Published on: 26 May 2017

Spatial learners have many strengths. They tend to see the big picture. They make connections easily, they are creative, innovative, reflective, and they are good at understanding concepts.

By neglecting spatial thinkers, how many Elon Musks have we missed?

This great question was posed by Dr Jonathan Wai, a research scientist at the Duke University Talent Identification Program, in this article in Quartz magazine. Here, Dr Wai talks about the often untapped potential of spatial thinkers - those who think first in images and have a capacity for mentally generating and transforming visual images. It’s powerful stuff.

There is a lot of evidence, particularly from the US, that shows that people with strong spatial abilities tend to gravitate towards and excel in fields such as physical sciences, engineering, maths and computer science, as well as art and design.

One of the most important studies is called ‘Project Talent’. The study followed 400,000 American pupils over a 50 year period. It found that those who had high scores on spatial tests in school were much more likely to major in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) disciplines and go into STEM careers than those with lower scores.

Spatial learners have many strengths. They tend to see the big picture. They make connections easily, they are creative, innovative, reflective, and they are good at understanding concepts. Indeed, Elon Musk, the inventor and tech entrepreneur behind Tesla motors, is a great example of a spatial thinker. He can apparently see images with a clarity and detail that we might associate today with an engineering drawing produced by computer software.

On the other hand, though, extreme spatial thinkers find it difficult to understand and retain verbal information, and they may therefore be unresponsive to rote learning. They often have poor handwriting, they may be a poor reader, and they can also be averse to routine. So to get the best out of highly spatial thinkers – particularly those with a low verbal reasoning ability – we need to understand how they process information and tap into their amazing strengths. 

Our new report, Hidden talents: the overlooked children whose poor verbal skills mask potential, highlights how tens of thousands of potential scientists could be missed in the system, when the UK is desperately crying out for scientists, engineers and technicians. But it also seeks to offer some further insights into spatial thinkers and practical steps that teachers can take to ensure these ‘hidden talents’ don’t remain hidden for long.

By Sarah Haythornthwaite, Director, GL Assessment

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