Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Why Don’t We Value Spatial Intelligence? (gettingsmart.com)
124 points by tokenadult on Dec 31, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 56 comments

"Imagination is more important than knowledge." - Albert Einstein

"When he moved from Germany to Switzerland at the age of sixteen, Einstein spent a year at a school that emphasized independent thought, free action and personal responsibility. He thrived in a learning environment without rote drills, memorization and force-fed facts.

Based on the philosophy of a Swiss educator named Pestalozzi, the school helped students move through a series of steps from hands-on observations to intuition, conceptualization, imagination and visual imagery.

“Visual understanding is the essential and only true means of teaching how to judge things correctly,” wrote Pestaslozzi, and “the learning of numbers and language must be definitely subordinated"

...It was at this school that Einstein, age sixteen, started picturing what it would be like to ride along a beam of light.”


One problem is not everyone has imagination--just like there are some photo-memory people there are those with no capability of 'picturing' anything in their mind.

Another is that people's mental imagery is probably very different, how can you teach it directly? If the school is good at getting people to discover that mental imagery on their own it will probably work out, but it's hard to teach it to someone who doesn't share it. (I'd love to see some other psychology studies on this, I think I first ran across the view from a Feynman video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cj4y0EUlU-Y&feature=BFa&#... )

We all played with building blocks, no? Frank Lloyd Wright credited Froebel Gifts, a type of building block, as being instrumental in his early development "For several years I sat at the little Kindergarten table-top... and played... with the cube, the sphere and the triangle—these smooth wooden maple blocks... All are in my fingers to this day..."

Anyway, here is a study summary that may be of interest.


"Building Blocks is a NSF-funded PreK to grade 2 software-based mathematics curriculum development project, designed to comprehensively address the most recent mathematics standards. Building Blocks materials were created upon explicit design principles and a nine-phase formative model—they are truly research-based (details are provided in Clements, 2002a; Clements, 2002b; Sarama & Clements, in press)... The materials are designed to help children extend and mathematize their everyday activities, from building blocks to art to songs and stories to puzzles...

...The results are illustrated in two graphs. We computed effect sizes using the accepted benchmarks of .25 as indicating practical significance (i.e., educationally meaningful), .5 as indicating moderate strength, and .8 as indicating a large effect (Cohen, 1977). The effect sizes comparing BB children’s posttest to the control children’s posttest were .85 and 1.44 for number and geometry, respectively, and the effect sizes comparing BB children’s posttest to their pretest (measuring achievement gains) were 1.71 and 2.12. Therefore, all effects were positive and large. Achievement gains were comparable to the coveted “2-sigma” effect of excellent individual tutoring"

> We all played with building blocks, no? Frank Lloyd Wright credited Froebel Gifts, a type of building block, as being instrumental in his early development

We've all played with building blocks, but few of us are Frank Lloyd Wright. Of course, the difference here is that he played with them for several years whereas I'm told I played with them but can form no crisp memories of such an event. (I don't have many crisp memories from that age and I'm cautious of vague memories without additional witnesses just being made-up.) I don't imagine I would have enjoyed being forced to play with them up through 6th grade, nor have been more Frankish, so I'm finding it hard to believe him that it was the blocks themselves that made Frank different. (Though after a little reflection, I do remember extensions to building blocks through maybe 6th grade, such as the rubber band pegs, various polygon plastic 'biscuits'[1], plastic-log-cabin-building cylinders, and connectible cubes. As well as 2D jigsaw puzzles at home and we had a couple neat 3D puzzles in 6th grade. I never liked Lego but I like Minecraft.)

Thanks for the study, though. You should emphasize the last sentence like the PDF does, the "2-sigma" effect is one of the reasons why I and many others think one-to-one tutoring is the best we can do and ways to cheat that are definitely worth pursuing. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bloom%27s_2_Sigma_Problem ) Other writings on their site are also interesting (and screenshots show their age) http://gse.buffalo.edu/org/buildingblocks/projectWritings.ht...

