Big-Picture Thinkers and Detail-Focused Thinkers: Implications for Students and Teachers


By Kevin Parr

When I heard the learnd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room, How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wanderd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Lookd up in perfect silence at the stars.

Our classrooms are similar to the lecture hall in Walt Whitman’s When I Heard the Learnd Astronomer. We have students like the speaker who always ask, “Why do we have to know this?” and others like the lecturer who beg, “Just tell me what to do, so I can do it.” Whether we are talking about students or their teachers, both big-picture detail-focused thinkers exist.

So who are these thinkers? How do they differ? And more important, what is the relevance of all this to the world of education?

First, let’s look at students.


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Although both types of students can be catered to in the classroom, it is more important that teachers help to stretch their comfort zones. This is especially true with respect to detail-focused students. While big-picture students may benefit from assignments or exercises that sharpen individual skills, it is imperative that detail-focused students learn to put their work in the context of the world outside school because, ultimately, their success will be determined outside of school, not inside it. Although traditional schooling seems to reward detail-focused thinking, active participation in society and the workplace requires big-picture thinking. Therefore, it is essential that detail-focused students are encouraged to broaden their perspectives so that they can create real-world solutions for real-world problems. They must learn to see the big picture—their future depends on it, and so does ours.It is important to recognize that both types of students exist and their natural tendencies can be leveraged for success in any classroom. For example, while a detail-focused student may be fine mastering skills just for the sake of mastering them, a big-picture student will need to know why they are learning what they are learning. Simply telling this student they will need it for next year is just about as good as saying “because I said so.” Instead, helping them see how isolated tasks fit in the real world may help them to be more successful. When it comes to long-term projects, detail-focused students might be more motivated if they are able to graph their progress on each individual skill along the way, while big-picture students might prefer a less structured approach to progress monitoring.

Now that we understand both types of students, let’s look at their teachers.

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Although both types of teachers can adapt their teaching to engage all students, detail-focused teachers bear the biggest responsibility in changing their way of teaching. Even though detail-focused teachers may show quicker academic gains on paper, short-term achievement should not be confused with long-term success. Success in life is the end goal, and it requires big-picture thinking. Students—no matter their age—need to understand how their learning is applicable in the real world, not just as a means to a grade on a test. Therefore, detail-focused teachers need to commit to moving out of their comfort zone to help students look at the bigger picture. These teachers will need support in creating authentic learning opportunities that focus on making learning relevant to the real world and integrating creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication. Furthermore, they will need support in ensuring students have the social and emotional skills necessary to do these things successfully.It is important for teachers to identify which type of thinker they are and also what type of thinkers their students are because both parties can experience the same activity differently. A teacher can think his lesson is engaging, while a student may not. For example, what may seem like worthwhile practice to meet a standard to a detail-focused teacher may seem like meaningless busywork to a big-picture student. Conversely, what may seem like an engaging real-world learning opportunity to a big-picture teacher may seem vague and messy for a detail-focused student. In both of these situations, the student will disengage and their learning will suffer. Through self-awareness and knowledge of their students’ thinking style, however, teachers can help students stay engaged and maximize their learning.

In the end, though, all the work will be worthwhile because the world is ever-changing and the ability to see the big picture is increasingly important. Teachers are responsible for preparing students for this world, and they can do so if they look at the big picture and make certain their students do, too. After all, learning about the stars should include looking up at the stars themselves.



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