What is spatial ability?
Spatial ability can be best defined as the ability to “generate, retain, retrieve, and transform well-structured visual images.” Some examples of great inventors who have used their high levels of spatial ability to innovate include James Watt, who is known for improving the steam engine and James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. Nikola Tesla, who provided the basis for alternating current (AC) power systems, is said (or fabled) to have been able to visualize an entire working engine in his mind and be able to test each part over time to see what would break first. Rather than a great feat of mental math, one could consider this a great feat of mental imagery.
Why should we care about developing spatial ability?
Over a half century of research on spatial ability has uncovered the significance it plays—in addition to math and verbal ability—in educational and occupational settings where it is essential, such as engineering, physics, math, and computer science. For example, a mechanical engineer routinely rotates three-dimensional images and a mathematician can often solve a complex geometry problem by visualizing its solution. In fact, there is a type of mathematician who focuses on using imagery to solve problems that are called “geometers.” With the current push for the development of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) innovators, some of those with high spatial ability are potentially an untapped and underdeveloped resource.
Most gifted programs currently focus on math and verbal ability by using measures that do not include a spatial component, leading many highly spatially talented students in the U.S. to be “missed” as gifted. These students do not have their talent developed to the same degree as those who are identified using math and verbal measures, even though they are quite spatially talented and would likely profit from programs designed to develop their spatial talent.
What about math and verbal ability? Aren’t those important?
Math and verbal ability are extremely important for success in school, especially because much of the current curriculum focuses on topics that use the symbol systems of numbers and letters. Less emphasized in school is material that requires the ability to reason with figures, patterns, and shapes, such as robotics and engineering or some parts of chemistry. Lab courses that require a “hands-on” approach might be helpful for spatially gifted students in multiple domains. The current focus only on mathematical and verbal ability likely misses children who can be among our most creative thinkers.
Is my child spatially gifted and what should I do if they are?
If you are interested in testing your child, you should contact your local school psychologist to determine a test that is best for measuring their spatial talents. In doing so, it is important to recognize that a nonverbal ability test (which measures figural reasoning abilities) is not the same as a spatial ability test. The best spatial tests will require visualization and mental transformation of three-dimensional objects. However, certain indicators that your child is spatially gifted include a strong interest in tinkering with mechanical objects or with Legos and taking a hands-on approach. Maybe they excel at drawing.
What may matter most is the “pattern” of abilities within your child. Children who have high spatial and math ability but relatively lower verbal ability are more likely to pursue and be successful in a STEM career. If your child has particularly high spatial ability but relatively lower math and verbal ability, because of the focus on math and verbal within the current school system, she may be turned off to academics. She may be more interested in working on mechanical projects such as the family car. The ability to read opens the doors of knowledge and despite her aversion to reading you might encourage your spatially gifted child who is not as verbal to read biographies about famous inventors such as Tesla, Watt, or Watson. She may recognize that others before her who have gone on to accomplish great things were also more inclined to reason with images, and feel that developing her talent is worthwhile not only for herself, but potentially also for society.
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