A sustained focus on spatial reasoning training could turn the UK into a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) powerhouse by improving young people's mathematics skills, according to new research from the University of Surrey.
The Surrey study found that teaching spatial skills – particularly with the use of blocks, puzzles and other physical manipulatives – is highly effective at improving mathematics performance. The team also found that physical spatial reasoning training was far more effective than digital sessions.
Dr Katie Lee-Gilligan, co-author of the study and Lecturer in Developmental Psychology at the University of Surrey, said:
"Our research confirms that when children learn the relationship between space and shapes through tangible physical tools such as puzzles, their mathematics performance improves. This is critical information for us all, particularly parents, teachers and decision-makers, at a time when the UK is lagging behind its international competitors when it comes to STEM skills."
Spatial reasoning is defined as a person's ability to think about shapes and space in two and three dimensions, and previous research has shown that spatial reasoning is crucial for daily living, for example, navigating to work, filling the dishwasher, and putting on your shoes.
The research, which was conducted in partnership with the University of Toronto and the University of Maryland, also highlights the importance of not restricting the teaching of spatial reasoning to young children as they found evidence of mathematical gains in older groups past the age of seven.
Dr Zack Hawes, co-author of the study and Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto, commented:
"Despite these and other findings that demonstrate the fundamental importance of spatial thinking for STEM learning and performance, spatial thinking remains a neglected aspect of educational practice and policy. We hope the current findings inspire new research, professional practice, and insights into the ways in which spatial thinking may be used to make learning more engaging, accessible, and equitable."
The research has been published by the American Psychological Association and details a meta-analysis on how spatial reasoning training impacted the mathematical abilities of 3,700 participants aged between three to 20 years old.
In a 2021 open letter to the UK Government, the Institute of Engineering and Technology estimated a shortfall of over 173,000 workers in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics sectors, with an average of 10 unfilled roles per business in the UK. The letter, signed by 150 of the UK's top firms, warned that if the country did not plug this skills gap, it would cost the economy £1.5bn per year. This research suggests that spatial skill training could be a novel, untapped avenue for improving STEM skills.
Hawes, Z. C. K., Gilligan-Lee, K. A., & Mix, K. S. (2022). Effects of spatial training on mathematics performance: A meta-analysis. Developmental Psychology, 58(1), 112-137. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/dev0001281