Robert Downey Jr. from Iron Man

Consider this. Ever since you were a kid, can you remember taking a standardized test that didn’t have a math or verbal section? I can’t. Pretty much all of them have math, science, English, reading, and maybe writing sections. Even when you got to high school, and you took the SAT or ACT, there were verbal, math, and science sections.

So what’s missing?

For many students, everything is great. Our schools are designed for students who are good at reading, writing, and doing math. These students are fluent in the symbol systems of numbers and letters.

But what about that kid who is a mechanical genius; who can take apart and put back together just about anything; who is like Robert Downey Jr.’s character in Iron Man, but who really has little interest in words or numbers? Is there a place for this talented kid in our school system? Do we value the talent of this individual as much as the talents of students who can write compelling essays, who can solve complex equations, and who can read great works of literature?

I don’t think we do.

For students who are not talented with words and numbers but who are talented with mentally rotating figures and shapes in their minds, there is often very little offered to recognize and challenge them in the regular school system.

We tend to value people who can write, read, do math, and talk. But if a student can’t do these things so well, we don’t recognize how brilliant some of them actually are. Consider the SAT and ACT, the critical college entrance exams. Neither of them includes a spatial measure.

Some of my research with my colleagues David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow on the importance of spatial ability for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields demonstrates that as a society we have neglected spatially-talented students who are not as good with words and numbers. We miss a large number of them when selecting talented students using typical standardized tests because these tests do not include a measure of spatial ability.

Over 90 years ago, Lewis Terman attempted to identify the brightest kids in California. There were two young boys who took Terman’s test but who did not make the cutoff to be included in this study for geniuses. These boys were William Shockley and Luis Alvarez, who both went on to study physics, earn PhDs, and win the Nobel Prize. Why did they miss the cut? One explanation is that the Stanford-Binet, the test Terman used, simply did not include a spatial test.

Considering the current push for STEM education and our need for more STEM innovators, shouldn’t we be trying to find these talented minds who have a spatial rather than a verbal or mathematical bent?

Inventors, after all, are often individuals who create mechanical devices that change our world. And they certainly don’t design these devices by writing an essay on the topic or even by solving a mathematical equation. Rather, they imagine it in their minds eye, and then they draw it or construct it.

For example, Nikola Tesla was an inventor who provided the basis for alternating current (AC) power systems. Tesla 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.

So what can we do to educate students who are more spatially talented but less mathematically or verbally talented? What we really need to do is design educational interventions for them that are tailored to their spatial strengths. Many spatially talented students like working with their hands, and perhaps interventions could include more hands on activities. In addition, now with the rise of educational technology as Tom Vander Ark persuasively shows us in his book Getting Smart, perhaps visual interventions in the format of spatial video games could help engage and reach these types of students and help develop their talents.

I think we often don’t realize that engineers have invented so many things that we take for granted in our everyday lives. Consider this. The device you are reading this article from right now was invented by engineers who utilized their phenomenal spatial talents. There are many kids today who are spatially talented who have the potential to create amazing things that can improve our lives and society.  We need to learn to value these beautiful minds.

We need to identify them.  We need to provide a tailored education for them.  And we need to place the tools in their hands so that they can help invent our future.

©2011 by Jonathan Wai

View Jonathan Wai’s research “Spatial Ability for STEM Domains: Aligning Over 50 Years of Cumulative Psychological Knowledge Solidifies Its Importance.”

21 COMMENTS

  1. I’d like to share with you what our lab school is doing in this regard. On march 9, 2012 we will culminate our Thomas Edison module for K-8 students in a

    Thomas Edison Interactive Lab
    Celebrate, synthesize, and demonstrate learning about Thomas Edison and the US industrial Age and human-centered design with IDEO for the 21st Century

    Showcasing Inventive Science and Learning at Synapse School

    The science themes will be integrated with problem-solving in math classes. These themes include:

    • Mechanical Engineering Applications of
    Chemistry and Physics
    • The Process of Experimentation and Invention
    • The scientific method
    • Failure Builds New Knowledge
    • Why Inventions need Patents
    • Commercializing Inventions, and
    • EQ Competencies that support learning and
    inventing

    If you are interested in writing about the event– as an example of how a lab school like ours is presenting solutions to many problems now prevalent in elementary and middle school education, let me know.

    thanks

    Gigi

  2. Great post, Jonathan. Agree with you 100% – spatial ability is devalued in society and formal education. At a time when we have a critical shortage of engineers and scientists, education is closing doors. Material and mechanical reasoning are strengths we commonly see among gifted dyslexics – these young people need better recognition for their talent and an education that’s better designed for them.

