Thinking spatially helps us solve many of the problems in our daily lives. It helps us find our car in a crowded parking lot and to assemble furniture and toys (those directions are always so confusing). But, as Nora S. Newcombe points out in a recent opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription), it's not a subject that has been taken seriously in academia. Sure, we study reading, writing, math and science, but Newcombe has been working to try to add spatial literacy studies to the curriculum.
A new meta-analysis that I participated in took account of the many studies completed in the past 15 years. The new analysis shows that we can substantially improve subjects' spatial skill through academic course work, practice on specific tasks, and even playing computer games. Though such games sometimes seem to be a waste of time, many require players to keep track of where they are, and where other objects are or will be.
So we know that spatial cognition is malleable, and that spatial thinking can be improved by effective technology and education. But as the NRC report points out, we still don't know exactly how to infuse spatial thinking throughout the curriculum, and how to use new technologies like geographic-information systems, especially with young children.
What kinds of teaching best support spatial learning? Do different kinds work better at different ages, at different socioeconomic levels, or for women and men? We need a firmer theoretical understanding of spatial learning and intelligence, and scientists and educators should work closely together on efforts to enhance spatial thinking. Better teaching should not only improve students' spatial functioning in general, but also reduce the differences related to gender and socioeconomic status that keep some people from fully participating in our technological society.
Spatial literacy is as important a goal as traditional literacy is. We need to invest our resources and efforts accordingly.
Newcombe is coauthor of Making Space: The Development of Spatial Representation and Reasoning which argues for an interactionist approach to spatial development.