Up-Side-Down Teaching

I have never analyzed the ways in which  typical children learn  language concepts.  I suspect that the very young children obtain new words through some sort of an impossible to describe osmosis.  The school age children, on the other hand,  are taught new concepts by connecting a few simple, well understood words into  definitions.  I imagine a pyramid made of layers of words. The most basic and supposedly the easiest ones are placed at the bottom. Their internal connections support more complex words placed on higher levels of the pyramid.  That seemed as logical as Euclidean Geometry. Unfortunately, this sort of logic doesn’t apply to Robert’s learning.

Robert often learns new concepts simultaneously with the words included in their definitions.  I suspect that sometimes  Robert has knowledge of the concept before he understands words which were supposed to explain its meaning. When I say “understands” I mean “has visual representation”.

A few weeks ago, my daughter bought for Robert a set of fifteen educational puzzles, Landforms Match-Ups by Lakeshore Learning.  Each puzzle had three parts: a picture of a landform, its name, and its definition. Left alone, Robert can put all the pieces together in a few minutes just by looking at their shapes. When I join him, the game changes.  Robert spreads all 15 pictures on the table.  I keep smaller puzzle pieces with names and definitions in my hand to make sure  that Robert doesn’t see them.  I read the names, Robert points to appropriate pictures.  I read the definitions, Robert is supposed to point to the correct pictures.  But he does not.

In the set there are picture representations of three unknown to him  landforms: isthmus, archipelago, and river delta.  I have never introduced them to Robert and, I am pretty sure,  nobody else did.  But twelve others landforms and waterways, Robert has  already encountered through two geography folders from Take Me to Your Seat  series.

When I say the landforms names, Robert  hesitates but places ten out of 15 correctly.  Some of his errors are explainable. For instance, for a mountain he points to a valley as it is between two mountains.

When I, however, read  definitions, Robert makes only 5  correct choices. Moreover, I suspect that at least two of them were lucky guesses.

Robert knows what the lake is, but he doesn’t know what is  “a large body of unmoving water that is completely surrounded by land”.

After practicing, Robert “knows” what isthmus is, but not what is “a narrow piece of land that connects two larger land areas”.

Are the sentences too long for Robert to process? Possibly.

Somehow, Robert doesn’t have problems with a wordy definition of delta of the river. This definition contains a phrase “mouth of a river”.  And this is a part that lets Robert make a connection with a picture.  In a definition of the ocean, it is the phrase “salty water” which helps Robert to understand it.  But in many other explanations, Robert cannot find any word or short phrase that would direct him toward a proper picture. The words seem simple to me, but they don’t explain anything to Robert.

The fact that Robert learned which picture represents”isthmus” but he didn’t learn what is “a narrow piece of land that connects two larger land areas” is a result of compounding together only vaguely  understood words and phrases such  as  “piece of land” or “connects”.

I wonder if replacing this definition with something more visual like ” a land bridge” would make a difference.  It is possible that Robert selects from each long expression only two words phrases as meaningful ones, and bases his answers on them.

It is also possible, that typically developing children do the same.

As Robert completes the puzzles with my help (?) , he is not learning just what a  peninsula is, but what the expression, “mostly surrounded by water”  means.

Those, supposedly, more specific and more advanced words like isthmus or peninsula are only tools. They allow me to find the gaps in Robert’s basic vocabulary and fill them with the missing fundamental language concepts.

I wonder…

When the person is  being referred to as the so-called  ” visual learner”  does it  mean that for that person it is easier to make a connection between a picture and its label than between label and wordy definition?

Is “the visual learner”, someone who can relate new words to their visual representations, but not to their verbal descriptions?

If so, more questions surface.  What to do, about such a learner?  Ignore his difficulties and saturate his environment with as many visual representations of concepts as possible?  Such approach would allow “a visual learner” and his care providers to manage certain environments but would not address his/her functioning in the world at large. The world at large is mainly…verbal.

I think, the Landforms Match-Ups game offers a solution.  We can connect all three together and allow the picture to become a bridge between two categories of words: labels and definitions.

Leave a comment


  1. Jean

     /  January 7, 2013

    Your description is the best example of “visual learner” I’ve come across. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Also interesting, “Are there learners who can make connection only between pictures, but not between pictures and their labels?”

    How do we find them, if they exist? And if you find them, how do we communicate with them?


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