Research has shown that spatial learners often flourish in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), and that developing children’s spatial thinking can increase their achievement in these subjects.
In issue 5 of Teach Secondary magazine, published in November 2012, Pauline Smith explains the significance of spatial thinking and explores what we can do to identify and nurture spatial thinkers in the classroom and beyond. www.teachsecondary.com.
Spatial thinking is acknowledged by psychologists as a key element of ‘general ability’, one of the basic mental tools we all have and need to use. However, many children are either unaware that they have a strength in this basic mental ability or it has been dismissed as merely being ‘good with their hands’ or ‘gifted at art’. Research has shown that spatial learners often flourish in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), and that developing children’s spatial thinking can increase their achievement in these subjects.
“My school years were vile, violent and humiliating,” declares Mark Wilkinson OBE OLM. “I was in the D-stream in a secondary modern school, where I would get lost in all of the words the teachers used and, if I hadn’t bunked off for the day, I’d spend my time staring through the classroom window, changing the scene outside with imagined images that built into pictures inside my head. It was only when I discovered that I had an innate ability to imagine and make beautiful objects in the craft class that my life changed.”
Mark Wilkinson is a modern day spatial thinker. Yet despite the trauma of his school years, Mark is widely recognised as this century’s leading designer of fine British furniture. He is also a member of Mensa.
His story is typical of many children who pass through an education system which tends to favour the type of intelligence which is displayed in writing and language-based tasks.
A spatial thinker is simply someone who thinks most easily by using images and only afterwards converts these thoughts to words; someone with a capacity for mentally generating and transforming visual images.
According to Dr Jonathan Wai, psychologist and research scientist at Duke University, North Carolina, schools are neglecting those with spatial intelligence for three main reasons.
Research has shown how neglecting spatial abilities could have widespread consequences. There is evidence that those with relatively strong spatial abilities tend to gravitate towards and excel in fields such as physical sciences, engineering, maths and computer science, as well as art and design.
Nora Newcombe, Professor of Psychology at Temple University, Philadelphia, explains that numerous studies indicate that spatial thinking is central to STEM success. She identifies Project Talent as one of the most important. The study followed approximately 400,000 American pupils over a 50-year period. It found that those who had high scores on spatial tests in high school were much more likely to major in STEM disciplines and go into STEM careers than those with lower scores.
Professor Newcombe points out that spatial thinking is not a substitute for verbal thinking. Nor is it a learning style. She believes instead that teachers should be trying to provide students with content knowledge, experiences and skills that support development of both verbal and spatial thinking.
Perhaps we should follow the example set by Japan where children are renowned for their spatial ability. This may be related to children being taught to draw accurately as a matter of course and acquiring a written language which involves learning 2,000 visually-complex symbols, each needing one to 20 brush strokes. In Britain, however, drawing is still thought by many to be a skill which requires ‘artistic ability’; something possessed by only a gifted few. Thus pupils can leave school as academic ‘high-flyers’ and yet be unable to sketch a square or a circle.
Professor Sir John Gurdon was ranked last in his Eton year group at biology and was in the bottom set in every other science subject. Yet 64 years later, Professor Gurdon has been awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine. His inability to cope with the rote-learning demands of post-war school science suggests he may be a spatial thinker and his example demonstrates what potential we risk losing by not supporting our spatial learners effectively.
Business leaders are pointing to a shortage of scientists and mathematicians in industry. Earlier this year, Nigel Whitehead, group managing director of BAE Systems, revealed that just ten per cent of people in the UK study STEM subjects beyond the age of 16. He warned of a looming crisis with 60 per cent of UK jobs over the next decade requiring STEM skills.
Nigel Whitehead called for outreach programmes to be adopted by businesses, for parents to be educated as to the importance of STEM and the use of social media to redress the STEM imbalance. Another essential element to improving the take up of STEM subjects is identifying spatial thinkers early and tapping into their talents.
Ormiston Forge Academy is a progressive inner city school. Andrew Burns is its forward-thinking principal in the midst of a far-reaching programme to transform the school’s approach to teaching and learning.
He recently introduced the Cognitive Abilities Test (CAT) for Year Seven pupils to allow teachers to gain a measure of pupil capacity, what they can do, how they work and also their strengths and weaknesses. Teachers are now able to easily differentiate between the abilities of individual pupils. There has been a noticeable improvement in social skills and the self-esteem of pupils as a result.
The test is about to be rolled out to Year Eight and Year Nine pupils, allowing teachers to identify spatial learners and provide assistance to those gifted in STEM subjects.
We need all schools to follow the path set by Ormiston Forge Academy and others like them in understanding that learning should be tailored to the individual.
As a society it is important that we change the way intelligence is defined by schools, parents and our culture in general. We also need to identify spatial learners early. By making spatial learning more explicit, educators can appreciate when and how it takes place.
What can you do in your school to support spatial learners?
Top tips for parents wanting to support their child’s learning at home:
Pauline Smith is senior psychometric consultant and developer of the CAT4 tests at GL Assessment.
The Cognitive Abilities Test (CAT) was established over 30 years ago and is currently used by schools to identify students’ strengths, weaknesses and learning preferences through a series of verbal, non-verbal and quantitative tasks. The new edition of the test, CAT4, contains a greater emphasis on uncovering spatial learners and is available for children aged seven – 16 years. The tests are available in both paper and digital format.
John Galloway discusses how we can identify and support girls with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties.