Picturing Our Future

How to Engage Students and Rebuild America

On the morning of January 28, 2022, at 6:39 a.m., the Fern Hollow Bridge, which goes through the Frick Park area of Pittsburgh, collapsed over a ravine. It was snowing that morning, so fortunately, with a delayed opening to the school day, the four-lane bridge was less heavily trafficked than usual. No lives were lost, but at least 10 people were injured. A gas pipe had also been ruptured in the collapse, and even though it was soon shut off, people in nearby homes had to be evacuated. The recognition that it could have been much worse hung in the air, along with the lingering smell of gas, as people were rescued from the site.

Coincidentally, the Fern Hollow Bridge plunged into the ravine below on the same day that President Biden was scheduled to visit Pittsburgh to talk about infrastructure, emphasizing the need to improve the supply chain, revitalize manufacturing, and create good-paying jobs.1 These are all admirable goals, but the question remains: How will we find and train the people for the vital jobs the president proposes if we stick with our current one-size-fits-all model of education, employment, and communication? Finding and training the engineers, machinists, welders, architects, and public planners begins on the nursery floor. The children who are drawn to blocks, Legos, tools, highly detailed drawing—who like to take things apart and put them together. If we recognize and cultivate and invest in them, they will grow into the adults who will build and repair bridges.

How can we identify and encourage our future designers, engineers, and artists? First, we must see them, recognize their skills, and support their different learning curves. They are the visual thinkers.2 If we don’t provide these kids with a more visually based education, we are decimating our talent pool. Above all, my goal is to help these kids. If we start there, anything is possible.

Imagine if we catered to visual thinkers the way we cater to verbal thinkers. If we didn’t assume that we all perceive and process information the same way, primarily through language. We can look the other way each time a bridge buckles. Or, if we want to make good on our promises of giving our kids a better life—if we want to engineer a safer, more inclusive, more advanced society that leads in manufacturing, technology, and finding solutions to the challenges of a rapidly changing and complex world—we need to make room for our visual thinkers* and their remarkable gifts.

Thinking Visually

The universally accepted belief that we are all hardwired for language may be why it took me until I was nearly 30 to understand that I am a visual thinker. I am also autistic, and I didn’t have language until I was 4. I didn’t read until I was 8, and that was only with considerable tutoring in phonics. The world didn’t come to me through syntax and grammar. It came through images. But even without language, my thoughts are rich and vivid. The world comes to me in a series of associated visual images, like scrolling through Google Images or watching the short videos on Instagram or TikTok. It’s true that I now have language, but I still think primarily in pictures.

Because the world I was born into in 1947 did not yet distinguish between different ways of thinking, it was disconcerting to discover that other people didn’t think the same way I did. It was difficult to fathom the differences between most people’s thought processes and my own. I wanted to find out if there were other people like me.

I came to see that there were two different kinds of visual thinkers. Though I couldn’t prove it at the time, I recognized a kind of visual thinker who was distinct from me and who sees in patterns and abstractions. I first became aware of this distinction while working with various kinds of engineers, machinery designers, and welders. Later, I was ecstatic to see my observations confirmed in the scientific literature. The work of the researcher Maria Kozhevnikov showed that there are object visualizers like me, who think in pictures, and, as I suspected, a second group of mathematically inclined spatial visualizers, an overlooked but essential subset of visual thinkers, who think in patterns.3 Think of it this way: the object thinkers build the trains, and the spatial visualizers make them run.

Cultivating Talent

Back when I went to school in the 1960s, shop class was nearly ubiquitous. I vividly recall our fifth-grade shop. It was an industrial-style room with a roll-up garage door. There were wooden workbenches and a huge bin for plyboard and wood scraps. Coping saws, hammers, pliers, screwdrivers, and eggbeater drills hung from a pegboard in a neat row, in descending order from largest to smallest. It was there that I started learning to use tools and make things. (One of my first projects was a wooden boat, which, sadly, failed to float.)

