Spatial reasoning or spatial thinking can be defined as the thinking that allows the ability to visualise relations, imagine transformations, mentally rotate objects to look at its different views, create new angles or perspectives and remember images in places and spaces. ("Spatial Thinking | The Learner's Guide to Geospatial Analysis", 2020).
High levels of spatial abilities have frequently been linked to creativity in many domains (arts, but also science and mathematics). Albert Einstein, as well as other well-known physicists and inventors, have been reported to have had high spatial abilities, and that these abilities played an important role in their creativity.
With the review of the Australian Curriculum coming in 2021 there will never be a better opportunity for some rational judgement in the inclusion of spatial technology skills and spatial thinking and reasoning skills in the F–10 Australian Curriculum.
By taking the geo out of geospatial skills, thinking and reasoning and becoming simply spatial technology and spatial thinking and reasoning and the terms become uncategorised.
It becomes spatial technology and spatial thinking and reasoning which stands across all seven general capabilities of literacy, numeracy, critical and creative thinking, personal social capability, ICT capability, ethical understanding and intercultural understanding.
What is spatial technology and what is spatial thinking and reasoning?
An object can be specified relative to the observer, to the environment, to its own intrinsic structure, or to other objects in the environment. Each instance requires the adoption of specific spatial frames of reference or context.
Information is derived from data by implying some degree of selection, organization, and preparation for a purpose – in other words, the data are placed into a spatial context. The spatial context is critical because it is the space the data is in that ultimately determines its interpretation. There are three spatial contexts within which we can make the data-to-information transition; these include life spaces, physical spaces and intellectual spaces.
What is spatial ability and the how can it be measured? The Spatial Thinking Ability Test (STAT test)
The measurement of spatial thinking ability has been researched over the past forty years but recently the last ten years have produced some good data using a Spatial Thinking Ability Test (STAT test) in several studies.
Initially Lee and Bednarz (2012) provided the initial impetus by developing and validating a spatial ability thinking ability test (STAT). This STAT test was delivered to 352 university students from four different US states (Texas, Ohio, Illinois and Oregon) and a junior high and high school in Ohio. The results of this STAT test showed that there was a correlation with age, exposure and test scores.
Ishikawa (2015) examined spatial thinking in geographic information science (GIScience) through an empirical examination of experts’ and students’ geospatial conceptions and thematic map reading. The first study examined the structures in which GIScience concepts were conceptualised by experts and students. Experts identify concepts in geospatial data (cluster T1), GIS applications, (T2), geospatial entities – operation – relations (T3), and maps and mapping (T4). Students examined similar clusters but structured differently with terms interrelated less closely. The high-spatially rated students corresponded to those of the experts. The second part of the study examined geospatial reasoning and showed that thematic map reading consisted of various components differing in their relationship with spatial ability. Students with higher levels of spatial ability could identify more spatial distributions and compare multiple maps when undertaking thematic map reading questions.
In 2006, Battersby, Golledge and Marsh (2006) examined 148 students from middle school 6th grade (52 students), high school (varying grades – 41 students) and university undergraduates (48 students) with a 30-minute test on the use of an overlay in spatial thinking. The conclusion from this study was there was a necessity to focus on laying foundations for learning geospatial concepts in any school curriculum. Battersby, Golledge and Marsh (2006) also concluded that it would be most beneficial to focus energy on a specific and fundamental spatial concept education in the middle school years or even earlier and drew attention to The National Geography Standards Project 1994 as being essential to cultivate fundamental bases in spatial knowledge and that studies in a variety of disciplines and different subject areas supported this idea of ‘national standards’.
What do the studies into spatial thinking and reasoning suggest to curriculum reviewers and writers?
The data obtained from these studies showed spatial thinking ability scores as evidence to include the introduction of spatial skill into the curriculum from the early year levels and the subsequent development of those spatial skills and the corresponding spatial thinking and reasoning skill associated with high order thinking.
Many of the US studies suggest that national and state standards should apply to the learning of spatial technology and spatial thinking and reasoning.
The hurdle we now face is getting the subject areas of maths, science and geography to realise that spatial thinking and reasoning is a higher order thinking skill that should be recognised as being cross-curricular and not specific to individual subject areas.
What is the solution?
To overcome inequities occurring in classrooms across Australia, students should have exposure and access to spatial technology so that the development of spatial thinking and reasoning can occur from a very early age in primary education. This will allow a solid foundation for students to move into secondary education and allow the continuation and further development of spatial technological skills and the associated development of spatial thinking and reasoning.
The fact that spatial technology skills and spatial thinking and reasoning falls under the auspices of all seven general capabilities such as literacy, numeracy, critical and creative thinking, personal social capability, ICT capability, ethical understanding and intercultural understanding means that it is relevant and should be addressed in the curriculum review. There should be groupings of cross-curricular people to promote the adoption of skills and thinking that are mutual and not just exclusive to specific subject areas.
