Want to boost science and maths? Teach spatial skills

Spatial skills are increasingly seen as a good indicator of a child’s affinity with Stem subjects, writes Niki Kaiser

Dr Niki Kaiser

A child’s spatial skills are a good indicator of their affinity with Stem subjects, research suggests

I really struggle with reading maps. Every now and then I go orienteering with my family and, however much I twist and turn the map, I invariably get horribly lost. 

Yet if I look at a graph I can find my way around it and "read" the story it’s telling. If I see an equation, I can rearrange it in my head and pick out the important aspects. And when I think about the properties and reactions of atoms, I can visualise how they’ll interact with things. These are all important skills for a chemist.

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You might expect that subjects such as geography and PE would demand a developed sense of space, but recent research highlights just how important spatial skills are to Stem subjects, too, particularly maths. 

What’s more, a child’s spatial ability is a good predictor of their Stem expertise in adulthood, and the likelihood of them using this expertise professionally later in life. 

Stem: the importance of spatial skills

In "Spatial Ability as a Gateway to Stem Success", Professor Emily Farran outlines research linking spatial ability with attainment in science and maths, a link that is already apparent in early years. Children who hear more spatial language as toddlers have stronger spatial skills when they start school, supporting their understanding and achievement in maths. 

This is not surprising, since spatial thinking contributes to key mathematical skills like rearranging formulae, as well as more obvious areas, such as shape and symmetry. And to succeed in Stem subjects, you need to visualise processes and have a strong appreciation of scale, from the immensity of the solar system to microscopic bacteria. 

Encouragingly, recent studies suggest that we can help our pupils to develop transferable spatial skills, so if we support their development in this area, it could improve their performance in Stem subjects. This appears to be particularly effective for primary school children, but there are approaches you can implement with older students, too.

So how can we best support our pupils to develop their spatial skills? You could argue that, in a broad and balanced curriculum, this should already be an integral part of their experience. But it is worth considering areas where these aspects can be explicitly taught, and finding ways of incorporating them into your planning. 

Visualising space 

Firstly, think about the language you use. Where possible, use directional terms like "left", "right" and "between" (which can be tricky for some younger children to understand). You might also consider reinforcing these words with gestures. And use specific spatial vocabulary wherever possible, such as "parallel", which succinctly conveys quite a lot of information. 

Another important skill that is strongly associated with maths and Stem subjects is visualisation – the ability to imagine processes in your head – and you can support pupils to do this. For example, ask them to picture the trajectory of a ball before it’s thrown, or to imagine the flow of blood through the heart. Encourage children to imagine what a jigsaw piece looks like when rotated, rather than physically showing them this straight away, even though this is usually harder than the trial-and-error approach.

It’s also important to consider terminology and interpretation that is second nature to you, as a relative expert compared with your pupils. For example, do you take time to remind them what the relative proportions of a pie chart mean? It might feel obvious to you, but it’s worth drawing pupils’ attention to areas that dominate, and the relative sizes of different segments.

Ask pupils to compare diagrams, for example summarising the similarities and differences between two molecules, and narrate your thinking aloud when interpreting graphs and diagrams. Discuss and explore spatial scales in cells, atoms and planets. There’s a BBC clip explaining how the nucleus would be the size of a grain of sand in an atom the size of St Paul’s Cathedral, and it still elicits gasps from pupils, when they find out that the universe is actually mostly made up of "empty space". 

I should also say that this area of research is relatively new, and more work needs to be done to establish what type of spatial training is most effective, how much is needed for it to have an impact, and how long any benefit is likely to endure. But it’s certainly something I’m going to keep in mind as I plan my teaching this year.

Dr Niki Kaiser is network research lead at the Norwich Research School at Notre Dame High School

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