Fostering Visual-Spatial Ability in Gifted Students

Visual-Thinking StudentWhere on Earth can you walk one mile south, one mile west and one mile north and end up exactly where you started? Do frogs have lips? How do we build buildings to withstand earthquakes and hurricanes? What is the structure of the DNA molecule?

These questions—both the fun and the serious— all have one thing in common. To answer them, you need visual-spatial ability, or the capacity to understand and remember spatial relations among objects or visual images.

This was the topic of a recent Saturday seminar, “Fostering Visual-Spatial Ability in Gifted Children,” hosted by Center for Talent Development and presented by Dr. David Uttal, professor of psychology and education at Northwestern University.

Spatial Ability is Important but Undervalued

According to Uttal, spatial ability is particularly relevant for gifted students. “We need to value spatial ability if we’re going to find the next Einstein,” Uttal says, quoting Jonathan Wai’s popular blog on Psychology Today.

Both Wai and Uttal bemoan that traditional testing doesn’t currently include measures of visual-spatial ability. “We are missing talented youth who don’t score well on traditional math and verbal tests,” Uttal says. If spatially talented students are not identified, their talent cannot be developed to the extent that it could and should. And even those kids who have been identified as gifted don’t receive support for spatial talent development.

Uttal shares this 2006 quote by the National Research Council: “Spatial thinking is presumed throughout the K12 curriculum but is formally and systematically taught nowhere.”

This is a shame, says Uttal, because research has shown a strong connection between early spatial talent and creativity in adult life. Spatial ability trumps math and verbal ability, in fact, as a predictor of who will enter STEM fields such as physics, chemistry, geoscience, biology, engineering and mathematics.

Spatial Ability can be Improved

The good news is that spatial ability can, in fact, be taught. Uttal’s research has proven that spatial training works, the effects last, and the knowledge transfers into specific fields of discipline. He and his team of researchers examined various forms of intervention, from videogames to STEM courses, and they found that while no one method worked best, they all produced a positive effect.

“We’ve learned that a little teaching goes a long way,” says Uttal.

Uttal’s research shows that increasing spatial skills training, whether in science class or elsewhere, could, in theory, double the number of students who are “spatially qualified” to become engineers. And who knows what benefits that could produce for society?

Parents can Help!

While parents can advocate for science education reform, Uttal says they can make an impact in other ways, too. Even simple things, he says, can play a role in enhancing younger children’s spatial skills. “Parents always count, rhyme, and practice ABCs with their kids,” says Uttal. “We need to add talking about where things are and making maps to that list.”

Uttal also notes that enhancing spatial ability doesn’t always require doing something extra. Doing what you’re already doing a bit more intentionally can also help. He cites board games like Chutes and Ladders and apps like the ones on Tiggly.com as good methods of learning segmentation and sequencing. Old-fashioned Tinker Toys and a visit to the Chicago Children’s Museum’s Tinkering Lab are also on the list of Uttal’s recommendations for encouraging spatial creativity.

For older students, Uttal recommends programs like the Geospatial Semester, run by James Madison University. Taking up a hobby like geocaching, which involves a real-world, outdoor treasure hunt, can also enrich spatial ability.

Students of all ages can benefit from spatial skills training. CTD recognizes the need to develop spatial ability and has created specialized courses in response. Examples include Design Studio courses in the Saturday Enrichment Program and Math Studio Courses in the Summer Program. We thank Dr. Uttal for his Saturday seminar and appreciate all the information he offered our staff and families.

To learn more about spatial intelligence, please visit: