Are Big Picture Thinkers Neglected by Our School System?

One of my favorite blogs, the Eide Neurolearning Blog, has an interesting post up about big picture thinking, defined as:

1. Having a simple framework
2. Using analogies and metaphors
3. Developing multiple perspectives
4. Looking for patterns and commonalities

The post explores whether big picture thinking types — people who learn inductively; that is, generate rules from examples — are neglected in our education system.

Pint-sized big picture thinkers really do exist and they seem to be over-represented among gifted children who underperform or cause behavioral disruptions in their early elementary school years. Many of these kids are 'high conceptual' thinkers, those who like discovering novel subjects, themes, and things that don't make sense ("The thing that doesn't fit is the interesting thing" – Richard Feynman), but the reason for this is often not random – inductive learners (learners who derive rules from examples) use novelties to generate new hypotheses or new rules.

Big picture thinking really is a sort of upside-down thinking style, but if it is truly understood, it has many ramifications for education. Many big picture thinker struggle with time management problems and underachievement (poor written output) in their school years. When we ask many of these kids why it is hard for them to start writing, it becomes clear that the problem is more that they know too much (and have trouble narrowing their subject) than than they know too little. Many confess to us that they read more the assigned reading because they feel they need to understand things better if they are to understand a thing at all. Many of them are seeking the overarching framework inside which they can put their new bit of knowledge. Often these are 'why' kids – who need to know why something is true, not just that something is true. For those of us who are content to be 'little picture' thinkers when called for, the drive seems a little arbitrary and perhaps fatuous- but if you see enough of these kids, it seems more than a preference, it is a necessary requirement for learning at least in some people.


The Eide doctors have a particular emphasis on dyslexia, ADHD, and fMRI.

Here's a listing of the top 30 entrepreneurs who were college drop-outs, left-handed, and dyslexic. Familiar names: Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, Charles Schwab, Richard Branson, Steven Spielberg, Bill Hewlett, Ted Turner, Tommy Hilfiger, David Neelman, John Chambers, Walt Disney, Thomas Edison. Here's my post titled Damn It Feels Good to Be a Lefty.

8 comments on “Are Big Picture Thinkers Neglected by Our School System?
  • *“Many of them are seeking the overarching framework inside which they can put their new bit of knowledge. Often these are ‘why’ kids…* I’ve felt it while I’d been in my school and carried it through into my career as well. A point did come when I could no longer put up with the mediocrity that ceaselessly underwhelmed me and today I’ve a not so bad enterprise to run.

  • This rings true for me. I remember in some cases imploring the teacher for more examples, and declaring that what we’d been shown meant almost nothing, all by itself.

    I guess a really good teacher needs to be a master of mixing styles to do well with a broad group of students!

  • “I guess a really good teacher needs to be a master of mixing styles to do well with a broad group of students!”

    It’s a tragedy that so many are not.

    When learning something new, survey the space; breadth first. Then the depth has context.

  • Ben, only Henry Ford and Walt Disney, of the names you mentioned, were left-handed, at least according to Dunlop’s list, which is suspect anyway because he doesn’t cite his source for this information. Also, only five out of the thirty listed are checked as left handed, so it doesn’t support your claim that somehow lefties have cognitively superior brains.

    Besides, I’d like to know who diagnosed Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Alexander Graham Bell as being dyslexic.

    Given this sample of Dunlop’s writing, I find it easy to believe that he is dyslexic, but his list turned my stomach with its implied assumption that the accumulation of great riches by whatever means is a good thing.

    Several of these men are or were of less than sterling character. The top of his list is Henry Ford, a rabid anti-Semite and a Nazi sympathizer.

    And look at his nauseating business slogan: “If a lazy, dyslexic, college dropout can earn more working 1 hour a day then all his mates put together, then you can do it to! Check out my FREE eCourse to earning money online in 7 days!”

    Some work ethic. Is this kid Dunlop sucking on daddy’s teat?

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