[1]Actually, apparently these things are the 2D "building blocks" referenced in the study whereas Frank seems to be talking about the 3D "building blocks" that are actually big and blocky.

Not everyone has imagination? Bullshit. You could argue, perhaps, that not everyone has strong imagination, but everyone certainly has imagination. Unfortunately, imagination is something that is severely underrated and overlooked in today's academic world.

I can't find a link now, but something I read on HN a while back said that it has been demonstrated that the capability to mentally picture something is variable across the population, with some people lacking the ability entirely. IIRC, in the late 1800s, there was some debate as to whether the "mind's eye" actually existed as an experience separate from the mental recitation of the words describing such an experience, and it was eventually found that the opponents of the mind's eye idea did not have the ability themselves.

I'd appreciate it if someone who knows the right keywords to search for could find the original reference, and correct me if necessary.

Here's a link to such a person's experiences. http://lesswrong.com/user/lindagert/comments/

> not everyone has imagination

You need to spend more time with young children.

See nitrogen's post. The gp didn't mean imagination so much as internal picturing. I'm not sure about children but some people lack this ability the same way others are better with turn by turn directions than a look at a map.

Who is we? At best you can say that the school system and large bureaucracies don't value these skills. Certainly Apple and the British empire value Ive's contribution to design immensely.

The Tony Starks of the world are not meant to be low level grunts, keep in mind that the school system is designed to produce interchangeable parts to work in large manufacturing and bureaucratic organizations such as fortune 100s, the government and the military. The levels of leaders who self select out is acceptable and therefore the system will not be changed.

The school system is not for the betterment of the people who go through it; it is for the benefit of the owners. It's not a bug that our school system produces learned helplessness it's a feature.

Spatial intelligence is not always related to design things. I'm way more at ease with spatial concept, and in direct way with structure, than with word and number. But I can translate all my mental image into words and numbers, albeit not perfectly — this give me the ability to program, learn new things pretty fast, manipulate mathematics... the hard part is going back to the world of symbol.

For those who never saw it, Ken Robinson’s 2006 TED talk is as amazing as it ever was; go watch it right away: http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_crea...

Indeed I also quite liked his RSAnimate talk on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U


Wouldn't a better way to make a gifted kid learn the value of hard work be to put it in an environment where the work is challenging enough that it is required?

I think spatial intelligence can help with programming, I'm not real up on all the different categories of intelligence, but I think I tend to be more of a spatial thinker which could be part of why I have more and more come to like designing complex applications with different, smaller components because when I visualize the entire application in my mind I see it in basically a 3D space as far as how the components interact

Absolutely, visualization is commonly done, everything from ER diagrams to object models to flow charts to the little blocks and arrows drawings we made to understand pointers and data structures.

Even just tracing how all the different functions in a program fit together is kind of a spatial task... Or something that has more in common with spatial reasoning than with numeracy or verbal reasoning.

And they certainly don’t design these devices by writing an essay on the topic or even by solving a mathematical equation. Rather, they imagine it in their minds eye, and then they draw it or construct it.

Remind me not to drive on that person's bridge. Sorry but if you can't hack the math to make sure your invention isn't going to explode and kill people then perhaps you should put down the power tools. Almost every modern invention is heavily math driven, because you have to know it will work not just be able to visualize and assemble it. Love that red herring about the nobel laureates, after all it has been shown that after a certain point drive is much more important than intelligence when determining outcomes.

I knew a fellow at college who was awesome at setting up experiments and having them work. He worked with some incredibly bright post-grads and post-docs who couldn't scramble an egg. Sometimes you get these two "intelligences" in the same person. Usually you don't. We're better when we recognize different talents and work together.

I had a friend at school who had phenomenal spatial awareness, but was dyslexic and had trouble with maths, while I find the maths relatively easy but only have good spatial awareness. Together, we could design and build things neither of us would be able to make work on our own -- with my friend being the driving force, as he only needed help in getting his ideas to work, while I had more trouble getting the ideas in the first place.

"Almost every modern invention is heavily math driven" - citation?