I loved working with my hands in all kinds of ways, including learning to embroider in home economics and building and painting sets in the drama program. Programs like these give kids with technical skills the opportunity to show off—and enjoy school.

If you went to public school in the 1990s or after, you may not remember shop or home economics. They were largely scrubbed from the public school curricula around that point, along with art, theater, welding, and auto mechanics, with some regional variation. The culmination of these policies arrived in 2001, when the education reform bill known as No Child Left Behind “hit American education like a tsunami,” according to Nikhil Goyal’s critique of the legislation in his book Schools on Trial.4 Now, not only was the stripping away of hands-on learning a reality, but a new philosophy had supplanted it: teach to the test. The policy, otherwise known as “drill, kill, bubble fill,”5 became the norm.

The legacy of federal education policy from No Child Left Behind to the Every Student Succeeds Act created a culture that has simultaneously overemphasized testing and stripped our schools of multifaceted curricula. The goal of raising national academic standards through comprehensive testing decimated the classes that didn’t lend themselves to standardized testing. “Beginning in third grade, the amount of instructional time in the arts, music, science, and history was reduced, because basically what was tested got taught, and these subjects were not equally tested,” writes Goyal.6

Most students never have the chance to learn what they might be good at. Restoring shop, art, music, and home economics to schooling would help.

Another great way to expose kids to different ideas and potential careers is through field trips. When I was growing up, field trips were a big deal. I was in elementary school when I first visited a car factory. I can still vividly recall watching an air wrench screw in all five bolts on a wheel at once. I’d seen my dad laboriously change a tire by removing and replacing it one lug at a time. I remember being fascinated by the lug wrench, jack, and lever—intimations that my mechanical mind was already at work. I could have stared at it for hours—the machine that achieved at warp speed what had taken my father ages. The budding clever engineer in me was on fire.

School field trips have been another casualty of the “teach to the test” approach. A report called “Why Field Trips Matter” cites a survey by the American Association of School Administrators that found that more than half of planned field trips were eliminated as early as 2010.7 The report also mentions that museum visits promoted critical thinking, historical empathy, and interest in art. The benefits were two to three times greater in students from less advantaged backgrounds.

Imagine the possibilities field trips might offer to students in a variety of settings: factory, farm, mill, distribution center, professional kitchen. These experiences supply direct exposure to careers students may have never imagined, along with a window into the way everyday things work and are made.

One of the most useless questions you can ask a kid is: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The more useful question is concrete: “What are you good at?” That’s a real starting place to develop interests. Kids need broad exposure to discover their talents. There is no subject I am more passionate about, and the reason is twofold. First, by depriving students of that exposure, we are failing them. And in the process, we are also dismantling the healthy and diverse workforce our country needs.

Losing Skills

In 2019, I set out to tour three state-of-the-art US poultry- and pork-processing plants. This is a regular component of my job as a consultant in the food-supply business. At one plant I visited, something else entirely caught my eye. Until then, nearly every plant I’d ever worked on or consulted with used equipment made in America. The parts were manufactured here, and there were workers at the ready who could put together new components and repair any malfunction. At this plant, the equipment was brand-new. It was beautiful, meticulously crafted, and made of gleaming stainless steel, with many intricate moving parts. Looking at it, I imagined the highly skilled, high-wage workers who had designed and installed the equipment. Then I discovered that it had been transported from the Netherlands in more than 100 shipping containers.

I stood on an overhead catwalk and looked at all the complicated conveyors and exclaimed to no one, “We don’t make it anymore!” This is the price we have paid for removing most hands-on classes from our schools, such as shop, welding, drafting, and auto mechanics. The kids who should have grown up to invent this equipment are often considered poor performers, academically or behaviorally, and are shunted into special education. But many of them are simply visual thinkers who are being screened out because the current curriculum favors verbal, linear thinkers who are good at taking tests. The hands-on classes where some of these “poor students” might have shown great ability are now much too rare.