  3. I don’t think schools would allow pupils to play first person shooter games as part of the curriculum. Yet they are perhaps the most effective test of spatial awareness.

    Other than that, one has musical instruments and sports games…

  4. Good points, but:

    “like Robert Downey Jr.’s character in Iron Man, but who really has little interest in words or numbers? Is there a place for this talented kid in our school system?”

    The character supposedly went to MIT at 15 to study electrical engineering and physics, and graduated with multiple degrees at 21. I think we can assume he was pretty good at words and numbers, and did just fine in the school system.

  5. Great article and excellent hints toward redefining what education should really be about.

    Luckily the space outside of school is getting organized and what young students will need is just a kick from their teachers (or parents) to go to a Hackerspace, buy them a 3D printer or hang out on Thingiverse. For those who want to take their prototypes to product they could hop on Kickstarter and join HAXLR8R and experience the entire end to end chain of production.

    Our future is exciting… thanks for them!

  6. Sports and arts value take in high esteem gifted spacial thinkers. You can make much more money in sport or art than in science – our society value much more those fields than STEM. However, this is a reality for very talented people. The mediocre spacial thinker can be a builder and still make much more money than a teacher. The society is good at taking advantage of gifted people.

  7. The skills aren’t independent of one another. There are experiments showing the embodied basis of math, reading, and spatial thinking, for example.
    See for example work by Rafael Nunez, Susan Goldin-Meadow, and others:
    http://www.slideshare.net/edtechdev/embodied-cognition-enactivism-implications-for-education

    I’m not against the argument for supporting spatial thinking. I would suggest though that to let more kids be like Robert Downey Jr.’s character in Iron Man, it still requires math and reading, but also the addition of engineering to the K-12 curriculum. See the free book Engineering in K-12 Education by the National Academies Press.

  8. 1: don’t forget visual,mas in visual/spatial, not just spatial
    2: Sports and Arts are not the only fields of endeavor that perhaps appreciate these attributes. But don’t think high salaries are the norm there – anything but.
    3: What was a generic interest in consciousnoess over my lifetime became of critical importance to me recently after changes in life circumstances revealed rather forcefully to me that I have a disability, and was finally (at the tender ager of 64) diagnosed as Twice Exceptional: Gifted Adult with ADHD. So while I am triple-sigma on the WAIS I have been C+ student due to the Executive Functioning deficit part of my ADHD. The good news is I can at least work around the problems now I know what they are. The bad news is hardly anybody is focussing on my age group for this combination, and all that is really known is that solutions for me are not the same as they might be for kids. But I am certain that had my condition been known and properly treated in the fifties my story would have been quite different.

  9. Oddly enough, the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) used to have a spatial section on it. I wonder if it still does?

  10. Great post. I remember taking standardized test in New Jersey public school in the 70s. Scored average in reading and math but perfect 100s in spatial relations and mechanical reasoning. I was curious to know more about skills in this area. When I asked the 4th grade teacher, she shrugged and just said the scores didn’t count.

    I’ve had a successful finance career but wished I could have put these skills to work in school.

  11. When my wife and I were first dating we were trying to figure out what we wanted to be when we grew up. As we explored counselors, coaches, and assessment tests we found the Johnson O’Connor aptitude test.

    At Johnson O’Connor they measure your natural abilities such as different types of reasoning abilities, memories, and Spatial Visualization as well as musical aptitudes, design aptitudes and more. These tests grew out of work done for GE in 1922 to figure out how to place employees in the jobs most suitable to their abilities.

    I found that my spatial visualization was high (I can parallel park), tonal recognition low (I won’t sing for you), and my manual dexterity is average (have you ever heard the term ‘fat fingered that one’). My bride scored well in almost everything (she is a whiz!). I’m planning to have my kids take these tests when they turn 14, the minimum age for testing.

    I believe this testing is not better known because the results are restricted to researchers and the individuals that take the tests.

    For more information: http://www.jocrf.org/index.html

  12. I agree that spatial reasoning is neglected in our education system but really I think you’re scratching the surface of the problem. Public education sucks in the U.S. because children are no longer educated on How to think. Logic and reasoning aren’t even part of the public schooling curriculum until the Collegiate level. which is of course ridiculous. But it comes from having a public education system designed via the industrial revolution. The main failing is that students are taught ‘What’ to think about things, instead of being taught ‘How’ to think and reason; and then presenting them with facts so they can develop their own opinions. Why else do you think politics in America suck so much? No one knows what logical fallacies are, so when the news or a candidate feeds them a bad or faulty opinion they take it like fact. Its also the reason that the U.S.A is no longer a country of thinkers, or producers, or designers, but rather a country of Pure Consumers. The entire system is broken, not just one corner.

  13. There used to be a section about being able to rotate objects on the SAT- it was called Analytical. It was removed to add the writing section.

    Analysis of any kind has been devalued in our schools. Critical thought is set aside for more “standardized” learning. Data reigns supreme. As as a college professor having now to deal with students brought up in this system, the results are disastrous.

  14. Hello,
    Thank you for your article, and your time and patients….your diligence to complete and your foresight in leading the way visual teaching and understanding.
    I’m a 47 year old male and wanted to comment;

    When I was 21 I had myself tested to see if I qualified for a lower grade curb (Was I handicap?). The lady that gave the test told me I had scored the highest level in her 47 year career in spatial thinking, but scored very low in verbal and logic.
    Two years ago I again was tested by a Court order (child custody battle), and found that my spatial thinking is in “above average of the above average”.

    What ever : ) A life time of not being able to communicate with the average person, and dumb founded and numbed by teaching methods.

    After years and years of understanding, yet not being able to be taught in a structured educational environment had once left me so depressed that I tried for decades to stop thinking, and to try never again to tell anyone what I was thinking. Once, I went to see a psychiatrist and he wanted to admit me because the Dr. believed I was lying about inventions with which were beyond my educational understanding……I was maniac… LOL… Perhaps, yet I had the proto types to prove it and they made a lot of other people very wealthy (Not me).

    For the last two years I have allowed my brain to work any way it chooses. Since knowing that part of my brain is way ahead of the rest of my brain, I stopped trying to figure out the whys of how I know and just go with it.

    Wow…. I decided to see what my brain could understand, so I looked up the word energy, because I wanted to know what energy was made of…..lol. 6 months later I understand much more than the fundamentals of String and some of M theory. Amazing stuff is sitting in my brain and my own theories have helped me to remain focused…somewhat.
    So what? Here I am…one of the gifted in spatial thinking and honestly have no clue how to help a soul. Is there a think tank? Is there a company where I could look at their designs and ideas and help them better develop it? Should I learn computer animation, if so….where? Own my own, I have studied and studied and have no degree. I have founded and grew a company to 8 million in sales before I became bored and bound to my desk, sign papers and paying work comp.
    Now what do I do? I’m a construction superintendent, and have been for the better part of my life…..and that’s not easy when you’re a perfectionist.
    Anyway, if any of you know of someone who could use my mind, I’d give it to them for almost free, if they will only keep giving me things to study and flip around in my little brain.
    Chirp Chirp…..

  15. Intensely interesting thread and replies! It’s said that Einstein first came to his astounding insights through ‘muscular sensation’ – i.e. he felt the dynamic of mass and relativity before expressing it mathematically.
    Here’s wishing you every success with your research – and indeed in moving curricula forward to include thinking skills which are as marginalised here in UK as apparently they are in USA.

  16. This really made me think, because I tend to think of my spacial as part of my math skills, but more thought told me that there are three things here that are being confused.
    1) Math = numbers and equations (not graphics)
    2) Visual = graphics, visualization, maps…
    3) artisan = good with tools and hands (kinesthetic)

    My own math skills are actually centered in 2, not 1. I still have to do a quick graph to really understand an equation. I can still remember surprising math (numbers)-type physicists when I sketched something out. Sometimes they said they’d never visualized it before, it was all math for them.
    So be more explicit. We need to measure and teach to 2 and to 3 if we want better technology and we need to understand the difference between the three skills.

  17. I don’t think any of use really understand what a person can do with great visual spatial intelligence. Firstly they have many more neurons dedicated to thinking and processing as apposed to a person who would use language concepts to learn and think. Science is the result of visual spatial people getting a foot in the door. Visual Spatial people are not dull minded when they reject our current social ways of learning. Instead they are possibly disinterested in learning complex rubbish through the social ways. They have a greater interest in seeing, observing and perceiving the world as it really is. When it comes to problems they are able to internalize the problems in their minds and work on solutions. Most people do not have this ability and are basically blind then it comes to seeing obvious flaws in designs or ideas. We need away to find children who have this ability, they are far too important to be left to fail in our current educational system. I believe that if they are taught differently and given the right stimulation that they will be able to learn more things at a faster rate and be able to apply it in real world. Our world needs problem solvers and this is the fist step. Unfortunately I don’t know of any organisation who would want to fund this type of project.

    Tyrell

    [email protected]

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