Patterico's Pontifications


Temple Grandin: Visual Thinkers Are Getting Left Behind

Filed under: General — Dana @ 6:21 pm

[guest post by Dana]

There is a lot of good stuff in this op-ed by Professor Temple Grandin (Colorado State University). Grandin, who is autistic, discusses the role of visual thinkers in society and the need to provide avenues of learning that meet the needs of the neurodivergent so that they, in turn, can meet the needs of today’s society. Much of what she says speaks to my heart on a personal level, so I’m very glad to see her write about the subject:

When I was younger, I believed that everybody thought in photo-realistic pictures the same way I did, with images clicking through my mind a little bit like PowerPoint slides or TikTok videos.

I had no idea that most people are more word-centric than I am. For many, words, not pictures, shape thought. …

I was born in the late 1940s just as the diagnosis of autism was being applied to kids like me. I had no language until age 4 and was first diagnosed as brain damaged. Today, many people would say that I’m neurodivergent — a term that encompasses not only autism but also dyslexia, A.D.H.D. and other learning problems…

Still, many aspects of our society are not set up to allow visual thinkers — which so many of us neurodivergent folks are — to thrive. In fact, many aspects of our society seem set up specifically so we will fail. Schools force students into a one-size-fits-all curriculum. The workplace relies too much on résumés and G.P.A.s to assess candidates’ worth. This must change not only because neurodivergent people, and all visual thinkers, deserve better but also because without a major shift in how we think about how we learn, American innovation will be stifled.

Today, Taiwan produces the majority of the world’s highest tech silicon chips. Much of the specialized mechanical equipment used for processing meat is made in Holland and Germany. When I visited the Steve Jobs Theater in California, pre-Covid, I discovered that the glass walls were created by an Italian company. The massive carbon fiber roof that looks like a spaceship was imported from Dubai. The reason this equipment is coming from outside the United States can be traced in part to differences in educational systems. In Italy and the Netherlands, for instance, a student at about age 14 decides whether to go the university route or the vocational route. The vocational route is not looked down on or regarded as a lesser form of intelligence. And that’s how it should be everywhere because the skill sets of visual thinkers are essential to finding real-world solutions to society’s many problems.

Anybody who thinks that we are all hardwired to see the world the same, and to learn and process information the same is blind. Parents whose children fall under the banner of neurodivergent understand the truth of what Grandin says. They have watched their loved ones struggle to adapt to a standard learning style when they are simply unable to do so. But the good news is, as Grandin points out, that the word neurodivergent is now an accepted term speaks to “a growing understanding about the different ways that brains work.” This is a positive development that will continue to benefit families but will also benefit society at large as our need for innovation increases.

You can read more about Temple Grandin here.


15 Responses to “Temple Grandin: Visual Thinkers Are Getting Left Behind”

  1. Hello.

    I want to qualify the post with this: While so many parents have agonized watching their unique youngsters struggle, there are indeed some Special Education classes that attempt to reach these students in uniquely inventive ways. I know a number of educators who do this and make a real difference as they work their hearts out to meet the student’s needs. I also know a few that don’t have a burden for these kids and frankly, are doing more harm than good when they are in the classroom. A pox on their house. Every public school district is different, from the top down. Every school site is different. Every principal is different, and thus the climate at each site is unique. Yet at the same time, we are far more enlightened about neurodivergent learners than at any other time in history. And in the West, there are so many advantages and options available.

    Dana (1225fc)

  2. I’m a mild to medium visual thinker, and most of my work is trying to implement the ideas of very visual people. I tend toward intentionalism with the visualists and textualism with the engineers.

    I think that might be why I’m tolerant of Elon Musk’s ideas (pictures in his head) that he puts onto Twitter

    steveg (14206a)

  3. Great post, Dana. Thank you.

    felipe (484255)

  4. The bio-pic (Temple Grandin”) about her was really good. it was able to depict her visual way of thinking by superimposing her thoughts over top of what was happening in interesting ways.

    kaf (6fa9cd)

  5. And here I thought that the world was turning away from the written word and towards a TikTok future. That the schools haven’t is just a measure of how the schools are the last to change methodology (although content change seems much quicker; probably just better directed).

    As someone who is somewhere on the Spectum himself (although back in the day they had other words for it), I remain quite addicted to the word and dislike video replacements. Probably more because I get impatient with video presentations and prefer the choice of pace and level of attention to detail that text gives me. I generally don’t have the patience for YouTube instructional videos. Not sure if that’s because they tend to spend time congratulating themselves or that they all seem narrated by ESL folks.

    As far as autism, Asperger’s and other Spectrum disorders, I note that “sufferers” are well represented among engineers — and particularly electronic and software engineers. I don’t think that it’s a word vs visual difference that causes this though, but more an ability to work at a high level of abstraction.

    Still, an interesting observation.

    Kevin M (1ea396)

  6. @2: Elon Musk claims to be a high-functioning Asperger’s “sufferer.”

    Kevin M (1ea396)

  7. Yet at the same time, we are far more enlightened about neurodivergent learners than at any other time in history.

    The problem, though, is that they are often treated as handicapped or poor learners, when in fact they may simply not work well with the given structure. Allowed to find their own path, they may learn much faster than expected. The problem is sometimes exacerbated by those who refuse to allow “gifted” tracks in schools.

    I am thankful for a couple teachers in my last year in HS who allowed me great autonomy after I demonstrated that I could master the normal course material (pre-calculus, chemistry) with scant attention and let meplay during those periods in their brand-new computer lab.

    Kevin M (1ea396)

  8. I have spent some decades teaching students at three different institutions before finally winning tenure. There are all kinds of differences between students, and a whole academic industry pushing these differences in ways I do not believe are intended to help students (but do benefit bureaucracy0.

    The only solution, to my mind and in my experience, is meeting each student half way, with openness. As individuals, with mutual respect and open communication. Every single time a student has done that with me, worked with me, they have easily met their educational goals, and many times exceeded them.

    In other words, respecting them as the individual that they are, instead of shoving people into boxes.

    We are all human, and we all need to be more humane.

    Simon Jester (f66ca7)

  9. Temple Grandin’s mother devoted her adult years to helping her child overcome serious problems. Kudos to her for finding ways to reach her daughter, and kudos to Temple for overcoming and excelling.

    I hope everyone has some one like that — a mother, father, teacher, friend, etc. — but ultimately we all have to adjust to real life.

    DRJ (78044b)

  10. That’s the tough part, DRJ: having that one on one work.

    You may have heard that Stanford has as many administrators as students; perhaps each student should be an academic concierge. At the tuition charged, maybe that is a good idea.

    Simon Jester (f66ca7)

  11. The only solution, to my mind and in my experience, is meeting each student half way, with openness. As individuals, with mutual respect and open communication. Every single time a student has done that with me, worked with me, they have easily met their educational goals, and many times exceeded them.

    Thanks for sharing this, Simon. This should be the goal for all who work with these students, at every level. Nothing less should be accepted.

    Dana (1225fc)

  12. I agree, Dana. I have found that, during the past ten years or so, administrators across the nation have pushed the “Three Great Untruths” that Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt wrote about in “The Coddling of the American Mind.”

    The students need to meet the instructor half way. It’s always a struggle. The good students will always do well, while the students struggling will always struggle…these are independent of the instructor. The rest of the students need the instructors to help, listen, and support. It’s my 10:80:10 rule of education.

    Students don’t really believe in themselves. They have been taught not to believe in themselves. So grades are commodities.

    I have only had a few students over the years try the silly “I am paying you to teach” by which they mean they are paying for good grades. I tell them I am more like fitness coach; you pay a fitness coach, but you have to follow the instructions of the coach!

    But the key, again, is meeting those students in the middle. Collaboration. I try every year, but I am close to retirement now. And I worry about the future.

    Simon Jester (f66ca7)

  13. … perhaps each student should be an academic concierge.

    Heh. Great idea!

    DRJ (5d6bad)

  14. I would say that generally speaking classroom lessons are far more multi-modal than they used to be. However there is a limit to how differentiated lessons can be. They are generally target to be the best lessons for the largest number of students. If you have 35 kids in a class you can’t do individual lesson plans, so you do the best you can.

    Nic (896fdf)

  15. Steveg, thanks for your comment.

    Dana (1225fc)

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