Yaacov Agam presents his Visual Cognition (Smarts) program to pre-school students. ‘Visual shapes – a circle, a line, a triangle – are universal symbols.’Artist Yaacov Agam makes a quick sketch. He conceals it, then uncovers it for a split second to reveal a long line, a short line and a dot, all centered. Then he asks his interviewer to reproduce the picture.

“Where did you get the image?” he asks. He answers the question himself. “From your brain.”

This simple demonstration of visual memory is at the heart of what Agam, a world-renowned artist and sculptor, aims to teach pre-schoolers across Israel in his Agam Visual Cognition program. Since the 1980s he has been on a mission to try to balance the lop-sided emphasis on verbal language now found in the education system, and rev up children’s visual skills, visual memory and thinking.

“Our educational system neglects visual ability,” says 78-year-old Agam, who is widely known as the father of kinetic art. “Visual memory is very important; by training it, we can enormously increase the ability to learn and the development of visual thinking,” he told ISRAEL21c. “The real breakthrough is that once you acquire visual skills, you gain the ability to retrieve images stored in the brain at any time in the future.”

Agam’s obsession is not off the mark. A report released this year by the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council urges schools to teach spatial literacy. “Spatial thinking is powerful…” says the report. “Spatial thinking must be recognized as a fundamental part of K-12 education, and as an integrator and facilitator for problem-solving across the curriculum…[it] will play a significant role in the information-based economy of the 21st century.”

Agam, who has had major exhibitions in Paris, the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Smithsonian, and whose work can be seen in the Lincoln Center, the Israel Museum, in New Orleans, Palm Beach, Los Angeles, and private collections as well as public libraries and outdoor museums, first became interested in visual education in the 1980s when he founded the Agam Smarts program.

The program is a 36-unit course for pre-schools, which focuses on stimulating visual talents in young children as a means to improve over-all cognitive development In the late ’80s, it was tested in 50 pre-schools across Israel. Children who participated in the program, were taught for 20 minutes, three times a week.

In 1990, the program received high praise in a scientific research study prepared by the Science Teaching Department at the Weizmann Institute. The report found that children who took part in the program not only had a better grasp of visual concepts than children in the control group, and could apply them in more complex settings, but they also performed better on most visual memory tasks, scored higher in fine-motor skills and in tasks related to mathematics readiness.

“They even scored six points higher on standard intelligence tests (e.g. Wechler, WPPSI), and excelled at creative problem-solving tasks,” said Weizmann coordinator Dr. Sherman Rosenfeld. “There is obviously a transfer effect.”

In 1996, Agam was awarded the Comenius Medal from UNESCO “for having devised a particularly effective method of visual teaching for children.” Despite this success, however, the Agam program was shelved due to lack of funding.

Two years ago, Agam decided it was time to get the project up and running once more. “I got an appointment with Prime Minister Sharon,” says Agam. “He scheduled 15 minutes, but he was fascinated and the meeting lasted for an hour and a half, after which I got a call from the Education Minister to meet.”

This meeting led to further meetings between staff at the Weizmann Institute’s Department of Science Teaching, and staff from the Ministry of Education’s Preschool Division. The Ministry decided to invest about $100,000 to fund a revival of the program.

Agam also received a $50,000 grant from the president of L’Oreal, Jean Paul Agon, to help pay for the program’s materials. “He told me ‘you can’t learn beauty, if you don’t learn to see,'” revealed Agam.

About 40 pre-schools in Israel are now using the Agam program, under the auspices of the Science Teaching department of the Weizmann Institute. These include preschools in Haifa, Rehovot, Gadera and Beer Yaacov.

The program’s materials include flash cards, transparencies, and plastic forms of many shapes, sizes, and colors. Children learn to identify different combinations (a circle in the middle of a circle, attached, overlapping, separate, etc.). Each unit has five stages of activity: identification (by presentation and play); memory (using flashcards); reproduction (using plastic shapes or transparencies to break down the model into basic parts, and then to put the parts together); reproduction from memory; and finally creative production.

Teachers and educators are excited by its effect on themselves as well as pre-schoolers. “It has opened my eyes,” says math educator, Dr. Zvia Markowitz, who coordinates work in the Haifa area, which includes preschools in Acre, Tivon, Migdal Haemek and several Druze villages.

