A sustained focus on spatial reasoning training could turn the UK into a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) powerhouse by improving young people's mathematics skills, according to new research from the University of Surrey.
This study found that teaching spatial skills – particularly with the use of blocks, puzzles and other physical manipulatives – is highly effective at improving mathematics performance. The team also found that physical spatial reasoning training was far more effective than digital sessions.
Dr Katie Gilligan-Lee, co-author of the study and Lecturer in Developmental Psychology at the University of Surrey, said "Our research confirms that when children learn the relationship between space and shapes through tangible physical tools such as puzzles, their mathematics performance improves. This is critical information for us all, particularly parents, teachers and decision-makers, at a time when the UK is lagging behind its international competitors when it comes to STEM skills."
Spatial reasoning is defined as a person's ability to think about shapes and space in two and three dimensions, and previous research has shown that spatial reasoning is crucial for daily living, for example, navigating to work, filling the dishwasher, and putting on your shoes.
The research, which was conducted in partnership with the University of Toronto and the University of Maryland, also highlights the importance of not restricting the teaching of spatial reasoning to young children as they found evidence of mathematical gains in older groups past the age of seven.
Dr Zack Hawes, co-author of the study and Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto, commented "Despite these and other findings that demonstrate the fundamental importance of spatial thinking for STEM learning and performance, spatial thinking remains a neglected aspect of educational practice and policy. We hope the current findings inspire new research, professional practice, and insights into the ways in which spatial thinking may be used to make learning more engaging, accessible, and equitable."
The StepUp program includes daily practice with spatial learning, as children learn to coordinate body movement through visual space. Most importantly, StepUp uses self-evaluation (watch and learn, then think and do) to develop the good brain habits of independent learners. It is a joy to see a child, from day to day, teach themselves to learn and remember more and more of what they need to do, and when they need to do it. A useful part of many spatial learning activities is that they include self-evaluation: a child knows whether the block tower keeps standing or falls down; they know if a certain piece will fit here or there in a puzzle; they can see whether two things on opposite sides of the scale weigh the same or not. Self-evaluation helps children develop the useful brain habits of independent learners.