Anyway, no one is advocating the building of bridges by school kids who can build things without math. The article advocates giving school kids who have great spacial skills, but not apparently great math or written skills, a chance to participate in technical greatness.

Engineering school is almost entirely math. It's applied to structures, to electrical circuits, to fluid flow, but the essence of it is all the same - using math to describe things.

Yes, a lot of design doesn't require calculations to be done on the spot, but almost every design made by an engineer will be informed from the beginning by their knowledge of math.

It's hard to think of a modern invention that's as big as the internal combustion engine or the aeroplane, but any recently designed item you buy today has had math applied to almost every facet of it. The design process for a product case uses extensive geometry, the design of gearboxes uses extensive mathematical modelling - pretty much every mechanism that's manufactured will be first described mathematically.

Even things that don't have complicated mathematical models describing them will have had some form of math applied to inform the initial design process. You can't design a lever without taking into account it's length, the moment it applies etc - that's all maths!

Technical greatness in our world requires math. You can't design and build a truly unique and functional device without applying some form of math to it.

Certainly spacial awareness is absolutely fantastic. It lets a designer envisage a concept in their mind, think through how something will work and identify the pitfalls of a concept before anything is put to paper, but it's not a replacement for mathematical ability when it comes to actually designing a functional mechanism or mechanical system.

Engineering school is taught by people who were good at Engineering school. ITs a tight, closed loop with high gain. That's not an argument about what Engineering school Should Be.

Of course mathematics is important. But the initial design is done, I would say ALWAYS done, by intuition. The math is then applied.

Do you know how many gifted math students in my Engineering college could not begin to imagine the layout of a circuit, or a piece of software, or even a bridge, without looking it up in a book? I was a grader for 2 years, and it was shocking how lacking most folks are in this way.

Do you know of any electrical device that was designed with out doing the circuit analysis, just spatially slapped the parts together? Do you know of any buildings taller than a story that were built spatially without doing any analysis of load? When was the last time you heard of a car that was put together by someone who didn't do the math to make sure the engine wouldn't explode at speed? Try building an artificial hart without doing the flow analysis. Being good at math isn't a sufficient condition to be a great engineer but it is a necessary condition.

In this article, "value" means "perform standardized testing for". In that sense, we don't value much at all, because even the things we test for ("verbal", "math") we reduce to some inane blather for the purposes of testing.

From a larger viewpoint, what does this author think we do for football players? Do we not "value" them? In large part, what the players do is the "spatial intelligence" of the article. Do we not "value" airplane pilots? Same thing there.

Right, by his description the only things we value are 'skill at taking standardized tests'.

I'd say if you look at peak salaries, some of the most valued professions are spatial.


I got minus'd a point for that? I still agree though. The first thing that comes to mind when I think of the "elite" spatially intelligent are professional athletes and race car drivers.

Value is subjective and some fields value traits that vary from what is valued in other fields.

To be a successful mathematician, you don't need to be particularly capable when it comes to spacial intelligence. The article highlights concerns but reality is different; the statistical analysis I conduct in a day requires very little spacial intelligence. The most productive athletes in my city do require a superior level of spacial intelligence and they are compensated incredibly well for their contributions (paid more in a year than I am likely to be paid in may entire career).

This article misses the entire point of school. It isn't to challenge kids. It's to teach them. If there were something to teach there, they'd have classes and tests on it. Grades aren't for bragging rights.

I'm saying this as one of those kids that wished school taught me more. I was bored constantly. And I still wish that schools would teach kids at the level they need to be engaged and want to learn.

But tests for spacial intelligence, just to have tested it? Why would we pay tax dollars for that? If the kid is gifted, they'll know it and automatically move into a field that uses it. (Or not, as they wish.) There's nothing to teach.

But the point of test (exams) is simply to separate people and decide which candidates are best suited for further development. Tests should absolutely try to cover as many of the essential skills necessary for the various careers open to pupils, regardless of how easily those skills can actually be taught by schools.

