Happy Birthday Tesla!

Today is Nicolai Tesla’s birthday.
What a visual learner! Tesla was so visual that he could literally build, test, and experiment new machinery in his mind. By the time he was through with visually working in his mind, the machine was done.

“Before I put a sketch on paper, the whole idea is worked out mentally. In my mind I change the construction, make improvements, and even operate the device. Without ever having drawn a sketch I can give the measurements of all parts to workmen, and when completed all these parts will fit, just as certainly as though I had made the actual drawings. It is immaterial to me whether I run my machine in my mind or test it in my shop. The inventions I have conceived in this way have always worked. In thirty years there has not been a single exception. My first electric motor, the vacuum wireless light, my turbine engine and many other devices have all been developed in exactly this way.” – Nicolai Tesla

Tesla was born right after the industrial revolution. It was a time when the world was becoming fascinated with science, mechanics, and electricity. This was a fertile time in society for minds like Edison, Tesla, and Henry Ford. Recently, I heard an excerpt from an informational advertisement that claimed “if you think differently, you might have dyslexia.” Oh, how times have changed! Imagine Tesla in a special education class!

When we wonder where the innovation has gone, we need look no further than an educational system that is deep in testing but that offers little opportunity for the development of creative thinkers.

“I don’t care that they stole my idea…I care that they don’t have any of their own” Tesla.

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There is some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for

scott_sonnon I recently watched Scott Sonnon’s powerful TED talk about his life and his story of life with dyslexia. You can watch it here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bxkBqFbbAP0&feature=kp. It is compelling and strong. Although names and circumstances are specific to Scott’s journey, many things about Scott’s story resonate with us. I suspect many dyslexics will relate to him and that’s why spreading his voice and magnifying it is so important. He may be the champion–the warrior– that dyslexics have needed for quite some time.   And we can help turn up his megaphone. Scott is participating in the Men’s Health Magazine cover contest. He has promised to use the platform to bring more awareness about dyslexia. Scott doesn’t know the kids that he will help by doing this. They will never be able to thank him or help him in anyway, but he’s doing it anyway. He could use this platform to further his business or himself. After all, it’s a men’s health magazine and he runs a fitness business. But he’s choosing to help the 20% of kids who are not heard and frequently passed over as being ‘ learning disabled’. If you want to be a part of turning up Scott’s megaphone and helping those who don’t get a vote in Congress, who can’t demand better curriculum from school systems, and who may be feeling bad about themselves because nobody has told them that they just learn differently – not worse- than their peers, you can vote for Scott and give him the platform that he deserves and that these kids need. Voting ends July 28th!


Scott—Thank you for standing up for kids like my little guy. He deserves it and so do you! You are doing something great for those who can never repay you and we are forever grateful.

“You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.”    — John Bunyon





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Gestalt Learning and Dyslexia


Perhaps I should have known that reading could be a problem when language was so inconsequential to my Great Little Pretender.  But I was optimistic.  After all, what about all those late talkers who were also Gestalt learners that read by age 3?  They were early readers because they learned to sight read at an early age.  They swallowed words in gulps and whole bites rather than the pieces the rest of us were trying to sound out.  That was a few years ago.  Since then I’ve struggled through letter sounds, letter writing, learning phonemes, and teaching digraphs.  I now know a great deal more about reading and how hard it can be for a Gestalt learner to read.  The pieces (the letters) don’t make any sense to him.  Blends are a foreign concept to him, no matter how many times we would review them.  Every day he would look at them as though he was seeing them for the first time.

In the book– “Dyslexia, An Introduction to Learning Disorder”, Gopal makes a strong connection between Gestalt learners and dyslexia.  Gopal tells us that learning the “alphabet, syllables, and words will be impeded if there are difficulties in perceiving their forms” (p173).  For my Gestalt learner, the sounds and syllables are meaningless but the form of the letter is fascinating.  The forms and shapes of the letters are what cause the mix up.  He tries to find a visual pattern between the letters to get a clue about the sound and the word.  The letter “R” and the letter “K” both have a diagonal leg but their sounds are completely unrelated.  To a visual learner, this seems nonsensical and confusing.  But this is exactly what Gopal states is  ‘the law of Pragnanz’ (or Gestalt).  Gopal claims the law of Pragnanz is when one “perceives a familiar thing easily than the unfamiliar” (p170).   The Law of Pragnanz is organizing information into the simplest form possible.  Often trying to make the shape symmetrical, simple in form, and with the fewest shapes possible does this.   A Gestalt learner might see the shapes of the letters and try to find a pattern, a commonality, or a familiarity among their forms rather than learning sounds associated with the letters. 


Our family’s experience supports Gopal’s premise that reading will improve with greater exposure.  Gopal suggests visual perception is based on past experience (p173-174).  In order to change my son’s view of letters, we needed to increase his experience level.  As his experience grows, his reading improves.  In other words, he no longer looks to associate letters with the same form; instead he associates it with the last time he read it.   I’m not talking about rote memorization techniques because they are painful and wouldn’t work anyway.  We just practice reading as much as we can.  This is the same kind of practice that all new readers do.  We may go a bit slower, and we may re-read books more than other readers, but it gives us practice.  And for us, practice has proven the most beneficial on our reading path.   For us, there is no ‘bad’ practice because we are doing it to fill up our experience bank.  Everything is fair game:  street signs, video games, television, magazines, etc.  Being a visual learner can sometimes seem like a super power, but it also can be an obstacle.  I don’t know if I can make my son a great reader, but that’s not my goal.  My goal is to make my Great Little Pretender the most experienced reader he can be.

