What You See Is What You Learn

A geography lesson from almost fifty years ago has stuck with me. I write about it in my book Yoder School.

“Geography isn’t just about labeling a map with rivers and countries and mountain ranges,” my professor Mr. Klein said one afternoon. “It’s a way of thinking about the world. And what you see on a map influences what you think.”

Take Africa for an example, he told us. Thirteen nations, including the United States, would fit into Africa. But you can’t tell this by the Mercator map we see most of the time. To get the shape right on a flat surface, the size has to be distorted. So we all walk around with diminished Africas in our heads.

Much later in teacher training, I learned that more than 50 percent of the brain is devoted to visual processing. No wonder images reach out and grab us. What we see can compel us instantly to compassion or to anger. Visuals can chunk complicated information into bite-size pieces.

It takes much longer to read a paragraph than to find meaning in a picture or a graph or a map. So we tend to make broad judgments based on what our eyes can process in 100 milliseconds. With the eyes holding such power, we should think about what students see.

Do they see maps that show size as well as shape, that show that the United States doesn’t always have to be in the middle of the map? Do they sometimes see men as nurses and women as doctors? Do they see people of their skin colors as heroes of stories and makers of history and as inventors and mathematicians and musicians and artists?

Because their brains are wired to react to color and shape, students’ eyes are constantly scanning, picking up images at the rate of perhaps 36,000 per hour. And what they see can create lasting impressions.

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