Why ‘Spatial ability’ could be the key to Stem success

What is ‘spatial ability’ and why is it important? Psychologist Emily Farran explains in this week’s Tes Podagogy

spatial ability

Spatial thinking is the type of skill that many of us take for granted. Yet, spatial abilities are what allow us to navigate our way around the world, to understand the relationships between objects and to make sense of their dimensions.

“We use spatial thinking all the time,” says Emily Farran, professor in developmental psychology at the University of Surrey. “It’s very core to everything we do. We live in a very spatial world.”

Speaking this week on the Tes Podagogy podcast, Farran gives an everyday example of the type of task that requires spatial thinking:

“If you want to present someone’s birthday cake to them so that they can read the writing [on it], then you need to think ahead as to which perspective you need the cake to be presented to them in. So you’re visualising how you might rotate that birthday cake,” she says.

Spatial thinking is what also allows us to move around a room without bumping into objects, or to complete basic tasks like getting dressed.

However, Farran’s research focuses on a different use for these skills: the link between spatial abilities and success in Stem subjects – something that she feels teachers need to become more aware of.

Spatial ability and Stem

Studies have shown that children who have higher spatial abilities are more likely to do better in subjects such as science and maths at school, she explains, and are also more likely to enter careers in Stem.

“Spatial ability is needed to understand models; to read diagrams; if people need to rearrange formulae in maths or in science, and to interpret things that are given at different scales – for example, cells are usually scaled up and the solar system is usually scaled down – and then in maths obviously there’s a lot of shape and symmetry, which is all spatial. Numerical relationships all require spatial skills,” Farran says.

Because so many aspects of the maths and science curriculum depend on spatial skills, children who are not naturally predisposed to these abilities are more likely to struggle with these subjects, she explains.

However, there are things that teachers can do to enhance these skills and to make children aware of their existing spatial abilities.

“Spatial ability is malleable, so training in spatial ability is pretty effective,” Farran says.

She believes that if teachers understand where spatial ability is important, then that’s a good starting point.

Another positive action is for teachers to integrate spatial thinking into their teaching through increasing their use of spatial language: for example, deliberately using opposite terms like ‘left’ and ‘right’ and words like ‘between’, ‘slope’ and ‘parallel’.

Farran adds that the important thing is for teachers to begin encouraging spatial abilities more consciously and for them to be more explicit with children about the importance of these skills.

“Children need to be able to spatialise their thinking and teachers needs to spatialise their teaching,” she says.

You can listen for free by downloading the podcast from iTunes or listening below.

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