If you are a teacher, a student, or just interested in the way that individual human beings process information best, you owe it to yourself to learn about Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences. Visual-Spatial Intelligence is one of the most common types, and so after an overview of the basic concept of multiple intelligences, we’ll start with that one.
Howard Gardner is a psychologist, a professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard University, and one of the most influential thinkers and writers on education in the last fifty years. In 1983, he wrote a book called “Frames of Mind,” in which he outlined his theory of multiple intelligences.
Yes, we know, the natural assumption is that there is only one kind of intelligence. But that view is outdated and limited, as we’ll see.
Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences
In “Frames of Mind,” Gardner puts forth a simple proposition that changed our minds about what “intelligence” is and in the process, changed education forever. Many of you reading this may be prospective teachers, planning on working in the classroom or possibly online. If so, you might be interested in a few online courses devoted to teaching. This “Guide to Online Teaching” and this course on “Online Teaching Jobs” might be a great help.
Gardner proposed that “intelligence” is not a single property, but rather a continuum of eight different modalities, all of which are present in each human being, but in different amounts. The eight types of intelligence he proposed are visual-spatial, musical-rhythmic, bodily-kinesthetic, logical-mathematical, naturalistic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. In other words, a given learner might be strongest in visual-spatial and musical-rhythmic intelligences, but weaker in logical-mathematical intelligences, with the others falling somewhere in between. Each of us is unique in the combination of intelligences we possess.
Lest you get the wrong idea, Gardner himself issued the disclaimer that we must not think of these intelligence modalities as restrictive (i.e., a given person can only learn in one or two ways) but that we ought to find ways for ourselves and for students to utilize the modalities that are strongest, finding ways to apply them to any given subject.
This theory has been often conflated with the concept of “learning styles,” and while the ideas are similar, the two are not the same. The different intelligence modalities that Gardner proposes do not always correspond to the best way for any given individual to learn. Yes, it’s complicated, and not intuitive, and there are those who say that Gardner’s point of view is an over-simplification. Nay-sayers aside, we’d suggest simply learning more and deciding for yourself.
While the name “visual-spatial intelligence” might make you think of people who need to see things or have graphically-based learning experiences to learn best, in fact, Gardner’s visual-spatial modality really refers to visualization (with the mind’s eye) and with spatial judgment (i.e., the ability to gauge the relative distances and proximities of objects visually). In less academic terms, this type of intelligence is required for navigation, mental visualization when planning to build or assemble something, recognizing faces or scenes quickly, and picking out fine visual details.
So, someone who is strongest in visual-spatial intelligence might be the type of person who never gets lost, the type we would say has “a good sense of direction.” We all know someone like this (you may be one), and can easily see the value in this modality.
Or, someone with strong visual-spatial intelligence might be an inventor or develop factory processes, or an artist. If you can visualize internally in three dimensions, you can more easily get a sense of how something looks or works from all angles.
Those in this category are never at a loss when assembling a piece of furniture, even when it comes with pictures-only instructions and all the language is some kind of Scandinavian mish-mosh. Perhaps those picture-only instructions are made just for people with a strong visual-spatial intelligence?
Sculptors, too, are often blessed with a very strong visual-spatial intelligence. Think about it: a sculptor must have the object he or she wishes to create fully formed in the mind, in three dimensions, before the first strike of the hammer. Without the ability to understand what a three-dimensional object will look like when viewed from different angles, a sculptor or any artist who works with three-dimensional installations would be lost.
The same, of course, goes, for engineers, designers, and architects. Almost all of them are very strong in visual-spatial intelligence. They need to be, or else they will be out of work very quickly.
Or you might know someone who is “bad with names,” but who “never forgets a face.” If this describes you, you can take comfort in the fact that it means you have a stronger visual-spatial intelligence than any other.
What You Need to Know
Visual-spatial intelligence is key in any organism’s evolution, or at least for those who move around. Plants might not need it, but if you wish to eat, you must be able to perceive and locate food. If you wish to avoid being eaten, you must perceive, locate, and evade predators. If you are to navigate successfully enough to reproduce and pass on your genetic content, you must have sufficient visual-spatial intelligence to do so before you starve or are eaten.
In addition, visual-spatial intelligence works hand in hand with verbal reasoning, allowing those who are strong in it to mentally visualize relationships that are described verbally. A good example of this is when discussing family relations. A family tree, for example, can be terribly confusing unless you can visualize it internally, owing to its many branches and rapid widening as you move backwards in time.
Visual-Spatial Intelligence in the Classroom
Much of modern education is based on a delivery system that attempts to engage more than one of the intelligence modalities. This makes much sense, and any who are going to school for a teaching degree will no doubt be familiar with the concept, or should know that they soon will become so.
The most obvious place where visual-spatial intelligence is tapped in the academic classroom is in the use of visual organizational aids, such as graphic organizers or mind maps. There is an excellent online course on mind-mapping, called “The Ultimate Mind Map” that can tell you much more about the topic than we can cover in the time we have here.
Mind maps and graphic organizers arrange information in different ways, with meaning derived from the visual and spatial arrangements of the information. For example, a typical mind map might work well as a brainstorming tool. Beginning in the center of the visual space, a word that represents the concept in question is written in large letters. Then, branching out from that word or concept in all directions are the sub-categories that are suggested by the word, and then from each subcategory, different examples of important elements of that subcategory.
If a mind map begins with the idea of solving global warming, then those words, “Solving Global Warming” would be in the center. Branching out from there, you might find subcategories like “reducing use of fossil fuels” or “eliminating CFCs” and so on. From each of those might come examples of ways to do that thing. From the first branch, “reducing fossil fuels,” you might see smaller branches such as “biofuels” or “solar energy,” and so on.
If you are a teacher of adult education, you might find that many adult learners are strong in this area. A good online course to help you incorporate teaching styles and new ideas is this one, “Essentials of Adult Education.” Natasha Quinonez’ blog entry on “Teaching Styles” might be of help as well.
Visual-spatial intelligence is, of course, much more than simply a set of interesting and helpful skills. It, along with the other modalities proposed by Gardner, represents one of the ways that we understand our universe. This is important to remember whether you are a teacher, a student, or simply interested in the ways you understand the world around you.