HELP!;  Our Boys Are Thinking In Pictures!

The headlines are emotional, sensational and repetitive, ‘our boys are failing’.  Irrespective of how often we hear it, the message is none-the-less upsetting for anybody with a direct or indirect interest in children, the education system, or our future;  our boys are not succeeding satisfactorily in their elemental academic learning.

Acknowledging that issues of academic failure on the part of our younger generation, particularly of our boys, is a journalist’s paradise-playground, the harsh downstream realities, so currently evident in our youth subculture, and so predictable from the evidence to date, raises concerns fueled by emotions ranging from love to fear.

Although recorded history shows clearly that there is nothing new about this situation, our current ‘progress to perfection’ mind-set leaves us little room to sit in complacency while the evidence dances so vividly before us.  The education system is failing our little boys, somewhere, somehow.  Our little boys stand to become big boys, and at this rate our big boys stand to become big problems – or at least enough of them stand in such a way as we see them as being a problem.

Although the reports persistently tell us there is a problem, they just as persistently fail to indicate where and how the problem lies, and fall glaringly short in terms of any practical suggestion or indication as to what might be done about it.

As a little boy who experienced such difficulties at school, and who ran perilously close to becoming one of the problematic youth,  Laughton King believes he can shed light on the situation.  He claims the explanation is as dynamic, yet as simple as the difference between petrol and diesel.

In his seminars and his books he reminds parents and teachers what happens when we inadvertently put petrol in our diesel car – the engine goes sluggish, overheats, then finally fails to perform.  This, he says is what happens when we fail to recognize that many boys under the age of 12 years think in pictures.

He smiles when I look quizzically in response to this statement, as if expecting or indeed predicting my confusion.  Thinking just happens – doesn’t it?  Few of us probably ever bother to stop and think about thinking, let alone ponder such deep-and-meaningfuls such as how we might think.  By way of explanation he gives a thumb-nail description which in essence hi-lights major differences between the way in which most males and females think.  He describes girls and women as having a much greater natural skill – and a much greater tendency – to think in words.  Boys and men on the other hand, he says have less skill in this arena, but correspondingly more skill in thinking in pictures.  This he says explains a lot of the differences in the way men and women operate, and consequently a lot of the difficulties the two experience in communication.  This part is familiar ground for most of us.

Despite our gender prejudices, this difference in style of thinking is not just a matter of personal obstinacy, but more a product of the different wiring systems that we have.  He talks of ‘masculine’ wiring systems and ‘feminine’ systems, and neurological research that indicates that the feminine system involves up to eight separate centres for language processing (but few for spatial relationships), and that the masculine system has a solitary (and sometimes very lonely) centre for language processing, but has more processing space dedicated to the kinesthetic, tactile and spatial functions.

He points to the obvious – little boys are all touch, crash and go, where little girls are more physically reserved, but talkative in their style.  He points to the more obvious – the café where we met for this interview has two or three groups of women talking with varying degrees of animation, and one solitary man hunched over his laptop.  Through the window and across the way we see eight large motor-cycles parked outside a café-bar, and their red-and-black leathered owners – the current version of ‘middle-aged-gentlemen’ – sitting quietly with their bikes and their beers in the sun.  Their bikes do the talking – or should it be, ‘their bikes make the statement’.  Admittedly two women accompany the men, but Laughton draws my attention to their upper-arm tattoos, and with a wordless gesture suggests that I take this into account.  What I notice is his distinctly male communication style – gesture, not words.

‘And the relevance to education, and educational success?’ I ask.

“Excuse me for generalizing”, he starts, “but after working with children – mainly boys – with learning difficulties for over thirty years, I feel it is reasonably safe to suggest that up to the age of about 12 years, most boys think predominately in pictures.”  “Girls tend to think in words, almost in sentences, creating ‘straight-line’ or a linear thinking style which really suits our schooling system.  Our schools are full of words – reading, writing, listening, talking etc – and girls lap this up, with words being a fuel to their thinking.  It makes teaching the ‘feminine’ brain a piece of pie.”

He pauses, and a flash of pain passes his eye, “- but for many boys it is different.  To varying degrees boys think in pictures.  I call them ‘Diesels’.  This is a function of their brain wiring.  Words are just not a significant part of their system.  Their fuel is different, their brain is different, their style is different, and as parents and teachers we need to know this.”

I listen to him speaking, and note the change in his own language, his shorter sentences, as he obviously reflects on personal experiences.

“Consider the teaching staff at your local primary school – primarily female?”  Yes, in my case exclusively female, and I pre-empt his next question by acknowledging, ‘All very adept in their language skills.’

“What if they were inadvertently – with the best intention – putting petrol into these little boys’ diesel tanks?”  “What I mean is, what if the words they are using were making little sense to the boys – what if their ‘masculine’ wiring system meant that they simply cannot make sense of the words – the language – that their teachers (and parents) are using?”

He invites me to draw a picture, a picture of the instruction “Hurry-up” – one of the most common instructions given to children.  “If boys think in pictures, what is the picture that comes up in their head that will tell them what ‘hurry up’ means?”

I’m not much of an artist (more of a word-smith really) and he grins when he sees my rendition of someone running.  “Nice picture of ‘run’, but I really wanted a picture of ‘hurry-up’”.  Eventually I’m obliged to acknowledge that there is no specific picture of ‘hurry-up’, and he pushes his point by suggesting I draw ‘quickly’, (can’t do), or the instructions ‘tidy up’, (equally can’t do), ‘Put your gear away’ (still can’t do).

