Example of an extreme spatial bias profile

  • Students with this profile have a distinct strength in spatial over verbal reasoning.
  • These students should excel when engaged in tasks that require visualisation and will learn quickly when working with pictures, diagrams, 3D objects, mind maps and other tangible methods.
  • Their relatively weaker verbal skills may make learning through written texts, writing and discussion less effective. Suggested strategies to support this are provided below.
  • Interestingly, students with these profiles are often characterised as ‘intuitive’ and capable of seeing ‘the big picture’, but this may be at the expense of a lack of attention to detail, which can be a characteristic of such students.

Jenny Coyle’s extreme spatial bias profile is countered by a quantitative score of 118 and a non-verbal score of 115. It’s important to use this student’s strengths in the quantitative, non-verbal and spatial areas to scaffold what is a relative verbal weakness (101). However, and as we have previously identified, verbal ability is so crucial to academic success that interventions to directly address any verbal weaknesses can dramatically improve results.

What does this look like in the classroom?

Early identification and appropriate provision for extreme spatial bias students like Jenny is likely to make a significant difference to their progress in STEM subjects, and more generally across the curriculum.

  • Through the use of real and virtual technology, STEM subjects in high school are increasingly explored through different media and dimensions – whether it’s understanding a key scientific concept like DNA, using Computer Aided Design (CAD) tools to design a rollercoaster or negotiating the frontiers of modern physics.
  • Once a test has identified this strength, it will be important for teachers to challenge and stretch such students to take forward their spatial skills and integrate them into their learning.
  • However, spatial ability is not a kind of learning style and, as with all students, it would be wrong to label a student as having a preference that must be acknowledged and used.
  • An increasing amount of research evidence indicates that as learners we can even develop our spatial skills. Students who can crack the spatial code of a Rubik’s Cube or who relax with a game of Tetris are actively demonstrating that this was not a skill they were born with but rather one that they have honed over long hours of practice.
  • Further, research has indicated that such apparently limited skills are transferrable and that spatial training impacts on many areas of learning.

Closely linked to spatial skills is the ability to think analogically, that is, to see relational similarities between one situation and another, for example the structure of an atom and the way in which our solar system works.

  • Evidence suggests that this ability helps to develop mathematical insight and scientific reasoning.
  • Teachers need to be aware of how they can develop these abilities even in the primary years. For example, drawing maps, using a wide range of positional words (underneath, inside out, upside down) and completing jigsaws both help to extend spatial skills.

Like most extreme spatial bias learners, Jenny is very much the kind of student who will benefit from a highly visual start to any lesson.

  • If Jenny is quickly engaged and actively involved in, for example, a visual challenge that makes the most of her STEM-related skills then she will maintain her motivation to learn.
  • A good example of this kind of approach is the concept cartoon described in the next section – a challenge for young learners to think about – and this example below is one of the most well-known.

Jenny’s profile indicates that she is highly likely to enjoy and learn best through active learning methods, including simulations, problem-solving activities and the creation of original ideas and responses to new learning.

  • These active learning activities may involve using and creating strong visual images through creative activities. 

Finally, it should be noted that students with an extreme spatial bias can be invaluable in some group-work situations. Whilst their verbal skills are less developed, their ability to quickly visualise a solution, see a pattern or draw conclusions from a range of disparate sources makes them invaluable in groups.

EAL students who appear to have a mild, moderate, or extreme spatial bias often actually have suppressed verbal scores which will develop with their acquisition of the English language. For further help and insight please go to page 77.

Examples of strategies for an extreme spatial bias profile

These strategies will be helpful in enabling extreme spatial bias learners to perform at their best.

1. Effective lesson starters

As indicated above, the principle of the lesson starter is an important aspect of classroom management. It’s all about setting the tone of the lesson. The five-minute starter (it is rarely useful to have one that is any longer than this) is all about signalling a series of expectations: how students are expected to interact with each other, the processes of learning that will take place, and establishing key classroom management rules and routines.

The key reason for having a starter is to hook students into the learning; to make all of them feel that they have learned something in those vital first five minutes. In doing this, teachers also need to create an opportunity for students to think about something specific and manageable.

For extreme spatial bias students, visual starters are going to be most effective. Any of the five examples below will ensure that students feel engaged, motivated and ready to learn more as the lesson progresses.

