That is an excellent question, and one that many strive to understand. The event I describe above is one small example of a child who can ‘see’ things in their mind before they can even think about what to say. In fact, verbalizing what is in their mind is often an exercise in futility because the words never do justice to the pictures in their mind, if the words come at all.
These children (and adults) see the big picture, they need to see the big picture first and foremost before all the little details make any sense. For example, take learning math. How do most children learn math? By learning basic skills such as adding objects-one orange plus two apples equal three pieces of fruit. Then we add more fruit so the problem becomes more complex. What is the purpose of counting fruit? To learn how to add. This may be fine for the primary grades and most children, but when learning algebra or calculus the big picture is essential for these children. The smaller steps simply don’t match up with what they see in their mind and the understanding just isn’t there. They can intuitively figure it out without writing one mark on paper. One student said to me: “I have to learn everything before I can understand anything.” Did you catch the subtleties in that statement? In other words, he needs to know the purpose of the whole before the steps of the parts make any sense.
These children also tend to display other characteristics such as: learns complex concepts easily yet struggles with easy skills; learns concepts all at once; creates unique ways of organization; handwriting is sloppy and a dreaded task-keyboarding is much more effective; visualizes words in order to spell them; has asynchronous development; can be a late bloomer, and generates unusual solutions to problems (Linda Kreger Silverman, retrieved from: http://www.gifteddevelopment.com/Visual_Spatial_Learner/vsl.htm).
Dr. Linda Kreger Silverman identified these children as gifted visual-spatial learners. In the classroom, unless the child has a teacher who is also a visual-spatial learner (VSL), they are often misdiagnosed with a myriad of other disabilities or conditions when, in fact, they just learn differently from the rest of the children. If you know a gifted VSL or live with one, and you are not a VSL yourself, you quickly realize how very different you both are. If you have a child who is a VSL and your learning abilities are in other areas, such as auditory-sequential, I recommend researching all you can about visual-spatial learners. It should help you to understand your child and recognize that there may be nothing ‘wrong’, the child simply ‘sees’ the world in a different manner. Different classroom approaches to teaching and learning are necessary and you may have to educate the teacher. Better yet, let the child advocate for him/herself by asking the teacher for the learning approaches that work best for them. What many teachers have discovered is that the learning approaches that work for visual-spatial learners improve the learning of others, as well.
Do you watch the television show “NCIS”? If you do, you may have seen episodes where Abby, the forensic scientist, closes her eyes and manipulates files with her empty hands in the space around her, moves objects around in space, or other times when she appears to be doing something with her hands while her eyes are closed. If you catch what she is saying, you will understand that Abby is a VSL and shows the world how a gifted visual-spatial learner thinks and problem-solves.
It is an interesting world when you are with a gifted visual-spatial learner. Learn more about it so you can enjoy every minute.
Here are a few resources to help you learn about the visual-spatial learner.
Gifted Development Center, Visual Spatial Learners: Dr. Linda Kreger Silverman.
The New Zealand Association for Gifted Children
Hoagies Gifted Visual Spatial Learners
Upside Down Brilliance, Linda Kreger Silverman (2002).
Raising Topsy-Turvy Kids: Successfully Parenting Your Visual-Spatial Child, Alexandra Shires Golon, and Linda Kreger Silverman (2004).