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Can Spatial Reasoning be Taught, and Should We Bother?

TOPICS | Education Posted Friday, February 21, 2014 (1,212 views)

Spatial reasoning is one three core cognitive skills people need for success in work and learning. Much like a middle child sandwiched between two more outgoing siblings — for the purposes of this analogy, we’ll call these precocious kids Verbal Skills and Numeracy — spatial reasoning is often overlooked. But a growing consensus among researchers suggests this attitude is both wrong-headed and counterproductive.

Though it’s under-appreciated, spatial reasoning is the skill that best prepares people for careers in science, technology, and engineering. That’s three out of four STEM fields

What exactly is spatial reasoning?

Spatial reasoning is the ability to generate, manipulate, rotate, and transform mental images of objects. A person with great spatial reasoning skills can look at a flattened out, “unfolded” two-dimensional representation of a multi-sided object and, with a bit of mental gymnastics, figure out exactly what the shape would look like if folded back into a three-dimensional object.

This kind of skill has loads of real-world applications. Someone who has a knack for spatial reasoning would most likely excel in the following careers:

Engineers: Engineering is a diverse field, running the gamut from building bridges and railroads, to designing cutting-edge medical treatments and lifesaving drugs. The petroleum, computing, telecommunications, IT, aviation, shipping, mining, and manufacturing sectors all have a serious need for engineers.

Physical sciences: Geology and physics, astronomy and chemistry make up the physical sciences. A knack for spatial reasoning is a key asset in all of these careers. Most of these fields pay very well. And opportunities in all four fields are expanding as quickly as our society is advancing.
Architecture: Architects require a finely tuned sense of spatial reasoning since the core of their job is manipulating space. Design and architecture are in demand all over the world, especially as the world’s population shifts more and more into urban settings.

Cartography: Cartography, or making maps, is another job that requires top-notch spatial reasoning abilities. A number of exciting industries require maps, including mining, construction, epidemiology, transportation and logistics, military intelligence, and forensics.

Can spatial reasoning be taught?

There’s a misconception that these three core skills — verbal, numeracy, and spatial reasoning — can’t be taught. There seems to be a widespread assumption that people are born pre-programmed with all the intelligence they’ll ever have. But as we (and others) have pointed out, that’s not true. Nearly anyone can learn math concepts, all the way up to university-level calculus, as long as they are taught well.

The same is true for spatial reasoning. Although there hasn’t been much research conducted on spatial skills learning until recently, researchers are finding that the correct educational approach can improve these skills. Playing with building blocks and puzzles and brainteasers are a couple of key ways to practice spatial skills.

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