  • Concept cartoon: students choose from speech-bubble opinions of different characters and identify which one they think is closest to the truth, giving reasons for their view.
  • Prediction: students are asked What will happen if…? about a current issue, presented in a single still image. Teachers should give them one minute to compose an oral reply and they must give reasons for their response.
  • Objects: students are given a group of objects and asked to sort/imaginedescribe/predict/explain/plan an activity. The objects can be as imaginative as the teacher wishes – the aim is to generate creative responses.
  • The teacher shows a very short video extract which students then consider in pairs: What do I already know? What did I learn from the extract? What do I want to find out?
  • Painting/musical stimulus: students respond to a powerful painting or a short piece of music and then shape an initial response in writing, in a drawing or orally. Additional vocabulary to support a more detailed written or oral response can be provided by the teacher if required.

Teachers may wish to use the excellent archive from the British Guardian newspaper at www.guardian.co.uk/world/series/eyewitness or the unparalleled resource that is the National Geographic magazine at www.nationalgeographic.com.

Concept Cartoons were created by Brenda Keogh and Stuart Naylor in 1991 and feature cartoon-style drawings showing different characters discussing an everyday situation that encourages learners to do the same. They are particularly appropriate for students with an extreme spatial bias as they represent key ideas in an entirely visual way with minimal text, and usually offering alternative viewpoints that prompt discussion. Presenting a concept cartoon as a five-minute activity is a good way to begin a science lesson and ensures that even reluctant learners benefit, including those like Jenny who may have excellent spatial skills but are limited in some other aspects of their learning.

2. Using visual images and drama

An extreme spatial bias student is likely to be confident in using strong visual images to support their learning. Good readers are often able to visualise incidents from written words, the events in a science experiment or the feel of a key moment in history. Good teachers will try to develop this skill in all readers and they should start with powerful images, helping to engage students with spatial bias profiles.

Think of the famous photograph of the Hindenburg airship as it bursts into flames on arrival in New Jersey in 1937 (see Figure 4). The teacher could start with the photograph or the famous newsreel commentary from Herbert Morrison as he describes the unfolding disaster. This can then be linked to some key facts about the airship, for example, that at the time it was the biggest thing that had ever flown (show its size in comparison with a jumbo jet or an ocean liner) and that it could carry over 100 passengers.

Figure 5 Hindenburg airship crash

This understanding can then be linked to the beginning of a piece of writing – also modelled by the teacher – and in doing so, the essential links between listening and speaking, and then reading and writing have been clearly established.

Accordingly, students could be encouraged to use aspects of drama and role play in their work, for example, the use of tableaux to reveal their understanding about a historical event, a key scene in a play or the way in which a painting is constructed. In a tableau, participants make still images with their bodies to represent a scene. A tableau can be used to quickly establish a scene that involves a large number of characters, and, because there is no movement, it is easier to manage than a whole-group improvisation, yet can easily lead into more extended drama activities. Tableaux can be used to explore a particular moment in a story or drama, or to replicate a photograph or artwork for deeper analysis.

The idea of thought-tracking can be added to the tableau scene that has been created, with student observers questioning characters in the scene created. The participants have to reply in role, explaining their position (literally) and their response to the situation. Extreme spatial bias students like Jenny will also benefit from the opportunity to present their learning in alternative ways that respond to her spatial ability, for example, presenting a history assignment as an annotated multimedia timeline rather than a conventional essay, or writing about the circulation of blood in the human body through the medium of a labelled flow chart. More generally, such students are likely to appreciate the use of other diagrammatic and visual tools like mind maps and the opportunity to develop web pages in response to an activity. In all such examples, the teacher should be mindful that if the criteria for the completion of any of these activities is made objectively clear, then a student should be able to legitimately respond in a completely different mode and yet still meet those criteria. 

Teachers should consider the opportunities for collaboration, critical thinking and the development of self-esteem as a result of extreme spatial bias students’ ability to provide a valuable contribution to group work.

Extreme spatial bias students will enjoy active methods of learning, including role play, problem-solving activities and the opportunity to develop original ideas. These approaches fit in well with some of the six facts of understanding as identified by McTighe and Wiggins (2012).The six facets provide a framework that is designed to identify whether students have a deep understanding of the concept being taught. The authors suggest that when a learner truly understands, they can explain, interpret, apply, have perspective, an ability to empathise and have self-knowledge.

It is relatively easy to provide evaluation or assessment criteria for knowledge and skills (two core aspects of learning), but it is much more difficult to do the same for the third – understanding. Expanding on the criteria above reveals a framework that can be used to assess student achievement in evaluating this difficult aspect of learning. Think, for example, of Jenny’s likely ability to see ‘the big picture’ in relation to an aspect of learning – a clear link to the concept of perspective in which students will be able to identify different points of view, understand an idea through another ‘lens’ and see that big picture. In addition, her spatial skills are likely to support her in the facet of interpretation – a student’s ability to tell meaningful stories and provide a historical or personal dimension through images, anecdotes, analogies and models.