The pages of most school textbooks are punctuated with maps, diagrams or sketches and there is a reason these “visualisations”, or “spatial representations”, are so widely used: they help people to understand and see the structure of things. It might be a difficult concept in science or geography, a problem in maths, or a complex family tree in a piece of literature being studied in English.
We also benefit from creating images in our minds, and manipulating and interpreting the visuals we produce in response to complex problems. This could include interpreting a diagram; imagining the behaviour of a device; figuring out an alternate route in a traffic jam; and sketching a visual representation.
But unfortunately, despite these “spatial thinking” skills being key to learning, many academics feel that the education system underappreciates, underdevelops and underutilises them – hindering our ability to interpret the visuals given to us, and our ability to create and use them ourselves.
Writing in Tes last year, the researchers Jonathan Wai and Frank C Worrell stated: “Spatially talented students are under-identified. The school system does not provide enough challenge for these students. Including spatial, maths and verbal reasoning measures early in identification, and testing regularly, would be an effective strategy to cut through environmental issues that can delay the development of talented kids.”
Professor Dan Schwartz, dean at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and author of The ABCs of How We Learn, shares this frustration. He says that the research backing spatial thinking may have been disputed in the past but it is now hard to dispute the fact that it exists and that it is important for learning.
“About 30 years ago, many researchers argued that spatial thinking was really verbal thinking and the spatial experience was epiphenomenal [a secondary phenomenon that occurs alongside a primary phenomenon],” he says. “A lot of research subsequently showed this is wrong. In fact, a good deal of research has accumulated that indicates that our understanding of simple number relations, such as “four is bigger than three”, depends on spatial representations – it is as if people have a mental number line.”
A range of abilities
Schwartz explains that spatial thinking is not a singular, apply-all ability but a range of abilities that people may have differing levels of expertise in. “Your ability to navigate large-scale space is different from your ability to imagine a rotating object. Your ability to detect symmetry is different from your ability to detect edges. Your ability to know that four is bigger than three is different from your ability to know that four comes after three,” explains Schwartz.
He adds that some tasks load up on a specific spatial ability – for example, chemistry requires a lot of mental rotation of molecular structures.
“If people have a specific weakness in mental rotation, then chemistry can be more difficult, but it won’t affect their abilities to read a graph of chemical processes. If people have weakness in mental rotation, it is possible to engage in sustained deliberate practice to improve their abilities to rotate molecules. More typically, people just find another way to solve problems that does not depend on mental rotation.”
Indeed, despite the benefits of spatial thinking, Schwartz says very few of us instinctively use visualisations when we are trying to understand or unravel something. “People don’t think to do it, or they say ‘I will just solve the problem in a short-cut way rather than trying to lay it all out in front of me’,” he explains.
So teachers, he argues, should encourage students to use spatial thinking, where applicable, rather than other routes. It will enable pupils to better manage complexity and can be a powerful teaching aid, he says – particularly useful for maths and science teachers.
“Spatial thinking is how your physical perceptual motor system makes sense of the world and that’s really important for understanding physics concepts or maths concepts,” he explains.
Teachers may believe they use and teach visualisations already, but Schwartz argues that the most common technique teachers use is unhelpful.
“A lot of classrooms make mind maps, but the mind maps aren’t very good because, basically, what you’re doing is putting down all your ideas and then drawing lines between them,” he explains. “That approach doesn’t help. “What you need to do is say ‘I have three types of lines. One line indicates ‘this belongs to this’, another line indicates ‘this causes this’ and another type of line indicates that ‘this has this property’.
“When you start to impose those constraints, the mind maps become objects to think with as opposed to objects that remind you there is all this stuff you need to remember. So, there are ways to improve what we already do by enforcing a little more structure.”
He explains that creation of visualisations should frequently be part of the start of a new teaching process and that teachers need to first set out the problem that needs to be solved without modelling the solution.
“Allowing people to experience the nature of the problem before you tell them the solution is always the key to getting them to use their knowledge in new situations,” says Schwartz. “It’s the exact opposite of the way we teach.
“We generally teach by saying ‘here’s how you do it, now copy me’ and [students are] so busy copying what you told them to do or think that they don’t notice anything else in the situation, so their learning becomes quite narrow. It’s better for them to experience the problem that you’re going to tell them to answer because then they are going to want to know the answer. After that, you can help model a solution.”
This modelling is where spatial thinking comes in. “You should say: ‘These are the kinds of questions you need to be able to answer – see if you can take this information and make a visual representation of it,’” explains Schwartz. “Sometimes you might need to explain what you mean by a visual representation. For instance, you might say, ‘Make a diagram.’ Then they go off and do this and come up with their own ideas.
“When they have presented their ideas, show them the original visualisation and say: ‘Experts worked on this problem and this is how they solved it. Do you like this solution?’ Once you have done this with them a couple of times, students get the hang of it.”
Fine-tuning spatial ability
He advocates starting this fine-tuning of spatial ability early in the school process, so students can better handle the complexities of the curriculum that come in later school years. “As you move through school, one of the problems with concepts is that they start to have more and more relationships and it gets harder to see what’s the structure between all of those relationships,” he says.
Schwartz says that the aim should be to get children to intuitively use visualisations rather than being commanded to use them to solve problems – but that is tricky. “We’re very good at telling people what to do and how to do it, but we haven’t really spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to get people to choose to do it.
“This is a delicate problem. Every time they do it I could give them a reward and every time they don’t do it I could punish them. But the problem is, that’s too brittle and they will start using it when they shouldn’t, for example.”
In addition, he cautions teachers against over-utilising visualisations in the classroom as they’re not always the best way of teaching something. “If you’re reading a book and the goal is [for the students] to have empathy with a character, a visualisation is probably not the right solution.
“On the other hand, if the goal is to see how the author set up some concept and had it show up later in the book, and then there is a crisis and a denouement, a visualisation of the narrative structure would be a good use of it.”
But the risk at the moment is not an over-use of spatial thinking but a lack of it in the school system. It’s not just the children that need to be incentivised to prioritise it, it seems, it’s schools, too.
Simon Creasey is a freelance journalist