Science of Spatial Learning

Center seeks to transform teaching practices.


By Marlene Cimons, National Science Foundation

Everybody uses spatial skills daily, for example, in packing a suitcase or the trunk of a car.  Moreover, it is one of the primary ways people get around, a trait humans share with other species, one that evolved long before civilization discovered GPS. 

“It’s true for any animal that has to move around in the world,” says Nora Newcombe, professor of psychology at Temple University.

Spatial reasoning, which is the ability to mentally visualize and manipulate two- and three-dimensional objects, also is a great predictor of talent in science, technology, engineering and math, collectively known as STEM.

Yet, “these skills are not valued in our society or taught adequately in the educational system,” says Newcombe, who also is principal investigator for the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center.  “People will readily say such things as ‘I hate math,’ or ‘I can’t find my way when I’m lost,’ and think it’s cute, whereas they would be embarrassed to say ‘I can’t read.’

“People have a theory about this skill, that it’s innate at birth and you can’t develop it, and that’s really not true,” she adds. “It’s probably true that some people are born with a better ability to take in spatial information, but that doesn’t mean if you aren’t born with it, you can’t change.  The brain has a certain amount of plasticity.”

The goal of the center is to develop the science of spatial learning, and to transform educational practices by finding new ways to help children and adults acquire spatial skills in order for them to be successful in high technology fields.  Temple University is the center’s lead institution, with research partners at Northwestern University, the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania.

The center, now in its sixth year, is a National Science Foundation (NSF) Science of Learning Center. The NSF supports the center with about $4 million annually over ten years.

Until recently, research on spatial skills and spatial learning has been fragmented. For example, spatial language researchers didn’t interact with researchers studying maps and diagrams, and neither communicated with scientists assessing individual differences in fundamental spatial skills. The center hopes to involve scientists across multiple disciplines.   

Among other things, center scientists hope to encourage classroom teaching that incorporates methods that “spatialize” information, such using diagrams in science instruction. Middle school students and their teachers often ignore diagrams simply because they do not know how to interpret them.

“Understanding how external symbol systems function in human cognition is crucial to using them effectively in education,” Newcombe says.  “You have to get students learning to read the diagrams. One of the things teachers think is that: diagrams are pictures, you don’t need to teach how to read a diagram. Well, you do.”

In one project, center researchers at the University of Chicago are working with educators on a revision of Everyday Mathematics, a widely used textbook, to include more spatial awareness in math instruction.  “This is important, for example, in how you teach measurement, or angles,” she says. “Teachers think they’re doing a great activity by planting seeds and watching things grow, but many children still don’t know how to measure. They don’t think of the spaces on the ruler as countables.”

Another center scientist, Kenneth Forbus, professor of computer science and education at Northwestern University, is developing a software program called CogSketch which allows college geology and engineering professors to use sketching in the classroom with immediate feedback from the computer.

“The idea is that you can have a tablet computer on which you can sketch, and the artificial intelligence aspect will be able to give you feedback,” Newcombe says.  “You really can incorporate much more active sketching in the college classroom with it.  Although it is now being developed for college, high schools and middles schools also will be able to use it.”