3 Reasons Why Schools Neglect Spatial Intelligence

Learning, Learning Innovations / by

“Three Reasons Why Schools Neglect Spatial Intelligence” by Jonathan Wai first appeared on Psychology Today.

In Why Don’t We Value Spatial Intelligence? I stressed that as a society we have neglected spatially talented students who are not as good with words and numbers but who are quite talented at manipulating figures and shapes in their minds. In this article, I offer a few reasons as to why schools tend to neglect spatial intelligence.

1. Standardized Tests Do Not Include Spatial Measures

Standardized tests that kids take throughout school and even the SAT, ACT, and GRE do not typically include spatial measures.  Alex Knapp of Forbes—in his article Why Schools Don’t Value Spatial Reasoning—writes: “I suspect that testing spatial reasoning, especially in a standardized way, is more difficult than standardizing the testing of math and verbal skills.” It turns out that we have reliable and valid spatial measures; we just do not utilize them. However, there are certainly not as many spatial measures out there today because testing for spatial ability is currently unimportant in schools hence there is little motivation for most test developers to include a spatial measure.  Simply put, if we are not testing for it, we are neglecting it.

2. Most Teachers Are Not High Spatial

Knapp also writes: “I don’t have a lot of hard data, but I can make some educated guesses… that the people most drawn to education in the first place are precisely the people most comfortable with verbal and math reasoning—introducing bias in favor of those skills.”

 

 

Here is the hard data that confirms Knapp’s hunch taken from one of my research papers.  Although there are certainly teachers who have high spatial ability, according to the chart above, people with education degrees (far left) have the lowest spatial and math ability of all the groups (verbal is on par with engineers). Teachers, just like anyone else, will tend to relate to students who have similar strengths as their own.  Knapp is correct in that teachers tend to have similar levels of math and verbal ability and relatively lower levels of spatial ability. Therefore, it would make sense if teachers don’t recognize spatial talents as being as important as math and verbal talents simply because they have never really found them important in their career or their personal lives.

3. Spatially Talented People Are Not Very Vocal

When was the last time you saw a mechanic or engineer write an opinion editorial?  Or have you ever heard of one that decided to join the speaking circuit?  David Lohman has written an article—Spatially Gifted, Verbally Inconvenienced—which basically shows that people who tend to have higher spatial ability also tend to be less verbally fluent.  What this means is that people who are high spatial but lower math and verbal would probably be the least likely to express their dissatisfaction with the school system in writing or speaking. Instead, you’re more likely to find them quietly tinkering away in their garage, busy inventing some new gizmo that will change our lives.

So in a nutshell, I think these are three key reasons why schools neglect spatial intelligence.  What do you think?

For more on this topic see The Spatial Thinkers That Get Left Outside Higher Education’s Gates.

Jonathan Wai

Jonathan Wai

Jonathan Wai, Ph.D., is a psychologist, writer, and research scientist at the Duke University Talent Identification Program and an expert on multiple issues surrounding the development of intellectual and creative talent. He earned his doctorate in psychology from Vanderbilt University where he taught at Peabody College. His work has been highlighted by the New York Times, Scientific American, Reuters, Wired, Forbes, The Chronicle of Higher Education, National Review, The New Republic, and Education Week and has been discussed in reports by the National Academy of Sciences, National Science Board, and the journal Science. Dr. Wai has been awarded multiple international Mensa Awards for Research Excellence for his work on intelligence and creativity and serves on the board of directors of the MATHCOUNTS Foundation. He lives with his wife, dog, and two cats in Durham, North Carolina.

3 Comments

melissa /

Good observations. Is this why the “dumb” kids were always found in wood shop? Do you think more schools will begin to value spatial skills as they reform the ways they assess students? Has spacial intelligence been considered in CCSS or Assessments?

Kate Nonesuch /

I agree with your observations, and would add another: teaching so that kids can use spatial skills meets with resistance from teachers and parents because it doesn’t look like “real school.” It requires different kinds of assignments: build a model of the place where a story takes place rather than answer “comprehension” questions; use manipulatives to show your math thinking, for example. All of these require a different mindset: that learning will be messy; that learning will require supplies that get used up and have to be bought again and again; that different kids will take different amounts of time, and they can’t take unfinished work home for “homework”; that it can’t be marked in the usual ways; that learning which is not expressed verbally cannot be easily understood, controlled or assessed by teachers and others, esp. those whose strengths are verbal.

Jonas Ezeanya /

I once entered a mathematics competition back in Junior High School here in Lagos, Nigeria (I was 14yrs at the time). There was this geometry question I had no idea how to solve. I had never seen anything like it. It had to do with the dimensions of two congruent triangles. I invented a technique on the spot, based on inductive reasoning and “mapping”, with which I solved the problem.

I was so worried about it that I memorised the question and when I got home after the exam I immediately went to work searching through all my maths textbooks looking for examples that might lead me to the “conventional” way of solving it. I eventually found it, studied it, applied it to that question and, to my delight, I had the same answer!

A few weeks later the competition results came out and I scored ZERO on that question! That result never really bothered me. What mattered to me was what I had achieved on the spot under the limited time of a competitive examination (I still had time to finish the paper). It was a major morale boost for me.

That was one of several key incidents in my life that led me to realise that I had an uncommon gift of spatial reasoning (3D visualisation) and that I could “run” fairly complex simulations mentally.

Today, I have joined the International High IQ Society. I am now a graduate of Geology, a discipline I chose largelyy because it demands a great deal in spatial power (esp. in courses like Structural Geology and Crystallography, where you have to “imagine an imaginary line”).

I am a lover of computer simulations and 3D subsurface modelling. I just find it so easy even when my peers call it weird and complain of “brain overload.”