We are losing essential technical skills for three main reasons. First, the people who had manufacturing expertise are not being replaced at the same rate at which they’re leaving the job market. Second, we’ve ceded the manufacture of not only volume goods such as clothes and toys and appliances to foreign companies but high-tech goods as well. Last, and this is my main area of focus: we’ve screened out visual thinkers. When we fail to encourage and develop the talents and skills of people who think in different ways, we fail to integrate ways of learning and thinking that benefit and enrich society. Imagine a world with no artists, industrial designers, or inventors. No electricians, mechanics, architects, plumbers, or builders. These are our visual thinkers, many hiding in plain sight, and we have failed to understand, encourage, or appreciate their specific contributions.

Reimagining Apprenticeships

How would you feel about getting a fully funded education, with your housing costs covered and the guarantee of a job when you graduated? That’s what the Apprentice School in Newport News, Virginia, offers. Of the more than 4,000 applications it receives each year, it enrolls only 220 students, an acceptance ratio on a par with that of Yale or Harvard.8 The program, which has been around since 1919, offers four-, five-, and eight-year apprenticeships in shipbuilding. The main areas of study are business, communications, drafting, mathematics, physics, and ship construction. Your classroom might be the dry docks or a steel fabrication shop or a propulsion shaft repair facility. Additionally, you will learn life skills, including how to balance a checkbook, how to buy your first home, and etiquette for business dining. It’s worth noting that the school is a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, which designs, builds, and maintains ships for the US Navy and Coast Guard. Government funding ensures the health and well-being of the apprenticeship program, just as it maintains the fitness of the fleet. Without such deep-pocketed contractors, most companies couldn’t afford such a lavish program. Still, it’s a model for how companies can groom, grow, and retain a next generation of highly trained employees.

The popularity of apprenticeships in the United States declined in the early 20th century as more children entered compulsory education. This trend continued as more of the population went on to higher education, and a lack of federal funding made paid apprenticeships less viable for employers.9 According to a Brookings Institution report by Brian A. Jacob, technical school is often considered a “dumping ground” for low-achieving kids.10 This fallacy is born of our prejudice that college is for everyone, that it’s the only path to a high-paying job, and that working with your hands in a skilled trade is somehow less prestigious or valuable than careers that require academic degrees. Jacob cites the increase in required academic high school courses in the 1980s, coupled with the expectation that all young people should pursue college, as the reason for a sharp decline in career and technical education (CTE) participation, also known as vocational education. Between 1990 and 2009, the number of CTE credits earned by US high school students dropped by 14 percent.

In some places, government is taking the lead in creating opportunities for the kind of exposure to work that can make all the difference between kids losing interest (and losing their way) and feeling a spark connecting their abilities, their interests, and their passions. According to the US Department of Labor, there are nearly 26,000 registered apprenticeship programs across the nation.11 And according to Apprenticeship.gov, the average starting salary after an apprenticeship program is completed is $80,000, with a 90 percent employment retention rate.12 The website lists hundreds of apprenticeships with major corporations. Many apprenticeships go unfilled. When our beautiful new chemistry building was being built at Colorado State University, the project manager told me that they were having difficulty hiring enough electricians to complete it. A quick Google search with the keywords “electricians apprenticeship Colorado” revealed more than 100 openings for entry-level jobs with training, full pay, and benefits.

A search of Apprenticeship.gov will blow your mind as to how many opportunities there are: software development, roofing, manufacturing, utilities, hospitality, pipe fitting, and aerospace, to name a few. These are not dumping grounds. These are paid positions that offer an education and stable employment opportunities.

Are we willing to open new avenues of education like apprenticeships? Can we produce a 21st-century workforce of people with and without college degrees, verbal and visual thinkers, and the neurodiverse? Can we take our eyes off the tests and promote learning? Can we take our object and spatial visualizers and provide academic and career paths that play to their strengths? Can we find the economic and political will to rebuild our infrastructure? More important, can we find—and nurture—the people to do it?


