the brain.
 
 
3. Can you expand on what about school makes it more formatted for the auditory-sequential learner?
 
School focuses on reading, writing, spelling, calculation, memorization, organization, showing the steps of your work, being on time—all of which are left-hemispheric skills. Auditory-sequential learners can easily learn phonics. Spelling is an auditory-sequential skill. Handwriting is sequential. Success in school depends on demonstrating learning in a sequential way. Many teachers believe that if a student cannot show her work, she doesn’t understand it. Visual-spatial learners see THE BIG PICTURE. They don’t take steps to get to THE BIG PICTURE. It just appears in their brains as a whole. This holistic way of learning is not supported in school.
 
 
4. Are there any school subjects that visual-spatial learners particularly excel at?
 
Some visual-spatial learners excel at art. Some at music. Some at sports. Some at acting. Some at being funny: they can reproduce accents, sounds, facial expressions, bodily postures, scenes in movies. Some never master their math facts, but are brilliant mathematicians when they get to geometry and calculus—the hard stuff. Some struggle with reading, but are masters at physics. Some are builders—architects by nature: they love LEGOs, robotics, K’nex, any building materials. Some can do things with computers that no one else can do; they are naturally suited to technology. Some have photographic memories. Some are designers. Some are fabulous with anything mechanical; they love to take things apart and put them back together and are fascinated by how things work. Some are empaths, feeling everyone’s feelings. And some are deeply spiritual. Unfortunately, few of these areas are central to school success in the early years.
 
 
5. Can visual-spatial learners adapt to school’s auditory-sequential teaching style as they grow older? 
 
Yes, most VSLs do adapt as they get older. Some feel really stupid in elementary school and then, suddenly, they become the smartest student in the class in high school or college. High school is more conceptual and less skills-based.  Visual-spatial learners have a better chance of succeeding than in the first few years of school, because there is a better match with the conceptual way they learn. So, not only do they learn ways of compensating, but school actually adapts to them better. For example, many auditory-sequential learners cannot do physics and calculus, whereas those subjects are easy for visual-spatial learners. As subjects become more abstract and complex, as they do in 11th and 12th grade, visual-spatial learners shine. Certain careers require excellent visual-spatial abilities, such as some branches of science and engineering. Surgeons are required to take visual-spatial tests. (You want your surgeon to know where everything is and how to put it back where it belongs.)
 
 
6. In your work, you say that visual-spatial learners sometimes blossom suddenly during puberty because of hemispheric integration. Does hemispheric integration occur in auditory-sequential learners as well?
 
This is a very interesting question! I’ve never thought about it. I imagine that new research is finding that our brains continue to develop into our 30s and that there is a great deal of neuroplasticity. So I assume that auditory-sequentials probably can have greater integration in puberty as well. I wonder if it’s more apparent in VSLs because that integration enables them to perform better in school (e.g., reading and writing). If an ASL experiences sudden hemispheric integration, what can he or she do better that school values? Maybe they become better artists? Empaths? I’m not sure. 
 
 
7. Throughout your research, have you ever seen a correlation between the likelihood of being a visual-spatial learner and being left-handed?
 
Yes, I have definitely observed a correlation between left-handedness and the likelihood of being visual-spatial. Lefties may have greater right-hemispheric preference. But the relationship is not as clear as I once thought. Jill Bolte Taylor, in My Stroke of Insight, says that nearly everyone who is right handed is left hemispheric dominant, which comprises more than 85% of the American population. And more than 60% of left-handed people are also classified as left hemispheric dominant (p. 29). So it isn’t a given that if you are left-handed, you will be a visual-spatial learner. I’ve also noticed a great deal of ambidexterity in gifted visual-spatial learners.
 
 
8. Do you believe that the 14 questionnaire questions listed in your “Visual-spatial and Auditory-sequential Learners” would be sufficient to determine the learning styles of my peers?

 
The best instrument to determine learning styles of other students in your school is our Visual-Spatial Identifier (VSI)©. The VSI is a 15-item questionnaire that was developed by an interdisciplinary team over a period of nine years. It has been validated with 9- to 14-year-olds, urban and rural, and it is definitely applicable to high school students. It has even been used with college students. Multicultural studies have been done with the VSI. There is a Spanish version, too. It has been used extensively in research with Native American students of different tribes. Steve Haas is Director of our Visual-Spatial Learner Identifier Project. He would be the best person to contact about using the VSI with your peers [[email protected]].