Monday, May 12, 2008

Seeing the big picture...

I know a lot of people who claim to be the ones to see the "big picture". I'm often very amused because they seem to use this as an excuse to avoid dealing with hassle and details. People who really are "big picture thinkers" are either going to fail to notice the details or work meticulously to make the details they do notice fit into the picture they see in their mind's eye.

In my experience, the "big picture" thinkers are the visual-spatial people. They see everything in terms of an overarching principle or theory. When something doesn't mesh with that theory, they're usually quite bent on getting it adults.

Children who are visual-spatial thinkers, however, don't really seem to even see the details. I didn't realize how pervasive this was until I started thinking of everything my son did in terms of process (a typical sequential approach) versus theory (the spatial approach). Looking at common examples, I saw the following:

Language - The theory that most children deal with in language is story-telling. Visual-spatial (VS) thinkers understand a story in it's general sense: a chronology of something that happens. Then they work their way down in detail. The next level, so to speak, would be that this chronology should have a main character who solves some problem. Further down, they realize that they must introduce the character, introduce the problem, and then explain how the problem is solved by the character. As you work your way down from the main principle, the requirements of a story become more and more detailed. For most VS kids, once you've gotten to the level of writing words, they're starting to get shaky. At the level of spelling and the mechanics of writing, they're overwhelmed. VS learners have notoriously sloppy handwriting and are notorious, at young ages, for swapping or inverting letters.

In contrast, a gifted auditory-sequential (AS) learner will start by going the other direction. They will often quickly learn reading skills and sequentially work their way up in difficulty. When VS and AS thinkers have the same grasp of the main principle, the AS thinkers are already skilled in the lower-level requirements while the VS thinker is struggling with how to manage the details. The VS thinkers take longer to figure out how the details fit into the big picture, but with time and persistence, they can find a way. However, they may never be as proficient as an AS learner at the details. In many ways, VS learners are at a disadvantage relative to AS learners.

Mathematics - The opposite seems to happen in mathematics, if the instructor is astute enough to realize what is going on in the VS learner's head. VS learners will quickly pick up on mathematical models and processes when they are presented in a visually appealing way, but will have difficulty with formalizing it or writing it out. They have an intuitive sense which often works well for them, but they cannot translate it well to language or writing. They seem to just "know". Because of the difficulty in translating their intuitive knowledge, they will often appear to not understand. Arithmetic is a nightmare for the VS child, but he or she is very clear on the concept of what it means to subtract, add, multiply, etc.

Compared to AS students, VS students will seem at a disadvantage here as well unless the presentation and assessment of concepts is done in a way to bring out their knowledge and reasoning processes. AS students, by comparison, will tend to do well early with mathematics as things like arithmetic will not pose issues for them. They are also more adept at memorizing.

Social skills - When one views social interactions from a principle versus process perspective, it becomes too clear why VS children may be more apt to earn a label like autism or Asperger's syndrome. Most VS learners have a clear idea of how they want interactions to happen. If they learn to visualize the process of socializing with others, anticipating how their behavior will cause people to react, they may have an easier time with other people. As often as not, they simply have a notion that they want to get along with other people and can see in their mind's eye that they are with people who like them. However, the low-level "social cues" that people give are not quickly noticed or recognized as being significant. They are more busy matching how they feel internationally about their interaction with the person while not noticing that they are, perhaps, monopolizing the conversation. They're having a good time, why wouldn't everyone else be?

The difference between a VS learner and a person with autistic spectrum disorders is that the VS learner can be taught to notice the details of social interaction. Once they know what they are looking for and have gained some facility in reacting appropriately, they can actually be very social. A typical example is the shy person one meets in high school who ends up being a "late bloomer". They may end up being very successful later in life and not appear to have any of the shyness that seemed so pervasive in younger years.

A person on the autistic spectrum will not be able to change their inability to focus on details. The follow-through in conversation will seem more mechanical because the person with autistic spectrum disorders is taking a very methodical, institutionalized approach to socialization.

I once read Tony Atwood's book on Asperger's Syndrome. There was a part where he discussed female "Aspies" and how many of them seem to grow out of their disorder. This puzzled me for a long time because, as a neurological dysfunction, it seems absurd to think that they would "grow out of it". I have since come to the conclusion (a personal opinion of mine, mind you) that a number of "Aspies" may in fact be visual-spatial learners who are more concerned with higher level principles of interpersonal relationships.

I find this bothersome as being labeled may cause people to believe they are not capable of mastering "the art of interaction", leading them to believe that there is no point in trying.

As visual-spatial learners get older and gain more facility with incorporating details into their "big picture thinking", many of the difficulties they experience as children will lessen or possibly go away. The more positive guidance they have in figuring out how to piece things together, the more successful they're likely to be in all their endeavors.

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