Perspectives on tomorrow's education research from teachers and researchers

Spatial thinking skills: how and why are they associated with children’s science knowledge and learning?
Dr Alex Hodgkiss

Spatial thinking relates to how we think about where shapes in space are, how we think about and manipulate shapes in our mind, and about how objects move in relation to each other. We use spatial thinking skills regularly: when we navigate (even with GPS maps!); pack our shopping bags; or build flatpack furniture. These skills have historically been thought to be important mainly for occupations such as carpentry, but over recent years a significant amount of research has also pointed to the role they play in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) success. That is, prior research with adults indicates that individuals who have strong spatial skills also tend to do well in these disciplines (e.g., chemistry).

I am particularly interested in the role that spatial thinking plays in science learning for primary school aged children. Most research to date focuses on adolescents and adults but little is known about how this might differ for younger children. Science in the primary school years lays the foundation for future science learning at all levels. Establishing more in-depth understanding of the relationship between spatial thinking and science learning at this earlier stage has the potential to support science learning in the primary school years and beyond. For example, understanding which spatial thinking skills relate to different aspects of science could inform the development of early spatial training and interventions.

As part of my PhD at UCL Institute of Education, I conducted two studies investigating the relationship between spatial thinking skills and science knowledge in primary school aged children. In one study, we recruited 123 children aged 7-11 (years 3-6 in UK primary school class terms). Each child completed a selection of five spatial thinking tasks designed to assess different aspects of spatial thinking ability. For example, in a mental folding task, children were asked to work out what a shape would look like after it had been folded in a particular way. In a spatial scaling task, children were shown the location of treasure on a map, and then were asked to find that same treasure location on a smaller, scaled version of the map. We also asked the children to complete science questions based on previous curriculum-based assessments (‘SATs’ tests). We found that higher spatial scaling and mental folding scores were associated with higher science assessment scores overall. It is possible children who have stronger spatial skills perform better in science because they have stronger overall cognitive skills. This would suggest that the relationship is not driven by a mechanism specifically related to spatial ability. To address this, we also controlled for children’s vocabulary scores in our analyses. Vocabulary is highly correlated with general intelligence, meaning it can provide an estimate of children’s general cognitive ability.

Building on the more general focus of our first study, in a follow-up study we explored in more detail the types of science knowledge that different spatial thinking skills are associated with. We also focused more on the classroom learning context and on one specific age group of children (9 year olds, in year 5). 107 children across four classrooms completed a similar selection of five spatial thinking tasks as in the study described above. They also participated in a whole-class physics lesson focused on sound, delivered by a researcher and then completed an assessment of science knowledge related to the lesson. The science assessment included questions focused on both knowledge retrieval, which required more factual knowledge, and conceptual knowledge, which required deeper understanding of the topic. The conceptual knowledge questions were further divided into predictions and explanations. We found that there was no relationship between children’s spatial thinking skills and knowledge retrieval scores. However, higher mental rotation scores were associated with higher conceptual predictions, and higher mental folding scores were associated with higher conceptual explanation scores.

Taking these findings together, we found overall that in the later primary school years, children with stronger spatial thinking skills perform better in science, particularly in relation to conceptual understanding. The strongest evidence emerged for mental folding. There are several reasons why this spatial skill might be particularly important. For example, skills such as mental folding are thought to involve the participant constructing a structured mental image of a shape, and then manipulating this image in the mind. It may be that when problem solving in physics, children also form mental images to support their problem solving.  For example, children may visualise the effects of forces on objects. Children who are skilled at manipulating objects during mental folding may then be able to apply similar skills to science problem solving.

Future studies with an experimental design are needed, whereby we investigate whether supporting children to improve their spatial thinking skills also results in improvements in science knowledge. This approach would first tell us whether the cross-sectional results described above, which are based on correlations, reflect a causal relationship. Studies such as this would also have clear practical benefits to children’s science learning in the short and long term.


This work was supervised by Professor Emily Farran (now at University of Surrey), Professor Andrew Tolmie, and Professor Michael Thomas (Birkbeck College) and involved collaboration with Dr Katie Gilligan (now at University of Surrey). 

Dr Alex Hodgkiss, post-doctoral research officer, Department of Education, University of Oxford

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