It would probably result in identifying pupils with potential that previously would have been ignored in favour of pupils who were only superficially superior. It would also encourage pupils who possess more ability in that area to put more effort into their academic careers in general. And would help pupils with other academic strengths to identify fields which will be more difficult for them (there was a former maths teacher on my IT postgraduate conversion course who was really surprised that she struggled with programming, since she thought her maths ability would have made it a shoe-in).

And, to say spatial intelligence cannot be taught seems to be jumping the gun a bit. Have we really even tried to teach it?

Most tests in our schools are not to help direct the students. They're to make sure they hit a minimum level. That's it. I agree that there are a few that are designed to help a student direct their ambition, but they are few and far between. In fact, I can't say I've ever taken one. The closest thing would be the college entrance exam that basically just tells the students what their worst subjects are, and forces them into the lowest classes for those. Not really a direction.

But let's talk about teaching spatial intelligence. How would you do that? What techniques are employed while using it? Has anyone ever written a book on it? (A quick search says 'yes', but they appear to be ridiculous self-help books.)

Honestly, I'd love to read more about it, but there doesn't see to be much. I happen to be really, really good at things like re-arranging furniture because I can always tell when something is going to fit or not. I've called it down to less than half an inch before when reshuffling an entire room. What techniques did I use? Intuition. I can't teach someone that. And I can't see them teaching me, either.

John Hopkin's Center for Talented Youth summer camps (aka nerd camp) have been offering the Spatial Test Battery as a qualification method since I was in middle school (~10 years ago). See http://cty.jhu.edu/ts/stb.html and for a sample subsection see http://cty.jhu.edu/ts/stbsampSD.html. I never took it (you could also take the SATs as well) but as a heavily technical person my brain does backflips of excitement solving the sample problems.

CTY was the first thing that came to my mind when I saw this article submission. I took the spatial test back in middle school and it was fairly difficult, but that's what's to love about CTY - they make everything challenging to get a true understanding of your strengths and weaknesses. K-12 and higher education could do worse than to mirror some of the aspects of CTY.

Thanks for the link. I loved the sample problems!

I hope this doesn't come out ignorant, but how often does someone possess a phenomenal level of spatial intelligence, yet very little verbal/mathematical intelligence?

I'm not arguing that there isn't something wrong with current education, but I feel the point here may be misrepresented.

Maybe not "very little" but I would claim to fit this mold. I think it's made me an excellent programmer.

I'm... competent (at best) at math. I'm below-average as a writer. However, mechanically I do very well. I can visualize and understand how things fit together very easily. I have a sort of inherent sense of order.

That comes in really handy when working on complex systems. In computer science efficiency is often found in organizing systems, not necessarily in pure calculation (map-reduce would fall under that for instance, even if there is a strong mathematical basis).

Spatial reasoning is actually one of the biggest things I look for in hiring.

"I'm below-average as a writer."

How did you decide that? I'm really curious here, since only based on your comment, you seem above-average to me.

Judging from the comment, your writing seems fine to me. I know a lot of people who are "fine" at writing/math, and perform well spatially. Yet, I have never met a spatial genius who couldn't succeed in the deficient rigor of the public school system.

Your question might need to be constructed more carefully in order to cleanly disentangle spatial visualization from math ability. I have noticed that I seem to be best at math that I can somehow analogize to geometry or to tangible physics. Introspectively this feels rather like using what the article calls "spatial intuition" to solve math problems. I don't know how much to trust my introspection, but if it's correct, then given the way you constructed your question, the two kinds of abilities end up mixed. Perhaps you could somehow narrow "mathematical intelligence" to something specific to fields of math (such as number theory, graph theory, combinatorics, and abstract algebra, in my experience) where geometrical and physical analogies are seldom helpful.

how often does someone possess a phenomenal level of spatial intelligence, yet very little verbal/mathematical intelligence?

