Visual-Spatial Reasoning

Visual-Spatial Reasoning, the Key to Critical
and Innovative Thinking

Three worlds of learning come together to construct new ideas in
the mind’s eye as we problem-solve prior to sharing with others.

By Doris Wells-Papanek, MEd

Director, Design Learning Network

John Hattie’s (2009) model of learning is anchored in making sense of three worlds, the physical world (surface knowledge), the subjective world (thinking strategies and deeper understandings), and one's own world of ideas blended with reality (the construction of surface knowledge and deeper understandings within context). New ways of thinking serve as conceptual artifacts that can be then be articulated to others. Simply put, visual-spatial reasoning is one’s own ability to think and then construct new ideas in the mind’s eye and problem-solve prior to sharing.

Hattie, John. Visible Learning: A Synthesis of over 800Meta-analyses Relating to Achievement. London: Routledge, 2009.

From a student’s perspective, what level of impact might the purposeful development
of visual-spatial reasoning skills have on the cognitive growth of a creative problem solver

Student Presentations at the KC2016 Design Learning Challenge on March 5, KCAI-Hosted Culminating Event

Constructing New Ways of Thinking Yields High-Impact on Cognitive Growth

Hattie’s research has revealed that when conceptual artifacts become real things, real opportunities for learning can take place so all can be involved, recognize new ideas, and improve understandings. Learners continue the cycle by thinking and constructing new alternatives as well as offering criticisms, morphing one idea to another, proposing problems and possible solutions including challenging those new proposals as well. The progression of thinking new thoughts, constructing new ideas, and building new understandings are essential to learners as they become creative problem-solvers – and are anchored in a fundamental cognitive construct known as visual-spatial reasoning. In turn, the purposeful development of visual-spatial reasoning has significant impact on the cognitive growth of young people, especially when they are solving problems, collaborating with others, and articulating their learnings.

Integrating Visual-Spatial Reasoning into Teaching and Learning

We have established that the ability to visualize and make sense of the world around us in our mind’s eye is critical to the development of successful learners. Dr. Betty Garner (2007), in her book, GettingTo Got It! describes visualization as the ability to mentally represent and manipulate information, ideas, feelings, and sensory experiences. Spatial orientation is the ability to identify and compare where objects and places are in relationship to each other and to oneself. Understanding spatial orientations allows us to see new relationships that we can then transform those patterns into meaning, and when ready articulate these conceptual artifacts to others to expand one’s connections.

Visual-Spatial Reasoning as Integrator and Facilitator of Problem-Solving

The Committee on Support for Thinking Spatially was formed to investigate the impact and power of spatial thinking largely based on the primary research conducted by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953 on the molecular structure of the gene coupled with the visual mapping of DNA structure,
The Double Helix: AClassic Example of Spatial Thinking. Liken to the extraordinary findings of Watson and Crick, the committee came to the conclusion that spatial thinking is at the heart of many great discoveries in science, that it underpins many of the activities of the modern workforce, and that it pervades the everyday activities of modern life. 
In 2006, the committee produced a report that was published by the National Academy of Sciences, Learning to ThinkSpatially. The document argues for systemic educational change along with a national commitment to support spatial literacy. 

The committee’s report recommends that spatial thinking must be recognized as a fundamental and necessary part of the process of K-12 education rather than one more piece to be added on to an already overburdened curricular structure. Instead, they see spatial thinking as an integrator and a facilitator for problem solving-across the curriculum. By integrating spatial thinking into the curriculum, the committee encourages K-12 educators to equip the next generation of students for life and work in the twenty-first century with visual-spatial reasoning skills.

Committee on Support for Thinking Spatially Takeaways

The Committee on Support for Thinking Spatially stated the following in Chapter 2 of their report:

Spatial thinking is integral to everyday life. People, natural objects,
human-made objects, and human-made structures exist somewhere in space,
and the interactions of people and things must be understood
in terms of locations, distances, directions, shapes, and patterns.

Furthermore, the committee recommends that spatially literate students develop the following characteristics:

  • They have the habit of mind of thinking spatially – they know where, when, how, and why to think spatially.

  • They practice spatial thinking in an informed way – they have a broad and deep knowledge of spatial concepts and spatial representations, a command over spatial reasoning using a variety of spatial ways of thinking and acting, and well-developed spatial capabilities for using supporting tools and technologies.

  • They adopt a critical stance to spatial thinking – they can evaluate the quality of spatial data based on its source and its likely accuracy and reliability; can use spatial data to construct, articulate, and defend a line of reasoning or point of view in solving problems and answering questions; and can evaluate the validity of arguments based on spatial information.

Link to Longitudinal Study on the Impact of Spatial Ability in Creativity and Innovation

Abstract: “In the late 1970s, 563 intellectually talented 13-year-olds (identified by the SAT as in the top 0.5% of ability) were assessed on spatial ability. More than 30 years later, the present study evaluated whether spatial ability provided incremental validity (beyond the SAT’s mathematical and verbal reasoning subtests) for differentially predicting which of these individuals had patents and three classes of refereed publications. A two-step discriminant-function analysis revealed that the SAT subtests jointly accounted for 10.8% of the variance among these outcomes (p < .01); when spatial ability was added, an additional 7.6% was accounted for—a statistically significant increase (p < .01). The findings indicate that spatial ability has a unique role in the development of creativity, beyond the roles played by the abilities traditionally measured in educational selection, counseling, and industrial-organizational psychology. Spatial ability plays a key and unique role in structuring many important psychological phenomena and should be examined more broadly across the applied and basic psychological sciences.”

Kell, Harrison J., David Lubinski, Camilla P. Benbow, and James H. Steiger. "Creativity and Technical Innovation." Creativity and Technical Innovation. Sage Journals,Psychological Science, 13 Sept. 2013. Web. 05 Apr. 2016.