Here is the paradox: There are many mysteries and other seeming contradictions in the world of learning differences, which don’t make any logical sense and all too often, are seldom noticed. Neurodiversity has benefitted much from recent neuroscience, which doesn’t seem to have transfered to the national curriculum.. Once you shine a light on what is happening behind the obvious and approach these same questions from the perspective of mental imagery, you may find the answers are straightforward. Mental Imagery and understanding visual thinking provide very simple solutions to many of these mysteries and, to me, it seems as if society is looking in the wrong places.
Amanda Spielman, OFSTED Chief Inspector, said[i] that “children’s time in education are their wonder years. A time when they get to grips with the power and flexibility of the English Language and fundamental mathematical concepts.” She continued, “High-quality education, built around a rich curriculum, is a matter of social justice…. Using the definition of cognitive psychology, as a change in long-term memory, if nothing has altered in long-term memory, nothing has been learned.” “The ability to read is a fundamental life skill” So, failing to assess children’s visual memory, a vital part of their long-term memory, is not socially just.
Visual thinking is a huge strength of 4-year-olds, as I have mentioned before. Mental imagery is a vital part of visual thinking and learning anything, but nobody even mentions it in schools. The classroom is mainly an auditory experience, and the box for visual teaching is ticked with knowledge of visual teaching but without any knowledge of a student’s visual learning. There is no teacher training in mental imagery, and it is not even mentioned in the UK’s Early Years curriculum, contradicting the schools’ commitment to multi-sensory teaching and learning. Mental imagery is a key part of visual learning – it can’t be right not to teach teachers about the key role mental imagery plays in learning! It is indeed a remarkable school with an enlightened staff that teaches students how to visualise.
By comparison, mental imagery is an accepted part of sports training, with every elite sportsperson unable to manage without this skill. For example, athletes envision the ball going into the net, the flight of a javelin and not just winning a race but having successful strategies for every part of a race. For instance, watch someone taking a conversion kick on the rugby field, or playing golf. You can see them visually following the trajectory of an imaginary ball, before making contact; you will see these skills in action. Can you imagine how a pole-vaulter, a ballerina, a high board diver or a gymnast could manage without good mental imagery for rehearsal? Elite sportsmen and women have used these skills for decades.
Let me give you a couple of examples now and I will give more tomorrow:
Schools are committed to multi-sensory teaching and learning but, for example, 100% of the dyslexics we have met are not visualising words; 100% of those with ADHD can’t control their mental images; and 100% of those we have met on the autistic spectrum are simply drowning in mental images. Teacher training does not include the vital difference between visual teaching and visual learning, which are often mistakenly thought to be the same thing and highlighted in “When Bright Kids Can’t Learn” by John F Heath. We are not aware of any teacher education in how students learn visually, using mental images, for all sorts of applications (spelling, reading, comprehension, remembering what you read, good handwriting, maths, memory, sport, etc.). This means that teachers and their neurodivergent students are being set up to fail.
Both the English and French languages, as well as a number of others have deep orthographic structures, meaning there is a large gap between what a word sounds like and how it is written, so students need to learn how to visualise words, to cope with homophones, silent letters, and words that break a variety of rules. Italian is considered an exemplar of a phonetic language where you write exactly what you hear, not so for English. This means for English you need mental images to read fluently and to spell.
[i] Amanda Spielman, speaking in 2019, at the “Wonder Years” curriculum conference.
 The Early Years Foundation Stage was published in 2008, by the Department for Children, Schools and Families. ISBN: 978-1-84775-128-7
If you would like to know more about how this all works, do join one of my free on-line live classes, Ready for a new strategy for Dyslexia. Just click the link below.
For other resources, look up www.visualkids.co.uk and www.empoweringlearning.co.uk. When building on skills and encouraging creativity you will find their strengths increase and learning difficulties reduce.
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My name is Olive Hickmott, I am a health and learning coach, specialising in working with neurodivergent students. I would be pleased to support you in any way I can.
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My latest books are:
The Elephants in the Classroom: using every student’s natural power of Mental Imagery to enhance learning: Neurodiversity through the lens of mental Imagery.
Bridges to Success – How to transform Learning Difficulties
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