Learning from Others – Dr. Nora Newcombe

Spatial reasoning can be described as a skill that helps us move through our physical environment. While this skill seems like one that intuitively develops over time, research indicates that one can improve their spatial skills with practice. Spatial reasoning has also been linked to not only mathematical ability but to success in any of the STEM fields. Noting this significance, I am intrigued to  learn more about spatial reasoning, especially concerning preschool children.

Nora Newcombe is a professor at Temple University and a leading researcher in the area of spatial reasoning. Her work spans to over 40 published articles. Dr. Newcombe earned degrees at both Antioch College and Harvard University. Some of her honors include the Distinguished Scientific Contributions Award from the Society for Research in Child Development, and the Women in Cognitive Science Mentor Award. She originally became interested in the study of spatial reasoning through her initial interest in the study of language. Most recently Dr. Newcombe served as the director of the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center located at Temple University. Currently, she is working at the University of Auckland in New Zealand in the area of spatial reasoning concerning maps, mazes, and scale drawings.

As part of my PhD program in STEM Education, one of my assignments was to interview a researcher in the STEM education fields. Since the Early Math team has began work in the area of spatial reasoning and has studied some of her work, I reached out to Dr. Newcombe to schedule a conversation. The team was able to video conference with Nora in her current home in New Zealand. She began by sharing how she was first interested in the idea of language and how this seemed to gradually take her to spatial reasoning. I then asked about gender differences and what she was noticing in the work at the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center. Dr. Newcomb indicated that at preschool age there was relatively no difference in ability by gender, but there was a significant difference in interest. She explained how young children in our culture are nurtured to activities that are categorized as more gender appropriate; for example, girls tend to spend more time at the dramatic play area in a preschool classroom and boys at the blocks center. Nora shared how these interests may be the cause of the difference in gender ability that does seem to occur beginning in 3rd to 4th grade. This question led to the idea of quantity versus quality of spatial skills time, which is mentioned in one of her articles. Relating to the “Thirty Million Word Gap” by Dr. Dana Suskind, Dr. Newcombe explained how it is not just the amount of words that matters, but the quality of those words as well. In spatial reasoning there exists a unique vocabulary and parents are the primary nurturer of these words – between, next, above, under, etc. When a rich spatial vocabulary is present, it seems to impact children’s spatial skills.

Finally, there was a question on progression and pacing. While Dr. Newcombe believes that spatial skills are malleable and that quality time spent in certain experiences can move children along in their development, she cautioned that not all children are at the same place, regardless of their age. The interview concluded with her encouragement to continue the important work we are doing on the Early Math team. Specifically, she encouraged us to ensure that pacing and difficulty levels are adequate, that we help the teachers we work with to realize the importance of exposing children to a variety of shapes, and to think about using mapping situations with children at this young an age.

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