A Special Excerpt from

Upside-Down Brilliance: The Visual-Spatial Learner

From Chapter 15, Visual-Spatial Adults and the Future of Education

A vision of education in the 21st century

On January 1 st, 2001, we planted our feet firmly in a new millennium. Its newness is fertile soil for fresh ideas. A new millennium permits us to question the traditional ways of doing things. It invites change. We’re all pioneers in this brave new world. I’d like to share with you the inevitable changes that I see coming very soon in our schools. I’m excited about the future of education.

We heard a lot in the 20th century about educational “reform.” “Reform” implies an outside force imposing its will on a reluctant party. Remember when kids were threatened that if they didn’t behave they would be sent to “reform” school? There is a genuine inner transformation—a metamorphosis—in the wind. Momentous changes are coming, but they will come from within, rather than from reformers. They’ll mirror the momentous changes that are occurring in our culture. They’ll be a natural adaptation to the alterations in our way of life. Through their inventions, visual-spatial learners are bringing about this cultural transformation, and VSLs of the future will find school a wondrous, happy place to grow. Before we go there, let’s view the future within the context of the past.

Once upon a time, very few people were educated. Education was the privilege of an elite, wealthy class that held all the power and ruled the uneducated masses. Each book was handwritten and very expensive. Then the printing press was invented (probably by a VSL—they’re the inventors). This revolutionized cultures worldwide, allowing more people access to knowledge. Knowledge is power. Someone came up with the brilliant idea of educating the masses so that everyone would be able to read the books and share the power of knowledge. Schools cropped up all over the world to accomplish the ambitious endeavor of teaching everyone to read and write and calculate (all left hemispheric functions). School became the route to knowledge and, eventually, the portal to well-paying positions in adult life.

Educational institutions gradually became all powerful, determining what would be taught, who would be eligible to receive the information, and who was sufficiently “trained” (a military term) to be able to practice a field in adult life. In a very left hemispheric, analytical way, the curriculum of life was dissected into courses, the courses were dissected into “hours” of instruction (time, another left hemispheric concept), and knowledge was accumulated in units of “credit hours.” Number of “hours one sat” through courses somehow equated with expertise. Instead of fellow travelers sharing knowledge, educators became gate-keepers, giving assignments and tests to preserve the standards of their fields, and evaluation (a left hemispheric function) ran the entire production. This system seemed perfectly reasonable until quite recently, when another invention revolutionized access to information: the computer.

The computer is to the Age of Information what the printing press was to the Age of Literacy. The Age of Information means that we can gain access to whatever information we want or need if we know how to ask the computer the right questions. Encyclopedias are obsolete. Libraries are available at our fingertips. Instead of waiting forever in a line or on the phone, the answer to every question is, “Search the Net.” Technology has already altered our lives, our culture, our role as educators, and the changes are going to be even more dramatic in the coming years.

Have you noticed that there are teen-age millionaires who made their fortune outside of school inventing software? (They were on Oprah.) Have you noticed that the computer industry is hiring talented teens right out of high school, rendering college degrees less essential than they once were? Have you noticed that hundreds of the most advanced children are dropping out of elementary school and being homeschooled? Have you noticed that many brilliant young children are attending college? These are all harbingers of the shifts we can expect to see in the 21 st century. Educational institutions are losing their control (a left-hemispheric need).

Life with computers requires reading and writing, but also some additional skills. The visual presentation of information, the keyboard, the mouse, icons, graphic displays, the de-emphasis on time, all bring the right hemisphere into the act. Internet has made information much more widely accessible than books. There’s greater interaction with the learner. The computer doesn’t decide in advance what it wants to tell you about. You have to ask it questions. You have to learn how to ask the right questions, where to look for the information, and how to quickly scan through irrelevant information to find what you’re looking for. You have to be wise enough to discern the wheat from the chaff. You have to be able to synthesize the information you receive. These are some of the important life skills that children of the 21st century will need to learn in school.

The 20th century belonged to auditory-sequential learners. Literacy reigned supreme. “Literate” and “educated” were synonymous, and “illiterate” equated with “ignorant.” (So says the computer thesaurus!) Reading, spelling and handwriting depend on auditory-sequential skills and develop linear sequential reasoning further. The emphasis on literacy in the schools at the end of the last century is a testament to the panic our society is experiencing as consciousness begins to shift from the word to the image.

Although we cannot be sure that dyslexia was not always among us, it seems to have erupted at the very moment that an entire generation was devaluing the left hemispheric mode of knowing. Perhaps television is the agent equilibrating the human brain’s two differing modes of perception…

Many dyslexics are talented artists, architects, musicians, composers, dancers, and surgeons…. As culture becomes more comfortable with its reliance on images, it may turn out that dyslexia will be reassessed as another of the many harbingers that announced the arrival of the Iconic Revolution. (Shlain, 1998, p. 413)

Reading ability is still necessary in this millennium, but it’s not as central as it was in the 20 th century. There are many more ways to gain information now, so that a non-reader can be highly educated: film, video, Books (on tape) for the Blind and Dyslexic. Computers are already beginning to talk to us and voice-activated computers are becoming common. And we’ve barely dipped our toe into this century.

On the other hand, “visual literacy,” technological proficiency, and imagery, will become increasingly important as the century progresses. We’ll need to learn how to think visually ourselves and to teach visual skills to the next generation of learners. It’s very likely that in the near future another type of disability will gain our attention.

We are all born with the ability to think visually, to what extent depends on each individual’s genetic inheritance. A great deal of the human brain’s wiring is devoted to vision. But whereas a lack of ability to think in terms of the one-directional sequential aspect of language, whether in words or figures, is regarded as a “disability” in our society, the disability of those who have difficulty in recognising or developing their visual (three-dimensional) cognitive capacity goes unnoticed. (Sue Parkinson, February 17, 2000).

The beneficial aspects of visual-spatial reasoning will become more prized in this century as technology continues to advance. The main advantages of this way of knowing, as Steve Haas has summarized them, are:

Perceiving the whole quickly
Finding patterns easily
Thinking graphically
Understanding dimensionality
We may find that we’re devoting as much classroom instruction to the above skills as we do now to the auditory-sequential skills involved in literacy.

Testing will be commonplace to determine the type of learner our students are before we teach them. This is already starting to happen.

I am a visual-spatial learner. I did not realize this until I was out of college. I arranged to take a battery of tests to see what type of job would suit me best. One of the tests involved 3 dimensional cubes with multiple choices on how the cube would look if laid out flat. I scored in the 99 percentile on this test. Even then, I did not realize what this meant….


I am a 31-year-old female who has recently taken a test which stated that I was a visual-spatial learner… I was in a gifted class back in the 7th grade about 1984. Can you please help me find out more information about how I am different and others like me, and how I could maybe help myself finally achieve something in life instead of always struggling to survive…

Students are eager to find out how they learn best. This type of testing will be welcomed instead of feared—especially when there is no right way to learn.

I predict that soon the amount of time we spend teaching manuscript and handwriting is going to be drastically reduced. Each child will have his or her own computer, so keyboarding will replace handwriting as the most important life skill we can teach children—that is, of course, until voice-activated computers become so inexpensive that they replace keyboards in the classroom. Penmanship may come under the umbrella of art in future classrooms, with lots of time to develop one’s own artistic hand.

Handwriting, once essential to recording information so that it could be preserved and handed on, is now a very inefficient method of notetaking—rarely used for that purpose in adult life. Most of us prefer to type than to write. So handwriting is likely to follow the same path as sewing. Do you remember when sewing was a requirement rather than an elective? For girls, that is. When I was in 8 th grade, I had to take sewing and home economics, while the boys took woodshop. For thousands of years, sewing was an indispensable part of the curriculum of girls. The sewing machine (another VSL invention) rendered it obsolete. Now, inexpensive, ready-made clothes are readily available, and sewing is considered an art form.

When each child has a computer, all education will be individualized. Computers individualize with ease. Bright children will not be sitting in class waiting for the others to catch up. And no child will be lagging behind the class. All children will progress at their own rate. Grades will disappear. So will grading. Computers will eliminate their necessity. They will decide when each child is ready to go on to the next step in learning. When computers become the dispensers of knowledge, teachers will be free to become facilitators of learning. More time will be spent on class discussions, group projects, real-life experiences, community building, conflict resolution, and global awareness. The fun stuff!

Students are going to play a much more active role in their learning in the 21 st century than they did in the 20 th. They won’t be passive recipients taking up space, getting grades, and accumulating credits. I’d be willing to bet that students will begin to decide what they want to learn instead of our deciding that for them. School will become much more relevant, motivating and exciting. No more cries of “boring.” Of course, we’ll still need schools, but they’ll be a more joyous, integrated part of our experience than they are today. You’re going to love it!

As our emphasis shifts from memorization to concept formation, problem finding, gathering of information, pattern recognition, and creative expression, visual-spatial learners will no longer feel like dunces. They’ll shine. And auditory-sequential learners won’t be left in the dust either. They, too, are going to love school more, when there’s more visual stimulation, hands-on materials, discovery learning, and meaningful curriculum. We don’t have to wait for the distant future for this to happen. We’re already in the 21 st century. These changes can happen today. Please share this vision with me.