One of the many joys of private tuition is coming across students who learn in different ways. In a classroom this must be a nightmare, but for a private tutor it is a wonderful puzzle to solve, resulting in breakthroughs that can literally change someone’s life. One such group of students are the visual-spatial learners; people who think primarily in pictures. They tend to be creative, use intuition to problem-solve, and are often perfectionists. I am one of these myself, so I particularly enjoy teaching them. They tend to prefer Art and Design over more academic subjects, unless you can help them break through to higher levels of the Maths and Sciences, where the ability to visualise the results of algebraic formulae and four or more dimensions, for example, catapult them into an elite cadre.
I had a brief experience of this myself when I thought it would be a good idea to take A Level Maths. I chose it mostly because I found the subject interesting and wanted a little balance to the Fine Arts, Performing Arts, and English Language and Literature options I had otherwise selected, but, er, also because there were five girls and thirty boys in the class. My GCSE Maths teacher hugged me when she found out, and said “we’ll get through it together”. (Um, thanks?!) I was in no way sufficiently diligent to get through that course and dropped it after a year, but it was an interesting year and just occasionally, very occasionally, I would reach answers before anyone else. When my peers (amazed at my hugely unexpected prowess) asked how I had done it so fast I would confusedly say ‘I can just… see it’. And I could. The visual learner is not superior to other types of learners, but we do have unique gifts.
It’s a bit like asking two different students to establish what type of animal you have. One is given a written description, the other an image. The description may start: “The animal has a long tail. They have fur. They have sharp teeth. They have large eyes…” Do you know what animal it is yet? No, of course not. The other student is given a picture of a cat. They know instantly that it is a cat. If they’re not given the image they will never find out what kind of animal it is, but if they are then they will process the information much faster than the student given a written description.
Visual-spatial learners tend to daydream. They are easily bored. If you do not inspire them then you will lose them. Energy helps – being visually engaging yourself. Putting on voices and accents, acting out situations you are describing. Please do not copy your notes onto a whiteboard whilst reading them out, and expect that in copying those notes into their own workbooks your students will learn. They will learn nothing other than a hatred of your subject. My students – of all ages – love nothing more than when I insist on acting out a scene from a play or novel with them. It helps them to ‘see’ the text. To visualise the characters and the setting. It sparks their imagination, and provides a key that they can use to unlock every scene or chapter thereafter. Words – written or spoken – are simply one way of expressing thoughts and images. There are others. Plays in particular are meant to be performed – to be listened to and observed. To teach them without paying proper observance to this is utterly negligent.
I always use art and photography to teach creative writing and poetry analysis. For creative or descriptive writing, I will allow students to choose from a selection of images to inspire a paragraph or story, encouraging them to imagine themselves interacting with the scene – bare feet on damp, gritty sand, the wind tugging at their hair, the sound of gulls screaming above them. For poetry, we will identify every metaphoric image and research these images online. Seamus Heaney’s poem Waterfall is a particularly good example of this. It references soap-suds, a helter-skelter, muslin and glass, and ‘villains dropped screaming to justice’. We find images and print them, cut them out and stick them around the poem on a page, then add additional emotive verbs, adjectives etc. It doesn’t feel like ‘work’ to them so they enjoy it all the more, but it is very effective.
Video & Animation
I remember explaining my interpretation of an academic theory on Early Modern philosophy to my MA group, in terms of two conversely rotating globes, one inside of the other (I believe I was demonstrating this simultaneously with my hands) and, after a lot of laughter from the class, explaining that I see theory in visual terms. My seminar leader looked at me in horror and said “wow, you must be finding this course really difficult then”, and I just thought ‘no, why would my way be difficult for me if it’s my way?’ The visual animation of ideas and concepts is all over the internet, as are seemingly unrelated but easily transferrable YouTube videos. A Year 7 student recently struggled to perceive the humour in Spadge Hopkins and Crabby B’s stand-off in Cider With Rosie (Crabby B is a pint-sized but hugely aggressive female teacher, and Spadge her oversized and extremely-strong young student). I showed him a YouTube video of a tabby cat chasing off a fully-grown crocodile. He understood the correlation instantly, and suddenly became hugely enthused by the text. He really enjoyed the cat/ crocodile video as well, so that was a bonus. A happy student is a learning student.
In around a third of the population, visual-spatial learning bias is so prevalent that these individuals often register as gifted, but simultaneously score very poorly in many of their subjects at school. It’s so easy – and so much fun! – to make learning more accessible for them.