The Hands-On Learner Vs. The Visual Problem Solver

Let's get something out of the way right off the top: saying that we learn best “hands-on” is sort of like saying we prefer to breathe air.


David Sandler wrote the book You Can't Teach a Kid to Ride a Bike in a Seminar, and the same is certainly true for the trades.

But there is a distinction that needs to be made between “learning to ride a bike in a seminar” and “learning more about bikes in a seminar” or “learning about better riding technique in a seminar.” Those would both could be valuable once you've already been riding a while.

This article is about HVAC training, but it's also about things I've learned running a business, being homeschooled myself, home-educating our kids, and having a large family.

This is the perspective of one man, so take it with a grain of salt.

“I'm more of a hands-on learner.”

Inevitably, when I teach a class, give a seminar, send an article, make a video, record a podcast, or suggest that someone RTFM, there is someone who says some version of: “I'm more of a hands-on learner.”

Which, to be clear, is totally cool and should never be disregarded, especially when learning an entirely new concept.

I went with my kids to the science museum the other day. The “Bernoulli table” with balls floating on high-velocity air streams created the “hands-on” and visual experience to illustrate Bernoulli's principle.

It was a lot of fun and very interesting to see the balls suspended in the air, but imagine if I started to explain the principles of pressure, velocity, and mass to the kids using words, and then they just look blankly and say, “I'm more of a hands-on learner.”

Do you see the issue?

This is hands-on learning. It just isn't ONLY hands-on learning. Almost nothing is ONLY hands-on learning if you want to understand what is going on.

Language needs to be used to explain the “why” behind something we can experience hands-on, and if you refuse to listen or read the manual or plaque, you are left with experiences and observations that have no context or meaning.

To some degree, we are all hands-on learners, but to really understand, we would be well served to become attentive readers and listeners as well.

You must be so patient. 

It's no secret that Leilani and I have 10 kids. When Leilani goes to the grocery store, she gets three comments from people most often:

  1. “I don't know how you do it.”
  2. “You must be a saint.”
  3. “You must have so much patience.”

We laugh because we ARE NOT naturally patient people AT ALL, and we have no secret magical powers or heavenly bestowed holiness. People imagine that to have 10 kids and remain (mostly) sane, you must have some special gift.

The truth is much more boring and mundane.

You don't need a huge dose of natural patience, but you do need to work at being patient. You don't need to be a saint, but you do need to work to control your emotions when life gets crazy.

In the same way, you don't need to be naturally gifted at listening or reading to learn, but it sure helps if you work at it.

Obviously, some people are more academically gifted than others, and some have learning disabilities and challenges. This isn't to downplay that reality, but I think you would be better served to stop using it as an excuse.

Becoming a Visual Problem Solver

A visual problem solver is much like a hands-on learner in that they prefer to have a problem in front of them to find the solution rather than using words to describe it.

Some of the BEST problem solvers I've ever met weren't big talkers. Instead, they create images in their mind of a problem, structure, or machine and work over the problem using the visual centers of their brain.

If you think about it, converting ideas and mental pictures to language is actually pretty inefficient if there is no reason to do so.

The challenge comes in when you need to communicate those ideas to another human.

If you start describing a problem to a visual problem solver, they may request to take a look or have a photo or screenshot sent to them. These are ways the visual problem solver has found to get around the challenge of translating things to language all the time.

They will often draw diagrams or ask you to draw diagrams, and they may stare at them a bit as they build the visual model or “cartoon” in their head.

The visual problem solver doesn't make excuses about how they prefer to learn. They don't make it someone else's fault that they aren't getting a concept.

The visual problem solver finds workarounds to get things out of words and into their head, where they work on it and ultimately SOLVE THE PROBLEM.

Take responsibility for the translation gap. 

Good teachers find ways to meet their students where they are and teach to their learning style. The BEST teachers do the same and then ALSO teach their students how to translate a world that doesn't always cater to their learning style.

As a learner, it is our responsibility to take what we can from all sources and methods to learn how to problem-solve. I would argue that visual problem solvers actually have a HUGE advantage in our trade because HVACR is visual and hands-on by its very nature.

It doesn't change the fact that reading manuals is often the only way to get certain information and may continue to be a struggle. Whereas the person who always repeats that they are a “hands-on learner” may wait for someone to translate words on the page for them, the visual problem solver may build a cartoon in their head or doodle a diagram—whatever it takes to solve the problem.







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