Posted by: bkivey | 8 April 2011

Different Strokes

Over on 7Σ’s blog (link on right) they’ve provided a link to the online edition of the World Intelligence Network (WIN)  journal. The April effort includes a very readable and informative article on the differences between the auditory-sequential learner (ASL) and the visual-spatial learner (VSL). Titled Teaching the Visual-Spatial Learner by Gwyneth Wesley Rolph, the article explains some of the differences between the two types of perception and offers suggestions on maximizing the educational experience for each.

I was particularly interested in this article because I recently re-read Peter Drucker’s book Management and there is a section that talks about learning styles in the context of understanding one’s self. Drucker posits three learning styles: reading/writing, talking, and doing.  He says that people learn by reading something and/or writing it down, talking through problems or concepts with others, or by simply doing the thing to be learned. Most learning is some combination of the three, but different people find one method easier to grasp then the others.

After reading the article, it seems to me that writing and talking are the hallmarks of the VSL and reading and doing are the preferred methods of the ASL. As the article points out and as 7Σ has mentioned in prior posts, the educational experience is, for the most part, geared to the ASL. Most people who are considered ‘good’ students are ASL, while many ‘bad’ students may well be very smart VSL. While it’s important for the teacher and especially the student to understand their learning style, exceptional intelligence can mask the need for that understanding.

I didn’t discover what my learning style was until well into university because everything prior to that had come easily. So easily, in fact, that I was bored to tears through high school. Nearly everything presented was fairly easily grasped and I’d want to move on but, no, we’ll be spending more time on this. OK, I get it already. The only reason I didn’t quit school was that I was something of a wheel in the music program. I did decide in my sophomore year that I wouldn’t be going to college because I just couldn’t see spending four or more years of the same, so I didn’t go back to school until my mid-twenties.

While the WIN article appears to be written primarily as an aid to the  instructor, there are some valuable insights for the individual interested in maximizing their learning ability. ( I had a nearly overwhelming urge to write ‘The WIN article offers insight into instructional modalities concerning differentiated learning protocols.’ But the urge has passed.) I have discovered that my personal learning style is writing. In class I’d often be one of the very few people actually taking notes. But I’ve learned that writing serves two functions: it allows me to organize the material in a way comprehensible to me, and when I write something down, I remember it. I may not even have to review my notes, because the physical act has embedded the information. I’ve also discovered that typing isn’t nearly as effective. Unfortunately my handwriting has been atrocious from Grade 1, and I grew up in a time when neat handwriting was highly prized. So I have to balance speed with legibility, and not always successfully.

The exception is some math classes, where depending on the course and the instructor, everyone is writing furiously for 50 minutes without comprehension and then you have to spend several hours trying to understand what it is that you wrote down.

Some parts of the WIN article are especially resonant, so I’ll just pull some headings and explicate.

All at once vs. trial and error

The author notes that the ASL tends to follow a step-by-step path to achievement, while the VSL commonly ‘gets it’ all at once. This is not to say that the VSL can just look at something and understand it. ‘All at once’ can take some time.

My first experience with this was in 8th-grade Algebra. I just could not understand it, which was especially frustrating because I’d shown a talent for math. I failed miserably. Over the summer my mother retained a tutor and about halfway through the summer I had a flash of total comprehension. I understood the subject. That fall I was back in Algebra I and bored. During the semester break my mother and the head of department and I had a conversation. I took the Algebra I final and the Algebra II (which I ‘d never seen) midterm and passed both. So I was able to complete both courses in the same year. I’ve had similar experiences since, almost always in math or a closely related subject. Frustration, then insight and understanding.

Easy is hard, and hard is easy

Mention is made that nearly all education progresses from the basic to the complex. The major exception to this that comes to mind are advanced math courses, where very often one goes from relatively complex specific examples to the unifying (and less complex) version of the concept known as the general form. The author notes that the VSL is more comfortable seeing the ‘big picture’ first, in order to provide context to what may appear to be simpler concepts. Providing task context is an important part of good management no matter the situation, but for the VSL, it’s vital.  

Maps vs. oral directions to a destination

I have no sense of direction. If I can’t see the sun or prominent landmark, it’s very easy for me to get lost. I can use a map and compass, but if you just give me verbal directions, it ain’t gonna happen. I’ve developed the technique of asking directions, going as far as I feel comfortable, asking again, and so daisy-chain my way to my destination.

Joke told on Army bases: What weapon is most lethal to friendly forces? A 2nd lieutenant with a map and compass.

Mathematical reasoning vs. mathematical computation

The author mentions that VSL are often frustrated by computational mathematics but excel in the more abstract subjects like geometry. As one who’s taken a lot of math, I’ve thought about this. The only non-computational course one is likely to see in high school is geometry, which I loved. I got it. I could do proofs like nobody’s business. High school calculus courses are mostly computational. The first two years of college mathematics are for all intents and purposes computational. You’re learning how to use math to solve practical problems. It wasn’t until I started taking the more abstract upper-division math courses that they became fun. The proofs weren’t fun, but the math was.

But you’ll notice we’re talking about six years or more of mathematics instruction before you get to the good stuff. I think a lot of people who might be good at abstract math just get burned out on learning the mechanics.

A permanent picture vs. drill and repetition

I have to disagree with the author slightly here. They note that drills are designed to develop associations in the mind of the average student and that the gifted students often understand concepts when first presented. I would note that understanding is not the same as utility. Drill serves to build a base for use. To use another math example, after you’ve done hundreds of exercises you can recognize an integral form or differential function or visualize a curve without having to think about it, and so move on to the actual conceptualization and solving of the problem. Another example are the kata of the Japanese martial arts, where the drills are designed to facilitate correct form without thinking.

These are just a few of the topics the author touches on. If you have any interest in education, learning, or just want to read an interesting article, I recommend you check it out.

Real Men of Genius




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