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Tools of the Trade

I am always trying to come up with better methods for my visual learners to express the pictures in their heads.  This weekend we spent some time covering a wall with dry erase boards in my husband’s home office.  I thought he might actually cry when we finished with the project, he was so happy.  It provided him with 72 sq feet of wall space to draw mind maps and “systems maps” to work out his ideas graphically.  It helps when he has to write papers or proposals so that he can refer to the picture on the wall rather than the one in his head.  If it is in his head, he continues to perfect it rather than concentrate on what he is supposed to be writing about.  It’s just too much fun developing the picture!

72 sq feet of creative space

Additionally, he came up with an idea to cover an old desk with dry erase board material (melamine).  Now, as he is typing on his computer he can jot down a mind map kind of picture right on his desk.  He can refer back to it during conference calls or as he is writing an email.  It’s a great way to sort out the idea graphically. He is so excited to use his new tools.

My little great pretender is getting some new tools too.  He’s shown a real interest in reading.  He has us read the same book each night until he has memorized it.  Then he insists on reading it to us every night.  Except when he ‘reads’ the book, all the words run together like one big sentence.  So I thought he might enjoy books more (he usually hates typical ‘story time’) if he was the one doing the reading.  For this project, I’ve covered a stand-alone cardboard project board with felt (from the fabric dept at Walmart).  I have sight words with pictures that have a small piece of sandpaper glued to the back of the card.  As we work on a story, he can move the word around on the storyboard or pick it up to look at it closer.  It will allow him flexibility to handle the word and hopefully encourage an interest in words and reading.  We read “The Foot Book” today without a storyboard, and he was very pleased with himself to learn the word “foot”.  Dr. Seuss rocks.

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Can I get a translator PLEASE?

Sometimes I think it is a wonder that our family understands each other at all.  This wonderful family of mine—and they really are wonderful— are speaking different languages.  I don’t mean languages such as Spanish or French–that would be so much easier.  A semester at a community college and I would be on my way to fluency!  No, I’m talking about words versus pictures.  My oldest son and I think in words while my youngest son and husband think in pictures.  We spend a great deal of time doing what I like to call ‘translating’ our ideas to each other.  I translate my words into visual aids and my visual spatial family members are trying to turn their pictures into words.  For my husband, that means he uses an enormous amount of words in an effort to describe the ‘picture’ to me.  It takes a lot of words to explain things spatially and with the exact context that he intends.  (Think about how many words it would take to describe a specific location of a set of playing cards in your house to someone who’s never been to your house)  It can be frustrating for him and exhausting for the listener as he tries to decompose his ‘big picture’ to them.  My son — the Great Little Pretender– speaks this visual/spatial language even more than my husband. This means that I am often answering a question or telling him something that is not even in the ballpark of what he intended.  I call it the Tree vs. the Forest scenario.  I am looking at a tree but my Great Little Pretender is talking about the whole forest.  Just yesterday, he found this Curious George book and asked me, ‘what’s this?’  Take a good look at the cover.

I looked at it and explained, “it’s a book about things that are big and things that are small.”  He just sat there studying the book very carefully with a concerned look.  Finally, he came over to me and said, “no mama, it is not about things that are big or small.  This is a book about circles.”  And often that is how it is.  For him bigger and smaller are not topics worthy of a whole book. He wants to know what are they DOING with circles?  Is it about something you can make with circles?  Maybe it is a book about how to draw a circle?  What is the goal of the circles? He was very disappointed when he learned the book’s purpose was to compare pictures of big circles and little ones. To him, that seems to be a silly waste of a topic that is as good as circles.   So the book goes by the wayside because it had nothing to offer him.  And I realize that he saw an entire forest where I only noticed a tree.

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What does it mean to be a Gestalt learner?

The basic principle of being a gestalt learner is experiencing the whole as greater than the sum of its parts. In other words, the whole (a picture, a car) carries a different and altogether greater meaning than its individual components (paint, canvas, brush; or tire, paint, metal, respectively). In viewing the “whole,” a cognitive process takes place – the mind makes a leap from comprehending the parts to realizing the whole. We visually and psychologically attempt to make order out of chaos, to create harmony or structure from seemingly disconnected bits of information. The prominent founders of Gestalt theory (developed in the 1920s) are Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Kohler, and Kurt Koffka .

Gestalt learners are right-brain dominant.  They are interested in how things work (mechanically), patterns, shapes, and sizes, and see a greater picture than just parts.   They have great imaginations and can have artistic talent.  Artists from Michelangelo to Rodin to Picasso and Escher exhibit gestalt principles in their work. Michelangelo is famous for saying “I saw an angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”  Most of us look at a block of marble and see only a block of marble, not an angel.

The right-brain dominance of gestalt learners can be at the expense of left-brain activities.  This is why some very bright children can be late talkers.  Language comes, but at a delay and finding the words to express themselves can be difficult.

Left-brain thinkers are convergent thinkers.  A convergent thinker has a systematic approach and plays by the rules. He analyzes everything and reaches a logical conclusion. Such people do very well on straightforward questions and tests with answer choices.  Our entire educational system is geared towards this type of student. An example is how students are taught to read.  Students first learn the alphabet in sequential order, then the sounds of the alphabet, and finally are taught to put the letters together to form words. Gestalt learners, on the other hand, are considered divergent thinkers. When they problem solve, they start from the big picture and their thinking diverges from there.  A gestalt learner may learn to read whole words before learning the individual letters of the words and their sounds.  They do not problem solve based on sequence but rather reach a conclusion without being able to verbalize the steps to reach the conclusion (they just see the answer). Gestalt thinkers are creative and tend to throw the rules out the window.  They are often artistic and always looking for ways to express themselves. They do much better in exams that require essay-type answers. Sarah Major has a good list of common characteristics for gestalt learners on her website: http://child-1st.typepad.com/my_weblog/2010/01/characteristics-of-the-gestalt-learner.html

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