Spatial skills and spatial thinking and reasoning are high order skills that allow critical and imaginative and creative thinking. Such skills are important in the students that our National Curriculum produces in the 21st Century. Technology is evolving with each year and it is essential that our students adopt the critical thought required in the future. Our National Curriculum should review its structure and assess what skills our students require. The opportunity presents itself with the 2021 Review of the Australian F-10 Curriculum. We must seize the opportunity the review presents and influence those curriculum reviewers and writers of the benefits of spatial technology and spatial thinking and reasoning being relevant and important enough to be incorporated across multiple subject areas with cross-curricular and general capabilities.
The introduction of spatial thinking and spatial reasoning are essential in the primary year levels. It leads students to the concept of powerful knowledge, as suggested by the British sociologist of education, Michael Young. Powerful knowledge gives power to those who possess it.
Alaric Maude (2016) suggests that knowledge towards ways of thinking should be developed through whatever content is selected in education. The power lies in helping students to make more sense of the factual content of the curriculum by learning how to synthesise information into generalisations or to use explanatory concepts. Maude also suggested that the concept of powerful knowledge provides a way to communicate geography to non-geographers, which is essential in cross-curricular capabilities.
Maude’s 2016 paper introduces the concept of powerful knowledge and the importance of such knowledge in influencing others. The power of knowledge lies in its capability to be critical and influential in the thinking of other subjects in the school curriculum. Spatial skills and spatial thinking and reasoning are powerful and present the opportunity for higher order thinking skills that do not just lend themselves to the study of other subjects. The cross-curricular application of these higher order thinking skills allows the students and teachers to go further into the analysis and deep thinking of the focus of their study. To ignore such a skill as being only subject specific and not mathematic or scientific or geographic enough for their subject is akin to a valuable tool not being used because of intellectual snobbery or ignorance. Spatial skills are used in several subject areas and can be utilised better if introduced earlier in primary year levels.
The relevance of Maude’s concept of powerful knowledge is certainly one to be considered by the Review of the Australian Curriculum in 2021. All knowledge is useful, but some knowledge is more relevant than others. The ability to see the relevance of that knowledge gives the user power. Equipping students with spatial skills and spatial thinking and reasoning from an early age gives those students power over those students who do not possess such spatial knowledge and thinking and reasoning.
Anthamatten, P. (2010). "Spatial Thinking Concepts in Early Grade-Level Geography Standards." Journal of Geography 109(5): 169-180.
Battersby, S. E., Golledge, R. G., & Marsh, M. J.. (2006). Incidental Learning of Geospatial Concepts Across Grade Levels: Map Overlay. Journal of Geography. Journal of Geography. http://doi.org/10.1080/00221340608978679
Bednarz, R., & Lee, J.. (2019). What improves spatial thinking? Evidence from the Spatial Thinking Abilities Test. International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education. International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education. http://doi.org/10.1080/10382046.2019.1626124
Gersmehl, P. J., & Gersmehl, C. A.. (2007). Spatial Thinking by Young Children: Neurologic Evidence for Early Development and “Educability”. Journal of Geography. Journal of Geography. http://doi.org/10.1080/00221340701809108
Huckle, J.. (2019). Powerful geographical knowledge is critical knowledge underpinned by critical realism. International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education. International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education. http://doi.org/10.1080/10382046.2017.1366203
Huynh, N. T. and B. Sharpe (2013). "An Assessment Instrument to Measure Geospatial Thinking Expertise." Journal of Geography 112(1): 3-17.
Ishikawa, T. (2016). Spatial Thinking in Geographic Information Science: Students' Geospatial Conceptions, Map-Based Reasoning, and Spatial Visualization Ability. Annals of the American
Association of Geographers. Annals of the American Association of Geographers. http://doi.org/10.1080/00045608.2015.1064342
Rod Lane & Terri Bourke (2019) Assessment in geography education: a systematic review, International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education, 28:1, 22-36, DOI: 10.1080/10382046.2017.1385348
Lee, J. and R. Bednarz (2012). "Components of Spatial Thinking: Evidence from a Spatial Thinking Ability Test." Journal of Geography 111(1): 15-26
Lohman, D. (1993). Teaching and Testing to Develop Fluid Abilities. Educational Researcher, 22(7), 12-23. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189x022007012
Maude, A. (2016). What might powerful geographical knowledge look like? Geography, 101, 70-76. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.usc.edu.au/docview/1822075723?accountid=28745
Poltrock, S., & Brown, P. (1984). Individual Differences in visual imagery and spatial ability. Intelligence, 8(2), 93-138. https://doi.org/10.1016/0160-2896(84)90019-9
Tomaszewski, B., Vodacek, A., Parody, R., & Holt, N.. (2015). Spatial Thinking Ability Assessment in Rwandan Secondary Schools: Baseline Results. Journal of Geography. Journal of Geography. http://doi.org/10.1080/00221341.2014.918165
Curriculum review. Acara.edu.au. (2020). Retrieved 1 July 2020, from https://www.acara.edu.au/curriculum/curriculum-review
Spatial Thinking | The Learner's Guide to Geospatial Analysis. E-education.psu.edu. (2020). Retrieved 2 July 2020, from https://www.e-education.psu.edu/sgam/node/196
Image by Anni Roenkae from pexels