sepia photo of a boy with another photo of what he's thinking about in his foreheadOne of the most interesting ”learning styles” that I’ve encountered over the course of my teaching is the highly-spatial ”at risk” thinker (I’ll call them “Imagers”).   These kids are often ”at risk” for being diagnosed with learning disabilities, dyslexia, and even ADHD.  However, for the most part, they simply think in a way that is different from the way that schools teach.  It’s like they’re best at the things the schools value the least (pictures and images) and worst at the things the schools value the most (words and numbers).  To put it more simply, they’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Here are some of their key characteristics along with a few tips for homeschooling them successfully:

  1. They’re Visualizers.  When these kids close their eyes, they see pictures in their head (and sometimes even with their eyes wide open).  It turns out that this can be a plus for them, if you would only ask them to shut their eyes after they’ve read something and picture what they see in their mind.  The best readers are good visualizers, so use this strategy often with Imagers.
  2. They’re 3-Dimensional Thinkers.  It’s almost like they have an eyeball that can go around a room and look at the room from all sorts of different perspectives.  I had a kid like this once who drew pictures of cars as if he was looking down on them from a great height.  These kids benefit if the learning objective can be translated into some kind of 3-D form.  Books that are aligned with augmented reality, for example, are tailor-made for this kind of thinking style (e.g. where the shark comes right out of the page when seen through the iPad or iPhone).  They are also apt to learn better through 3-D models, like The Visible Man for learning anatomy, or a model of the solar system hanging from the ceiling.
  3. They’re Sketchers and Doodlers.  I could also tell who the Imagers were in my classroom by looking at the margins of their workbooks or worksheet:  they were full of doodles.  Researchers now say that spontaneous doodling is actually a great aid to engaging the brain.  Also, whenever you teach a concept, ask your child to draw a picture of it.  There’s a great book called Visual Thinking by Harvard professor Rudolf Arnheim, which claims that even the very highest abstract concepts can be illustrated.  Too often we ask kids to write about what we teach them, but for these kids, we need to change that a bit, and ask for sketches.
  4. They’re Hands-On Thinkers.  Some of these kids are what you might call ”machine smart.” They’re good at looking at a diagram showing gears and levers and wheels, and can tell at a glance how the machine depicted actually works.  In addition to sketching their ideas, they should have the opportunity of making things with their hands:  dioramas of historical periods, models of molecular bonds, a Pascal probability machine for math class, and clay formations illustrating the movement of characters in a novel.
  5. They’re Artistic Thinkers.  Imagers are usually more emotionally sensitive than typically developing kids, and often have an aesthetic sensibility, or a deeper appreciation for beauty.  Consequently, don’t just give them the plain facts, but see if you can communicate the ideas by putting them in a story (e.g. a story to teach subtraction about a guy with a hole in his pocket who loses money on the way home), or by illustrating the point through great art (e.g. to teach about the American Revolution, a picture of Washington Crossing the Delware).  They should also have the opportunity to do projects where they paint, draw, do collage, sculpt, or engage in other forms of visual art.

With our society changing day by day, we’ve actually entered a phase in culture where the Imagers are coming into high demand for their visualizing abilities.  Careers that make use of these skills include:  molecular biologist, mechanical engineer, website designer, cosmologist, landscape architect, and geneticist.  You can make a difference in the life of an Imager if you can recognize their talents early in life, see their unique ways of thinking as assets rather than deficits, and provide encouragement for developing their gifts, especially when they reach school age and they need support at home for their image-making skills.

For more information about highly-spatial ”at risk” thinkers, see my best-selling book In Their Own Way: Discovering and Encouraging Your Child’s Multiple Intelligences.

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I’m the author of 20 books including my latest, a novel called Childless, which you can order from Amazon.

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