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Thursday, August 2, 2012

Spatial Training Works and May Enhance STEM Learning

Northwestern University posted a story about research led by its own Professor David Uttal confirming that training in spatial concepts does indeed raise spatial thinking and reasoning abilities. The meta analysis (a study of studies) reviewed 217 research studies on educational interventions to improve spatial thinking. The upshots:
  • Yes, training will improve spatial skills.
  • Yes, that improvement will last and transfers to other skills, including perhaps STEM subjects.
Great news! Still aspects of the research, or perhaps just the news story, do give me pause.

Are we talking about training?

The term used throughout the article to describe the intervention is training. Maybe I don't know its proper meaning in this context. I do know we do not do training in GIS at at Penn State. We don't even teach software (something I would describe as training). 

Do we train K-12 students? Do we train them to read? To do fractions? Perhaps we do.

The few examples of the spatial training offered in the article include physics students using 3D representations (not physical models only, I guess) and the use of video games. The good news here is that more than one type of intervention can work. But is it really training?

What interventions work "best"?

I'm sure this is already being researched or planned for the future, but which of the various interventions show the most return? Do different ones work better at different ages? For different types of learners? For different genders? Will adults get as much out of spatial puzzles as five year old Max and Theo do at school?

How do we use these results?

With the current focus on STEM education and the never-say-die efforts to promote geography in he U.S., who will take the lead on translating this research into action or policy? Whose job is that? Do the findings necessarily make geography and GIS key tools in advancement of spatial skills?