The Importance of Spatial Learning

Spatial learning was defined by Harvard educator Howard Gardner in 1983 as one of nine individual “parts of the whole” in his theory of multiple intelligences. His ideas have somewhat fallen out of favor over the years mostly due to misinterpretation of his theory. Teachers have always tended to place each student in one of Howard Gardner’s nine modes of intelligences based on their intellectual strengths. Students do not usually have only one strength, however, but can instead be thought of as being placed on a continuum for each, excelling at some areas and showing deficits in others. Regardless of the talents exhibited, these intelligence areas are not fixed, but can and do change over time with interest and training. At the core of the theory of multiple intelligences is that a person’s cognitive ability goes far beyond the traditional measurements we use in standardized education.

Our educational system has traditionally concentrated on the areas of verbal and mathematics. We have historically spent a tremendous amount of time, effort, and money at improving our student’s reading, writing, and arithmetic. I contend that besides verbal and mathematics training, there is a third leg to this stool which is just as equally important: spatial learning. Very little attention has been spent on spatial learning in the classroom mostly due to the lack of understanding of its overall importance and of its absence within our standardized testing model.

Current educational research continues to show that spatial learning is a key characteristic needed for critical thinking and solving real-world problems. This research shows that there is a direct correlation between spatial reasoning skills and achievement in all areas of the STEM fields, reading comprehension, and higher-order thinking. Research involving spatial training has shown that this ability is far from a “fixed” intelligence but can be significantly improved with treatment regardless of age. The improvement after a short amount of spatial training has been demonstrated to result in long lasting positive effects. In many ways I see spatial learning as the “low-hanging fruit” on our educational improvement tree. It is an area that is underdeveloped and underserved within our educational community, and with implementation of current research, it could have a significant impact for our students, especially in the areas of science and mathematics. Over the last ten years, there have been several spatial learning centers that have popped up across the country to help develop educational curriculum for teachers in this area. If you are interested in learning more, I would suggest checking out spatial researchers such as Dr. Nora Newcombe and the website for her Spatial Intelligence Learning Center (SILC) housed at Temple University. You will find a tremendous amount of research and resources related to spatial training for the classroom. In my next blog post, I will explore the importance of spatial learning specifically within the area science education.


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