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The Research Is In

The Spatially Gifted—Our Future Architects and Engineers—Are Being Overlooked

Though they have the potential to excel in many fields, we’re neglecting a large body of students with a unique set of skills.

December 4, 2020
An illustration of spatial layout skills
Michael Glenwood Gibbs / theiSpot

Between two and three million students possess strong spatial talents—the types of valuable aptitudes that help engineers and scientists imagine new technological innovations, architects visualize innovative structures, and carpenters conceive of complex builds.

Yet even though spatial skills and reasoning can be measured with paper-and-pencil tests that gauge kids’ abilities to mentally rotate and visualize objects in three dimensions, we aren’t consistently doing that. And so spatially gifted students often struggle in school, don’t receive the specialized attention they need, and are generally overlooked by gifted and talented programs, according to research published earlier this year by The British Psychological Society.

Public school curricula and standardized assessments have a long track record of focusing on verbal reasoning and mathematical problem solving, a narrow emphasis that tends to leave little room for—if not outright marginalize—the many students whose unique talents and interests don’t neatly fit the mold. As a result, we’re neglecting a vast pool of talented students—spatially gifted kids, in particular, but also highly creative children who excel in painting or dancing—making it difficult for them to stay engaged in school and cutting them off from a variety of rewarding future career opportunities.

“Our findings show that spatially talented students with relative math and verbal reasoning weaknesses are falling through the cracks in the educational system due to a lack of attention and education tailored to their needs,” write Joni Lakin, associate professor of educational studies at the University of Alabama, and Jonathan Wai, assistant professor of education policy and psychology at the University of Arkansas, co-authors of the study. “These students are less likely to have positive K-12 educational experiences and less likely to even complete college.”

EXACERBATING A DIVERSITY PROBLEM

From kindergarten through high school, Lakin and Wai found that kids with strong spatial skills often tend to “dislike school and have trouble paying attention in class.” And compared to students with more pronounced math or verbal talents, spatially gifted students are more likely to be suspended, leave high school without a degree, or get in trouble with the law.

But meeting the learning needs of spatially gifted students and challenging them in the classroom so they’re engaged requires that educators receive resources and training—and for the most part, Lakin and Wai imply these are severely lacking. “In particular, many high spatial students may be less verbally fluent—the ability to retrieve words on the basis of sound patterns, to be able to speak fluently on cue,” they write. “In other words, serving spatially talented students will require considerable curricular innovation, which might be one factor in the lack of services for this population.”

And in spite of their unique abilities, kids with strong spatial talents are often overlooked for gifted programs. Schools frequently struggle to identify high-ability students from underserved populations—kids who are English language learners, or students with disabilities, for example—resulting in gifted classrooms with deep racial and socioeconomic disparities. For spatially gifted students, that’s a pattern that Lakin and Wai say has persisted in the United States over the last 60 years, closing the doors to gifted programs for a vast number of highly creative thinkers.

EXPANDING CURRICULA AND ASSESSMENTS

At least 4 to 6 percent of U.S. students—and many millions more around the world—are exceptionally talented in spatial reasoning, Lakin and Wai conclude, but because we’re not measuring and nurturing their unique skills, schools and the workforce are missing out on “a huge pool of untapped talented students, including those who come from low-income backgrounds,” they write.

Schools need earlier and more systematic “spatial talent identification and educational development,” Lakin and Wai argue, because when kids receive training and experience developing spatial skills, research shows these abilities improve consistently. Tasks that focus on drawing and three-dimensional rotation and thinking, for example, help kids build spatial abilities. At Charles R. Drew Charter School in Atlanta, Georgia, there’s a focus on integrating spatial skills in the early elementary years, with second-grade students conceiving, designing, and then building their own playground—hands-on learning that reinforces science, technology, engineering, and math. Even video games that are especially spatially demanding—like Tetris and Minecraft—can be beneficial. Maker spaces and robotics classes can help kids practice these skills too.

And in order to do a better job recognizing and educating students with spatial talent, educators need targeted training. This is especially important because “education majors have been shown to have the lowest average spatial ability of college majors and thus may not recognize or be prepared to nurture this type of talent.”

Lakin and Wai’s research provides a broad reminder that our traditional grading and assessment systems are too narrowly focused to fairly and equitably gauge the full range of students’ abilities—whether they’re spatially gifted or not. “Students with exceptional spatial skills should be eligible for gifted and talented services and given personalized support,” the researchers write. “But many never register on their school’s radar.” A good place to start is with grading. Instead of requiring a traditional essay or multiple-choice test to assess student learning, consider offering them greater choice, opening up your assessment options to include different types of graded products—building models, drawing diagrams, or creating flowcharts, for example—so kids with these pronounced spatial skills have an opportunity to shine. 

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