I think often of a field trip I went on in fourth grade to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. We were all fascinated by the mummies. As we made our way from room to room, from dynasty to dynasty, starting with the earliest and working our way up the timeline, I noticed that the decorations on the heads of the pharaohs’ cases became rougher and cruder instead of the other way around. When I asked our teacher why, she said something I’ve never forgotten: “Their civilization was falling apart.” I still think of that when I see infrastructure crumbling, when I see talent squandered or wasted. It really upsets me. Too many things are falling apart. Too many kids are falling through the cracks, their gifts and abilities squandered.

Temple Grandin is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and a nationally known author and speaker on autism and animal behavior. She also consults on livestock handling equipment design and animal welfare; half of the cattle in the United States are handled in facilities she has designed. This article was excerpted from VISUAL THINKING by Temple Grandin, PhD, published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Temple Grandin.

*It’s important to remember that visual thinking, like most traits, exists on a spectrum. Most people use a combination of verbal and visual thinking to navigate their world. (return to article)


1. R. Treisman, “A Bridge in Pittsburgh Collapsed on the Day of Biden’s Planned Infrastructure Visit,” NPR, January 28, 2022, npr.org/2022/01/28/1076343656/pittsburgh-bridge-collapse-biden-visit.

2. T. West, In the Mind’s Eye: Visual Thinkers, Gifted People with Dyslexia and Other Learning Difficulties, Computer Images, and the Ironies of Creativity (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2009); and K. Nishimura et al., “Individual Differences in Mental Imagery Tasks: A Study of Visual Thinkers and Verbal Thinkers,” Neuroscience Communications 2 (2016).

3. M. Kozhevnikov, S. Kosslyn, and J. Shephard, “Spatial Versus Object Visualizers: A New Characterization of Visual Cognitive Style,” Memory and Cognition 33, no. 4 (2005): 710–26.

4. N. Goyal, Schools on Trial: How Freedom and Creativity Can Fix Our Educational Malpractice (New York: Anchor Books, 2016), 60.

5. N. Goyal, “Sunday Dialogue: Transforming Our Schools,” letter to the editor, New York Times, Oct. 13, 2012, nytimes.com/2012/10/14/opinion/sunday/sunday-dialogue-transforming-our-schools.html.

6. Goyal, Schools on Trial.

7. J. Greene, B. Kisida, and D. Bowen, “Why Field Trips Matter,” Museum, January 2014, aam-us.org/2014/01/01/why-field-trips-matter.

8. A. Neuhauser, “This School Has a Tougher Admissions Rate Than Yale—and Doesn’t Grant Degrees,” U.S. News & World Report, May 11, 2016, usnews.com/news/articles/2016-05-11/this-school-has-a-tougher-admissions-rate-than-yale-and-doesnt-grant-degrees; and IW Staff, “Shipbuilding Apprentices Set Sail at Huntington Ingalls Graduation,” IndustryWeek, February 27, 2017, industryweek.com/talent/education-training/article/22005850/shipbuilding-apprentices-set-sail-at-huntington-ingalls-graduation.

9. G. Ferenstein, “How History Explains America’s Struggle to Revive Apprenticeships,” Brown Center Chalkboard (blog), Brookings, May 23, 2018, brookings.edu/blog/brown-center-chalkboard/2018/05/23/how-history-explains-americas-struggle-to-revive-apprenticeships.

10. B. Jacob, “What We Know About Career and Technical Education in High School,” Brookings, October 5, 2017, brookings.edu/research/what-we-know-about-career-and-technical-education-in-high-school.

11. Employment & Training Administration, “FY 2020 Data and Statistics: Registered Apprenticeship National Results Fiscal Year 2020: 10/01/2019 to 9/30/2020,” US Department of Labor, dol.gov/agencies/eta/apprenticeship/about/statistics/2020.

12. Apprenticeship USA, “Explore Registered Apprenticeship,” US Department of Labor, August 2023, apprenticeship.gov/sites/default/files/IndustryFS-Apprenticeship101-081623-508.pdf.

[illustrations: Carole Hénaff]

American Educator, Spring 2024