Silent and very still sat 18 kindergarten students, patiently waiting for the teacher to begin her lesson. Then, and only then, may they take out their beloved bears that they had permission to bring to school on this special day. With her pigtails swinging side to side, Alex looked up at her teacher and proudly proclaimed that her bear Amy had been to every doctor's visit since she was born. Not to be outdone, Ross jumped up and shouted that his bear had been around the world at least 20 times when it was accidentally left on an airplane. Each child waited quietly to begin the language arts lesson on the letter B. One after another, they will share stories of their bears—the ones on their beds and those bears in their favorite storybooks, such as "Goldilocks". The teacher is overjoyed with the lesson. Tomorrow, they will study foods that begin with the letter B. Many foods will be brought to class, from broccoli to biscuits and bologna. "B's" are everywhere in the room, from blankets to bears to bologna sandwiches.
Across town at the local high school, a different story is playing out in the classroom. In a history class, students in the back have their arms stretched out across the desk, head on one arm—napping or listening? Other students are bent over their notebooks, writing. But what are they writing? The teacher is giving a lecture on the Reformation, which will be followed by a 15-minute movie on Martin Luther. The teacher then reads the two-column notes to the class. Zach is watching the teacher but not listening. He is wondering if the news report was correct in its prediction of another snowfall. Melinda is writing down the notes as she replays in her mind what happened at lunch. Vanessa had an argument with Alena just before class. Will the teacher notice if she writes a note to Alena, especially if she looks up periodically as if she were listening? Then there is John, who is dying to leave class. No, he can't ask to use the restroom; he did that yesterday. Maybe if he looks as if he's distressed and hostile, the teacher will send him to the guidance office. Needless to say, there is no excitement, no anticipation, and very little thought processing in this class.
Why do we creatively present materials using manipulative and visuals almost exclusively in elementary school classes, yet subject students to almost exclusive oral learning techniques in high-school classes? What happened to the excitement and thought-processing? Are the learners in elementary school really that different from those in a high-school setting?
The irony is that many educators proclaim they are visual, not oral, learners. In the mid-1990s, I served on a city-wide curriculum committee whose function was to narrow every high-school course into six broad objectives. At one point, the group facilitator began to record our collective thoughts on a computer across the room. My group was not close to the computer, so we sat quietly while those within sight of the computer screen discussed the objectives. Embarrassed that I was not contributing, I stated that I was a visual learner and I must see the objectives to be able to discuss the rewordings. Everyone at my table concurred! Strange that educators can admit they have trouble with oral presentations of complicated materials yet they don't also recognize it in their own students.
I did not fully recognize the ramifications for the visual learner until my own child, in second grade, was diagnosed with central-processing disorder. My daughter Alex lacks the ability to process oral information, particularly if there are outside noises or disruptions in the classroom. She has to listen to each word spoken and translate the words into visual modes. This process takes time. Often, there were gaps between what she heard the teacher ask and that which she answered. She became increasingly frustrated with school and felt that she was dumb. I took her to a child psychiatrist to find out what her abilities and weaknesses were. Tests showed that Alex was of high intelligence, scoring "gifted" in nonverbal tasks, but with low scores on auditory sequential tasks. Her oral memory at the end of second grade was that of a four-year-old. She is not hearing impaired but is strictly a visual learner. Every year, her 504 plan (individualized resource program) emphasized that Alex is a visual learner and that certain learning strategies work best for her in the classroom. Now in the eleventh grade, Alex has acquired her own strategies that she uses in the classroom to understand the oral presentations.
What about the many students in high schools today, however, that are like Alex? Their problems with oral learning have not been diagnosed. Their parents do not have 504 plans that provide the teacher with instructional strategies for optimum learning. Some are labeled A.D.D. or slow learners, even though many are not. Many may be gifted or have high intelligence yet are frustrated with oral instruction. Gifted or not, the fact remains that 65 percent of the population consists of visual learners; therefore when teachers lecture, they are reaching less than half of the class. Students need learning strategies that accommodate their learning styles. Many of these learning strategies help not only the visual learner but also make the classroom activities more engaging and therefore better learned by all.
In summary, they must see it to learn it.
There are many teaching strategies for social studies that will enable the visual learner to have the proper environment for maximum learning. The strategies that follow can be expanded on greatly. Any activity that the classroom teacher provides to the class, that allows visual learners to form a visual image of that which they are learning, will enhance everyone's learning in the classroom.
Lesson A: Defining a Civilization
Objective: Students will understand the various characteristics defining a civilization.
|River Valley Civilizations|
|Indus||Huang He||Tigris Euphrates||Nile|
|Division of Labor|
Lesson B: Comparison of Medieval and Renaissance Art
Objective: Students will learn the characteristics of Medieval and Renaissance art and be able to compare and contrast the styles of various artwork from these different eras.
This activity takes the students through the necessary steps for learning—going from visualization, to manipulation, and then to application of knowledge.
Any activity that presents the learner with the opportunity to visualize information enhances learning. For this reason, storytelling is an effective strategy for the visual learner. In social studies, there are many interesting stories to be told about the great heroes and villains. For example, when we teach information about the English Civil War, students often get lost in the many phases and participants. I tell the story of Charles II to create a lasting visual image in their minds.
After the monarchy was restored to the throne in the period of the Restoration, Charles II sought revenge against the man responsible for the beheading of his father. However that man, Oliver Cromwell, had died. How then could Charles II gain his revenge? He had the body of Cromwell exhumed and beheaded. His head was then displayed on a pike in the castle yard.
This story creates a strong visual image that helps students remember the English Civil War. (You might also tell students that Cromwell's head has recently appeared at an English auction!) There is no end to the vivid tales and anecdotes of history. The visual learner thrives on this imagery.
There is a great deal of information on the Internet about the visual learner. While articles may vary on the percentage of students that are visual learners, they all stress that the visual learner must be able to see the information. (Some suggest that 80 percent of all learners are NOT oral learners.) The implication for the secondary-school teacher is that we must look to the style of the elementary-school teacher and provide more visual clues to enable learning. In an era of end-of-the-course testing, teachers need to be more aware of variations in learning.
Dunn, Rita, and Kenneth Dunn. (1992) Teaching Secondary Students Through Their Individual Learning Styles: Practical Approaches for Grades 7–12, Allyn & Bacon
Felder, R.M., and L.K. Silverman (1988) "Learning and Teaching Styles" Engineering Education, April 1988
Read descriptions and get specific learning strategies for four different learning styles.
Read an article by Lesley Sword, "I think in pictures, You teach in words," that discusses the gifted visual spatial learner.
Compare the auditory-sequential learner and the visual-spatial learner by using the chart at the Gifted Development Center Web site.