David Uttal, Ph.D.
David Uttal, Ph.D.
Professor, Psychology of Education
Northwestern University

Let’s Get Practical (An Overview)

We agree on the importance of early spatial training. How can we apply it?

Now that we all know spatial skills are important for young students’ ability to advance into the STEM subjects, what are we going to do about it?

This has been one of my driving concerns as my colleagues and others in the field keep sorting through the latest studies. We’re developing good theoretical understanding in recent years, but our ability to extend this knowledge into classrooms still seems to lag.

We know, for instance, that sharpening a young child’s spatial smarts can improve their future learning performance in math, science, physics and engineering. In practical terms, advancing on this knowledge can clearly qualify more students for some malnourished professions.

One of the key details, it seems to me, is to seek consensus on when our best interventions might matter most. As an opening bid, I’d propose pre-k through 3rd grade as a good starting point. This means a modest ramping up with training exercises to enhance pattern recognition—such as comparing drawings of quilt patterns and reversing them, etc., and then “spatializing the curriculum” for the ensuing early schooling years.

Mapping with childrenI’m an incrementalist and don’t think we need to do something radical or costly. In my group’s recent meta-analysis of the field, we’ve tracked literally hundreds of studies showing simple new ways of teaching early spatial skills. This may be a situation in which a little goes a long way.

Spatializing the curriculum can be as simple as tapping kids’ natural enthusiasm for video games by using them for basic challenges like asking each child to map their own location within a classroom. We’ve also learned it’s fairly easy to use black clay shapes to model simple structures and then review with students whether the structures work or need adjustments.

It’s a delight to see how these early enhancements in spatial training improve a student’s trajectory with STEM skills by the time they reach high school. One of my favorite studies conducted at a suburban high school near our nation’s capital asked students to determine optimal locations for wind farms off the U.S. east coast.

Where were the shipping routes? How could they avoid disruptions to the flight paths of migratory birds? How close should wind farms be to the population centers they intend to serve?

Such real-world exercises compel young students to think like engineers, who can deploy their spatial thinking skills toward solving modern riddles that might benefit everyone.

As educators and parents—indeed, as a society—we can all get there if we’ll simply come out of our silos and put all of these fine ideas into action.