‘Enough of this, what should we be saying to boys’, I protest.

On his invitation I find I can draw “Put your bag on the hook behind the door” – it’s a bit like a comic strip, but any pictorial (diesel?) kid could comprehend my efforts there.  Similarly the instruction “go brush your teeth – run” fits nicely into picture form, and I am beginning to think of my own family early-morning rush and some changes that might happen very soon.

“That’s ice-berg number one – and there are lots more like it that sink many of our little boys, and severely deflate the self-concept of many others.  We tend to call these children ‘dyslexic’ because we see that they are having trouble with language – reading, writing etc – and we tend to think that there is something wrong with them.  There is nothing wrong with them, they are perfectly well formed diesels (picture thinkers), and they don’t need fixing.  They also don’t need more petrol squirted into their engines – and unfortunately most of our remedial assistance approaches involve just that – more petrol.”

“What they do need is a basic understanding of their natural style, acceptance of their pictorial processes, and for teachers and parents to take this into account.  Let’s stop blaming the victim.  We need to change us, and what we do, rather than trying to fix the children”.

This is his mission as he moves around the country with Natalie, his portrait-artist wife, in their five ton mobile home.  Currently in the South Island, they have dedicated several years to personally visiting most towns in New Zealand, visiting schools, running seminars, and introducing parents and teachers, social workers and policy-makers to what he considers to be one of the most commonly misunderstood social dynamics of our time.

The implications are horrendous, he says.  Firstly it cuts so many of us out of successful education.  This has a huge impact on the self-concept of a large proportion of our male population.  This in turn is reflected in our use of drugs and alcohol, our physical and mental health, our employment dynamics, our incidence of domestic violence, our incidence of split families, our attitude to authority and the law, and directly to our prison population.  His passion is obvious.

Our discussion goes on and on, and I learn the impact of negative language (Ice-berg No. 2) and can now clearly see the hypnotic effect when I tell my four-year-old son ‘Don’t use the front door’.  My blaming the child now seems so unfair, and I begin to wonder about the label ‘Oppositional Defiance Disorder’.

Ice-berg No. 3 emerges as a series of school rules (e.g. ‘Respect other people’s rights’) which simply cannot be transcribed in pictorial form, and which therefore completely elude the pictorial child’s understanding.  A sense of sadness floods me as I suddenly realize who it is who repetitively stands in front of the Principal for breaking the school rules – yet again – and I see a completely new causal connection between learning difficulties and behaviour problems.

Ice-berg No. 4 appears as a complete difficulty when it comes to ‘creative-writing’ in the classroom.  So many of these children have a wonderful creative fantasy – which presents itself in pictorial form.  They have a head full of pictures, but no words – there is nothing for them to write, because you can’t write pictures.   For the person who thinks in words this is so hard to comprehend, and they just see the child as lazy, or unmotivated.

And here comes Ice-berg No. 5.  The parent or teacher really wants this child to succeed, and so ‘remedial help’ is arranged.  Done with the very best intention, so often this is more petrol for the poor little diesel, and he struggles to comply but ends up failing yet again.  Whereas in the past he has been motivated to achieve, now his repetitive failure takes its toll and he becomes motivated to self-preserve – so he withdraws his co-operation and his effort.  ‘If I don’t try, I can’t fail’.  For his efforts he is tagged as ‘unmotivated’, and with ‘an attitude problem’.

Ice-berg No. 6 is apparently more like an ice sheet, and consists of a whole raft of further dynamics that predictably accompany the ‘dyslexic’ condition.  These include a tendency to food intolerances, or even food allergies, a social lonliness born of other children’s intolerance and teasing, an inability to filter-out distracting stimuli (often called ADD – Attention Deficit Disorder, but really an Attention Overdose Disorder), a tendency to reverse direction in both reading and writing, speech and language difficulties (the butt of further teasing), and an inability to think before he speaks.

No. 7, predictably like the polar ice-cap, covers all and takes the form of a major lack of self-confidence and anger that often pervades the rest of his being.  This then can either preclude any subsequent personal success, or in some instances creates such a powerful sense of purpose and determination that nothing is ever allowed to get in the way of achievement and success – what ever that means.

‘Is it all bad?’ I ask, recalling some reference to dyslexia as a ‘gift’.  The look he returns is tolerant, but barely so.  “No, it’s not all bad, but it can seem that way.  At 58 years I still regularly have nightmares about my primary schooling.  Before we start singing the benefits of being a diesel motor let’s start by getting clear about what a diesel motor is, how it works, and getting really clear about the fuel we put in it.”  He pauses, breathes out then adds, “I guess that’s my job”.

I leave the café and our interview with a mixed sense of despondency and guilt, gratitude that I was never one of these, and a determination to join up and present as clear a picture as I can through the words of my profession.  Yes, I have a lad of my own, fortunately not dyslexic, but certainly one who leans toward the pictorial.

Laughton’s books contain insights for teachers and parents.  He is adamant that they do not contain programmes for the ‘dyslexic’ child.  He avoids this approach on the basis that each child has a different presentation – and different needs, and that the teachers already know how to teach.  He is convinced that the parents and teachers are already concerned and motivated.  They just need insights as to how these children think, how they feel, how they react, so that we can reach them and then teach them.  Then we may better work with them – not against them.  Hence the titles of his two books; REACHING THE RELUCTANT LEARNER, and WITH, NOT AGAINST.

Laughton is pleased to be available for contact via his email;

Laughton King    July 2008

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