I know an example among my close relatives. The person in question is probably in poor shape as to verbal and mathematical achievement/intelligence much more from having lousy instruction in elementary school than from having a bad family background (considering what other people in the same birth family with different teachers in school were able to do, and what neighbors who had the same teachers were NOT able to do), but the effect in adult life is the same--lacking reading and math skills holds many people back, even if they have very strong spatial abilities.

More broadly, for any set of subsets of mental abilities, some people will be lucky and have above-average levels in all of them, and some other people will have wide "scatter" in their abilities. This is rediscovered every time a new brand of IQ test is normed.

From my point of view there are three basic mathematical skills, logical reasoning, spatial reasoning and visualization, and calculation ability which is related to memory.

I agree that to excel in sciences you will need more than spatial reasoning alone.

Also, spatial intelligence has many dimensions. For instance, I cannot visualalize something complex like a human face but have little problem rotating simple shapes or moving chess pieces in my head, which makes me think my spatial reasoning is stronger than my spatial memory or pure visualization ability.

Its not about "very little verbal/mathematical intelligence", its about not-incredibly-high verbal/mathematical skill.

If you feel the point is misrepresented, I suppose you should be more specific.

I definitely remember standardized test questions such as identifying what the shadow of an object should look like, what rotations of various shapes would look like, etc. But there were usually only a few of these. I don't specifically recall if any were on the SAT but definitely were on some of the tests I took in middle and high school.

The article doesn't explain what 'spatial intelligence' actually is. There's a link to a paper that goes on and on about 'spatial ability', but never defines it.

As if 'IQ' wasn't useless enough, they had to come up with with 'EQ' and now everyone and their brother tacks 'intelligence' after a phrase they think should be desirable.

Not to mention the fact that every test I've ever taken did include a section testing this 'spatial ability' (the paper contains examples, so I can infer what it means).

Anyone interested in this should probably read Seymour Papert's _Mindstorms_: there are multiple routes to mathematical ability. (As well as, of course, other abilities). Mentions the story of a child he observed who he believed was turned mathophobic by school — ironically due to his high verbal ability. The school actively penalized a verbal route to math which likely would've served him best.

The problem is that it is currently easier to measure math and language skills. It would also be difficult to teach because it is less mechanical. But I believe advances in CAD's and user interfaces would eventually help in creating a curriculum for developing spatial intelligence.

They do test spatial intelligence. Dental entrance exams test your spatial intelligence, like folding 3-D boxes, hidden surface deduction, etc.

I can relate to this, my maths is pretty decent, english language something I always struggled with but I always excelled at visual spacial 'tests', case in point being the 7 rounds tests I had to take for UK Air Traffic Control, they certainly value visual spacial skills!.

The obvious answer is that verbal intelligence is what's largely used in negotiation, recognition, and diffusing of ideas to non-visual people... see, ie, Jobs getting a lion's share of credit for his various teams' work.

Mind you, I think Jobs deserves most of that credit. Great verbal ability captivates damn near everyone, and pulls the world forwards, whereas great visual/spatial requires someone equally skilled to truly appreciate.

Anyways. I think things are going to get better, sharing credit and humanitarian ethics, along with transparency rising will help a lot. But to answer the question, "Why Don’t We Value Spatial Intelligence?" I think Occam's answer would be, "Because Spatially Intelligent People Don't Always Verbally Promote Themselves Well."

If there would have been spatial tests in school, I might have thought of it as work. And if I had thought so I might not have played with my mechanic Lego's all afternoons.

But it would bee good to test spatial ability when applying to university level mechanics..

Strange that the author doesn't mention Howard Gardner [1], who pioneered the theory of multiple intelligences [2] which lists spatial intelligence as one of the intelligence form.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howard_Gardner

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_multiple_intelligence...

Fact, Doc brown invented the flux capacitor. What a great invention, I may have to go forward to the past and change the education system.

This made me think of Ender's Game (finished re-reading it last night).

I doubt complicated machinery can be built without maths.

Says the multi-billion cell evolved mathless organism.

Is this a joke? Last time I checked, professional athletes make huge amounts of cash.

Registration is open for Startup School 2019. Classes start July 22nd.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact