Visual Spatial Skills and Learning

Visual spatial skills are critical for learning and understanding. In addition to enabling us see, interpret, and understand the world around us, visual spatial skills help us add pictures to stories, connect meanings to symbols, perform and appreciate the arts, and enable us to make critical connections between what we see and understand.

Visual spatial skills are particularly important for learning and performing in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. Research consistently reports there is a strong connection between spatial abilities and success in mathematics and in the sciences. One of the most significant and well documented studies conducted was called Project Talent. The Project Talent research project measured spatial reasoning skills of approximately 400,000 people and continued to track them from their high school years in the late 1950s through until today. Findings revealed that high school students that documented high scores in spatial reasoning were much more likely to major in math, science, medicine and other STEM disciplines. Additionally, students with high spatial skills were more likely choose STEM careers than students with lower scores, even after accounting for the fact that they often had higher verbal and mathematical scores. Finally, it was noted that students with high spatial reasoning skills were also found to be more likely to get advanced research degrees in the STEM fields. In sum, there is a strong link between spatial thinking and performance in the STEM fields (Newcombe, 2010). This finding was consistent for typical students as well as for gifted students, for men and for women, and for people who grew during different decades.

Sadly, despite the urgent need for strong spatial reasoning skills in our technology-driven world, our current education system spends little time fostering students’ innate visual spatial skills as more time is spent on things such as the rote memorization of facts and learning how to follow routine procedures. This is becoming increasingly problematic as the need to become literate in the STEM fields has never been greater.

The good news is visual spatial skills are highly malleable. To develop these critical skills, we need to provide students with carefully designed, meaningful learning experiences where they can explore, play and interact with the world around them as they learn. Using new digital touch technology is one way to facilitate spatial reasoning.

Given our highly-advanced, technology-driven 21st Century world, it is critically important to seek out opportunities for kids to engage in activities that develop their spatial reasoning skills, especially since little time inside their classrooms is spent doing so.