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What Art Education Can Do For The Visually and Spatially Challenged

by Michele Sommer, Rockland Country Day School

Do school art programs make it possible for struggling at-risk students to become successful as opposed to just surviving and even possibly failing or dropping out of school?There are many bright and talented children who have considerable ability of a distinct kind yet are performing poorly in school. These children excel at visual thinking and creativity; they are visual-spatial learners, and they are at risk in many schools. Visual- spatial learners are excellent observers and think in images. They need time to translate mental images into words and often have word-retrieval problems. Their type of intelligence and learning potential will not manifest itself in a standard academic way or on a test of general abilities. Their enhanced cognitive ability to image fuels their imagination and capacities for creativity and innovation, but it also turns them into daydreamers who are easily distracted and often in their own world. It doesn’t take these observant youngsters long to see they do not fit the mold of traditional education, for the tasks they are being asked to perform daily in school are diametrically opposed to what comes naturally to them as learners.

In general, formal education in America has historically been designed to teach the auditory linear-sequential learner. These children are good listeners, can follow verbal and written directions, and learn well in a sequential step-by-step fashion. They can access words in their mind easily and quickly and are verbally assertive. Linear-sequential learners can memorize even rote information easily and learn their multiplication tables through drill and repetition. Their handwriting is legible. Education as we know it is about the development of these highly prized skills. Curriculum, teaching methods and textbooks were designed for linear-sequential learners, and they thrive in school.

The skills visual-spatial learners excel at are considered optional rather than essential in school, now more than ever. Parents aren’t wringing their hands in despair or losing sleep if their kids can’t visualize well or aren’t particularly creative. Our students who excel artistically are ‘€œtalented’€ while those who excel in reading, writing and arithmetic are ‘€œsmart.’€ But the arts are also deeply cognitive. Artistic ability and expression is a manifestation of a profound holistic and organic intelligence.

It is a sad, discordant ‘€œthree part irony’€ that has profound implications for education today: First, schools are cutting the arts programs that buoy our struggling visual-spatial youth and laying off the arts faculty who are uniquely equipped to reach them. Second, schools continue to demand that students fit the mold of an obsolete system and label and exclude them when they will not or cannot. Third, schools are ultimately releasing students who, as a result of their education, have low self esteem and do not believe they have anything worthwhile to contribute into a society that is actually becoming more reliant on their type of intelligence and primed to reward them for it! We are living in a world that is ever more visually oriented; however, visual art education is one of the the first things to go when funding is cut in schools. In the words of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, ‘€œAll of us do not have equal talent, but all of us should have an equal opportunity to develop our talents.’€ An education bereft of a substantive arts program does not take seriously a multifaceted view of intelligence or educational equality.

Visual-spatial learners who still have a quality art program as part of their school curriculum and effective art teachers who nurture and cherish their abilities are motivated by the knowledge that they are uniquely gifted, imaginative and creative thinkers. They come to view themselves as capable learners who can succeed in school and as skilled individuals who have the capacity to make important and lasting contributions to society. Visual-spatial learners are smart and, with the support of a quality school art program, can become successful students and dynamic, industrious life-long learners–because art class made the difference in their education.

‘€œArt is all imagination. You’re in your own world where you can do anything. I wish I could stay in that world forever.’€ — RCDS 4th Grader

Michele Sommer is the chairwoman of the Art Department at Rockland Country Day School. This article was an excerpt from “The Cream Does Not Always Rise: The Plight of Visual Spatial Learners and the Power of Art Education,” published by the Harvard Educational Review (HER).

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