Near The Tree That Bends

Jo Tuscano
Ten years ago, I was in the car with my uncle on the way to pick up his wife from her friend’s house. My uncle had never been to the house before and was relying on my aunt to give him instructions on how to get there. The friend lived on a major road in Sydney. It was raining heavily, and visibility was poor. Before getting into the car, my uncle rang my aunt to get directions. The conversation went something like this:

Uncle: ‘I’m on my way to pick you up. Where’s the house?’
Aunt: ‘It’s two houses away from where that big tree bends right over.’
Uncle: ‘That doesn’t help me. What’s the suburb and house number?’
Aunt: ‘I don’t know, but just drive down the highway, and as soon as you see the tree, you’ll know.’
Uncle: ‘Go outside and look at the number.’
Aunt: ‘I can’t. It’s now hailing heavily. Just look for the tree.’
Uncle: ‘There are heaps of trees lining that highway! How am I supposed to find that one?’
Aunt: ‘It’s a lighter shade of green, and the leaves are different from the other trees, and it bends right over.’

My uncle gave a deep sigh and rolled his eyes. See what I have to put up with, my uncle said. And so, we drove up the highway looking for a tree that had leaves a lighter shade than the other trees and was bent right over. In a storm. Visibility almost zero. Slowly. Uncle swearing. Niece looking at every tree through a rain-streaked window.
Many years later, having studied, created, and produced cross-cultural programs, I understand what happened and still happens when the ‘what-house-number – it’s-near-the-tree-that-bends ‘problem’ arises. My uncle is a product of Western thought and linear thinking, and my aunt comes from a very different culture, a very visual one. There is nothing wrong with giving people information about the house number, the street and the suburb. Conversely, if we lived in a culture that sees through a visual lens, there is nothing wrong with my aunt’s answer either. The two ways of describing how to get there are both valid.

We know that different people have different learning styles, yet there is still a considerable gap in catering for these different styles. Our schools are slowly starting to appreciate that talking about something and listening are not the only ways of learning. The research is in – and it supports a variety of learning styles in the classroom is the way to go.

90% of all information we take in is visual. We read visual information 60% faster than we read text. We retain 80% of what we see and 30-50% of what we read. 8% comes from aural sources and 3% from tactile sources. A good way of learning and retaining information is the combination of visual and text. Children start to draw at a very early age. This form of communication gives us information about how they are processing and navigating the world they are learning about.

Exploring different ways of thinking, interpreting and externalising ideas to create neural pathways is necessary for innovative, imaginative minds. The human brain is, for the most part, an image processor. When we talk and think in words, we generate ideas that are sequential and linear. When we draw our thoughts and ideas and think in pictures, we generate non-sequential, place-based, and connected ideas in multiple ways. We are more able to see patterns, analyse and strategise, and look for new possibilities. 
Artist Dorsey Smith

Visual learning is an intrinsic motivator, and visual clues assist students in information retrieval and information retention.

Visual-spatial learning is another style – these learners tend to look at the big picture first and then the details. They like to look at the whole rather than the parts, and they tend to understand the whole all at once. They are good at solving problems and don’t respond well to traditional teacher talk and listening methods. They prefer diagrams, puzzles, maps, pictures and other visual stimuli. I have used a visual method for The Peach Project to assist learners with understanding metaphorical language and visual, kinaesthetic, and musical activities in Buthi Storybook.

Kinaesthetic learning teaches us that learning is not just from the head up. The body-brain relationship allows us to experience new information and store that data without anyone telling us. We can tell a small child not to touch the thorns on the rose bush. Or we can let them find out for themselves. We can tell them the liquid smells horrible or let them smell it for themselves. Research into cognitive development reveals that thinking and movement are connected. Critical thinking arises when we experience something that leads up to a conclusion. Often language development occurs at this point. An increase in information retention happens.

Music is also a powerful way to learn, and I discuss this in another blog on this site. There is intrapersonal learning, where a learner prefers to learn on their own and often uses daydreams and self-talk to understand. People with his type of learning style often like philosophy, psychology and theology as these disciplines help them understand themselves. There are naturalistic learners whose learning is connected to the natural world.

A verbal-linguistic learner uses language to learn and solve problems. Reading and writing are their forte. They are also good listeners, and their recall of spoken information is good as their recall of what they’ve read. They excel at crosswords, word games, rhyme, and tests where reading questions are required. They don’t do well when presented with abstract or visual information.

And that’s how we found the tree with the lighter shade of green and the leaves that were different from the other trees, bending right over.
So, whether a child has a problem learning how to tell the time or an uncle has a problem finding a lighter-leafed bending tree on a highway, there is always a solution if we appreciate that we all don’t learn the same way. Teaching that uses a variety of learning methods will be more effective, and learners will enjoy learning if their styles are catered for. Mix it up in your classroom and see the difference!

A negative experience with learning can inhibit a person’s ability to connect with a subject. When I was a little girl, I had a mental block when we were learning to tell the time. My teacher made fun of me in front of the whole class, and I started to cry. That night, my grandfather sat me down and drew clocks. He cut the clocks into quarters and taught me how to count the minutes on the paper clocks and then count them in blocks of five, ten etc. Visual learning. Tactile learning. I got it. And I hated maths and anything to do with numbers after that. I became Dyscalculic. Dyscalculia is an inability to understand maths. No surprise, I became an English teacher and then a writer. If you want to know how to work out the standard deviation of something, ask someone else. If you want an explanation of the difference between the past perfect tense and the past perfect continuous tense, then I’m your girl. If my maths teacher had been like my grandfather, things might have been different.

As far as picking up my aunt went, it wasn’t smooth sailing (or driving), but we drove up the highway searching for the house. The wind whipped up, and people’s umbrellas turned inside out on the footpaths.
‘This is dangerous,’ my uncle said. ‘And that tree there is going to come down and….’

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Jo Tuscano
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