Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Thinking in Pictures

The World Needs All Kinds of Minds

 I recently watched the TED Talk called "The world needs all kinds of minds" by Temple Grandin. Temple Grandin is probably the most famous autistic person in the US and, in addition to her scientific work with livestock, she is a spokesperson for autism awareness. In the talk, she shares her own experiences as an autistic person and argues that more support should be available for autistic children...but that isn't what makes me write about it here. What made me think of Preschool Engineering was her description of "thinking in pictures."

Dr. Grandin explained how she thinks in pictures. When someone says a word, her brain acts like Google Images and flashes very specific images to her. For example, "dog" would conjure up a picture of her own pet dog followed by images of other dogs she knows or has seen pictures of. This might be different for neurotypical grown-ups like me who might just think of a nondescript dog. And this got me thinking about the life of an infant, toddler and preschooler who must also think in pictures!!

No wonder our toddlers and preschoolers are Preschool Engineers. They begin learning physics almost before learning anything else! They watch parents drop diapers in a can; they feel their bodies negotiate gravity and use their arms for leverage; they hear evidence of the Doppler effect when riding in a stroller past a park full of noisy big kids. Given the opportunity, a young child must be stockpiling images and sounds in their little brains. As parents, our job is to provide the language that accompanies our kids' observations. For example, when my toddler built a stack of blocks I observed by saying, "you built a small stack of green blocks." In doing so, I offered pre-STEM words to support her learning. I identified Color, Size, and Material.

It may seem so simple that it is a duh-ism...children think in pictures. What is really cool is that thinking in pictures is valuable. So valuable that STEM curriculum is constantly being refined and redefined to include "real world" experience. So valuable that innovative business companies offer "Visual Thinking" as an "innovative" approach to business. So valuable that Dr. Grandin has built a career by embracing her ability to think in pictures and capitalizing on the value of thinking in pictures in a scientific setting.

From myaspergerschild.com.
Somewhere along his or her educational career an important strength of the young child (thinking in pictures) is ignored. In its place English language is emphasized as the "common" foundation on which students, teachers and parents can operate. It seems like a convenient thing to do but, in an increasingly complex educational scene, maybe taking advantage of and paying attention to a student's ability to think in pictures is a more sensible approach - one that would invite a diverse set of learners into the academic world.

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