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How Teaching Spatial Skills Could Be Part of a School’s Strategic Plan

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Robotics team at Columbus School for Girls.  (Courtesy of Linda Swarlis)

Spatial skills don’t get a lot of attention in K-12 education, despite research pointing to the link between spatial reasoning and academic achievement, creativity and the arts. So when Linda Swarlis first happened upon the research for herself, she had a revelation.

“This was a game changer for me,” said Swarlis, director of information services at Columbus School for Girls, a PreK-12 school in Ohio. “I had never heard of the impact of spatial ability on engineering and mathematics success.”

Swarlis then learned about Sheryl Sorby’s work on retaining struggling female engineering college students by teaching them how to mentally manipulate objects and boost their visualization skills. But Swarlis wanted to engage students in spatial skills training before they got to college; she wanted to find ways to offer more spatial experiences to students at her school.

Getting Started

In 2007, Columbus School for Girls added “spatial skills development” to its new strategic plan, based on suggestions from Swarlis and a fellow administrator. “Change was not instantaneous,” Swarlis said, but supportive colleagues in each of the school’s divisions helped get the ball rolling.


Teachers started from a place of strength, weaving spatial activities and spatial language into their existing curriculum. The head of the lower school asked Swarlis to present the research to her faculty, with an emphasis on what can be practically accomplished. For example, the preschool and kindergarten children began to create maps of the campus, design and build 3-D treehouses and use geoboards. Teachers became more conscientious about their use of spatial language and began to encourage the girls to gesture as a tool for strengthening spatial reasoning.

Students in the Columbus School for Girls Lego League during a competition.
Students in the Columbus School for Girls Lego League during a competition. (Courtesy of Linda Swarlis)

Over time, their efforts have dramatically increased the cumulative opportunities for students to have rich spatial experiences. These days lower school students build with Legos, magnetic blocks, Kapla blocks and Goldiblox. Coding begins in first grade and robotics instruction begins in fourth grade. Middle school girls continue to play with blocks -- CSG has a successful Lego League team -- and they use digital design tools such the 3-D modeling software SketchUp. Middle and upper school students have a chance to engage in explicit spatial visualization training, the upper school has a thriving robotics team and teachers in every division have been using more maps.

Beyond Math and Science Classrooms

Swarlis said that many of the PE, drama and art teachers intuitively understood the importance of spatial reasoning --  and this initiative has prompted them to be a little more intentional in how they explain the concept to students.

Middle school drama teacher Liz Bishara engages seventh- and eighth-graders in a blocking project that requires them to notate actors’ locations while paying attention to audience sight lines. She said spatial reasoning is vital to theater because of the audience's perspective from every seat in the house. "You need to understand angles and spacing --  and you also need to be able to rotate the stage in your head,” said Bishara.

In the last year, the art and science departments in the upper school have worked together to create three new offerings -- Principles of Engineering and Design, The Art of Design, and The Intersection of Art and Engineering. “I think spatial reasoning is something artists intrinsically have to work with, whether it is consciously done or not," said upper school art teacher Susan O’Connor. "On a two-dimensional surface, it is all about creating the illusion that space exists . . . and in a three-dimensional work, spatial reasoning is taught via physically maneuvering the material through our physical space.”

Even the library has gotten on board, creating stations with Legos, knitting supplies, jigsaw puzzles and a chess set.

Spreading the Message

Sheryl Sorby, an engineering professor and researcher, has worked with several schools on creating spatial skills initiatives. She said she often encounters resistance to adding spatial skills curriculum because of existing workloads and mandates around standardized tests. Educators begin to warm up when Sorby shares spatial skills research and tells them, "a lot of times spatial skills aren’t directly on the test, but spatial skills will help you perform better on the test.”

At the Columbus School for Girls, Swarlis said that as a first step, administrators need to help bridge the skills gap. "Many teachers will need step-by-step support on how to introduce spatial skills into their curriculum,” she said.

She recommends starting with simple, low-cost interventions, such as encouraging teachers to use more spatial language, maps and blocks or manipulatives.

To help other schools, Swarlis has created a website that provides details about her school’s efforts, including links to lesson plans and summer reading materials for teachers. For educators and administrators beginning their research, Swarlis suggests checking out the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center’s outreach initiative and Sorby’s recent TEDx talk.

“The research is so compelling,” said Swarlis. “What amazes me is how much is known at the university level about the impact of spatial skills on STEM performance and how little of that research has trickled down to the K-12 world.”