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Why Don't We Value Spatial Intelligence?

Recognizing beautiful minds that will help invent our future

Hugo Cabret Automaton

Hugo Cabret And Automaton

Consider this. Ever since you were a kid, can you remember taking a standardized test that didn't have a math or verbal section? I can't. Pretty much all of them have math, science, English, reading, and maybe writing sections. Even when you got to high school, and you took the SAT or ACT, there were verbal, math, and science sections.

So what's missing?

For many students, everything is great. Our schools are designed for students who are good at reading, writing, and doing math. These students are fluent in the symbol systems of numbers and letters.

But what about that kid who is a mechanical genius, who can take apart and put back together just about anything, who is like the boy in Martin Scorsese's movie Hugo but who really has little interest in words or numbers? Is there a place for this talented kid in our school system? Do we value the talent of this individual as much as the talents of students who can write compelling essays, who can solve complex equations, and who can read great works of literature?

I don't think we do.

For students who are not talented with words and numbers but who are talented with mentally rotating figures and shapes in their minds, there is often very little offered to recognize and challenge them in the regular school system.

We apparently tend to value people who can write, read, do math, and talk. But if a student can't do these things so well, we don't recognize how brilliant some of them actually are. Consider the SAT and ACT, the critical college entrance exams. Neither of them includes a spatial measure.

Some of my research with my colleagues David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow on the importance of spatial ability for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields demonstrates that as a society we have neglected spatially talented students who are not as good with words and numbers. We miss a large number of them when selecting talented students using typical standardized tests because these tests do not include a measure of spatial ability.

Over 90 years ago, Lewis Terman attempted to identify the brightest kids in California. There were two young boys who took Terman's test but who did not make the cutoff to be included in this study for geniuses. These boys were William Shockley and Luis Alvarez, who both went on to study physics, earn PhDs, and win the Nobel Prize. Why did they miss the cut? One explanation is that the Stanford-Binet, the test Terman used, simply did not include a spatial test.

Considering the current push for STEM education and our need for more STEM innovators, shouldn't we be trying to find these talented minds who have a spatial rather than a verbal or mathematical bent?

Inventors, after all, are often individuals who create mechanical devices that change our world. And they certainly don't design these devices by writing an essay on the topic or even by solving a mathematical equation. Rather, they imagine it in their minds eye, and then they draw it or construct it.

For example, Nikola Tesla was an inventor who provided the basis for alternating current (AC) power systems. Tesla is said (or fabled) to have been able to visualize an entire working engine in his mind and be able to test each part over time to see what would break first. Rather than a great feat of mental math, one could consider this a great feat of mental imagery.

So what can we do to educate students who are more spatially talented but less mathematically or verbally talented? What we really need to do is design educational interventions for them that are tailored to their spatial strengths. Many spatially talented students like working with their hands, and perhaps interventions could include more hands on activities. In addition, now with the rise of educational technology as Tom Vander Ark persuasively shows us in his book Getting Smart, perhaps visual interventions in the format of spatial video games could help engage and reach these types of students and help develop their talents.

I think we often don't realize that engineers have invented so many things that we take for granted in our everyday lives. Consider this. The device you are reading this article from right now was invented by engineers who utilized their phenomenal spatial talents. There are many kids today who are spatially talented who have the potential to create amazing things that can improve our lives and society. We need to learn to value these beautiful minds.

We need to identify them. We need to provide a tailored education for them. And we need to place the tools in their hands so that they can help invent our future.

© 2012 by Jonathan Wai

You can follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or G+. For more of Finding the Next Einstein: Why Smart is Relative go here.

A version of this article originally appeared on Getting Smart.

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