“The genius of the program is that it systematically teaches very young children the visual language. Kids are tuned into the visual world. They can learn to understand powerful concepts, like how to find the center of a circle and the radius, to understand symmetry. A big plus, they learn generic skills, like observation and concentration, that help them learn faster,” said Professor Bat-Sheva Eylon, the project’s director.

Agam tells of a powerful experience he had in a pre-school in Haifa a few months ago. The program had only been running for two months. “Usually we only show a child two or three images in a split second, but the young teacher continued to show 12 images. It was amazing, the 3-year-old child could not draw them, but he was able to point to 10 according to how they were shown, and the others out of order. The inspector from the Education Department was speechless.

“A cup is a different word in every language, but visual shapes – a circle, a line, a triangle – are universal symbols,” continues Agam. “That is why my visual language can be a universal language for children all over the world.”

Agam’s visual language is composed of visual concepts and visual grammar. The circle is the first unit in the program. Among the other basic units: vertical, horizontal, oblique, patterns, symmetry, angles, proportions, numerical intuition; first, second, third and fourth (time) dimensions. Each single visual concept is a ‘letter’; when two ‘letters’ are combined (blue, square), they form a ‘word’. ‘Words’ can become ‘sentences’.

In the Agam paradigm, three-to-four year olds look at a Star of David and see that it is made up of two triangles; they put two triangles together and they make a trapezoid; they look at a jumble of geometric forms and identify them; they remember the sequence of flash cards; they are shown a complex combination of shapes, and can reproduce it from memory.

As well as being educational, it is also fun. Take Maya for instance. This shy, reticent three-year-old from the former Soviet Union (a non-Hebrew speaker), smiled with joy at her nursery school recently when she correctly pointed her finger to two cards with different formations of circles in the correct sequence, as they had been shown to her. Later, at a different nursery school, an Ethiopian girl who had been sitting silent and apathetic, became lively and responsive after succeeding with Agam visual tasks.

“We have had significant feedback which shows a dramatic impact on children who have special problems, who tend to be introverted or non-verbal, who have speech defects, concentration problems, or difficulties with motor performance,” said Eylon.

Agam began working on the concept of visual education long before he even set up the Agam program in Israel. A visionary government minister in Venezuela, Dr. Louis Alberto Machado, heard the artist speak about his ideas on this subject and was so impressed that he pushed $2 million in funding to help the artist develop his visual language.

Agam worked closely with psychologists from Venezuela to develop the 36 units. It became part of the national education program in Venezuela; and a French edition was commissioned by the French Education Ministry.

Agam had been badgering Israeli universities to implement the program for years, but the breakthrough only came when Roger Sperry from CalTech won the Nobel Prize in 1981 for his brain research. Sperry showed that the brain has two hemispheres, the left – which specializes in language processes and the right – which is dominant in visual constructive tasks.

Michael Sela, the president of the Weizmann Institute took note, recalling Agam’s earlier work in the area, and the project began.

Interest in the Agam program is now growing fast. In a recent controlled study conducted by the Weizmann Institute Science Teaching Department which tested for visual cognition, such as the identification of circles and squares in a complex drawing, children who participated in the Agam program significantly outperformed children who did not participate.

After the results were presented this summer to the Education Ministry, the decision was made to implement the Agam Visual Cognition (Smarts) program in 50 additional pre-schools this year. This expansion will be funded by the Arison Foundation, which has donated a three-year grant to enable the Weizmann team to add the new pre-schools, and to complete the translation of the 36 units in the curriculum from French to Hebrew. The advance units will be introduced into elementary schools during the next three years.

“Visual thinking has been the black sheep of education because education is mostly seen as verbal. A lot of people suffer as a result,” said Rosenfeld, a native of California, who has been a strong advocate of the program since it was first introduced. “[The Agam program] is just as revolutionary now as it was then,” he asserts. “We are going full steam ahead.”

For Agam, it’s the sweet taste of accomplishment. With so many international accomplishments to his credit, why is Agam so devoted to the visual language program?

“It is my legacy,” he says simply.