IS ALTERING THE SHAPE OF EARLY LEARNING
Chicago Tribune; Chicago, Ill.; Dec 25, 2000; Ronald Kotulak,
Tribune Staff Writer;
PHOTOS 3 GRAPHICS 3; Teacher Joyce Carrasco uses spatial-learning
methods in her 3rd-grade class at the University of Chicago
Lab School. Sebastian Christakis, 8, works on a map in
a class employing spatial-learning techniques at the
University of Chicago Lab School. A computer "paints" an
image of a samurai that is visible to the young reader
(right), who can change the position of the character
above the book by moving her head in different directions.
University of Washington photo. Where on earth . . .
could you walk one mile south, one mile east and then
one mile north only to end up right back where you started?
The North Pole. GRAPHIC: Where else on earth . . . could
you walk one mile south, one mile east and then one mile
north only to end up right where you started? Any number
of places actually, if you started exactly one mile north
of the line near the South Pole, where the circumference
of the earth is one mile. GRAPHIC: Looking for ways to
improve spatial learning Chicago Tribune/Lauren Cabell
and Chris Soprych. - See microfilm for complete graphic.
(Copyright 2000 by the Chicago Tribune)
Try this puzzle: Where on Earth can you walk one mile
south, one mile east and one mile north and end up exactly
where you started?
If a mental picture of a globe pops into your mind, the
answer becomes apparent: the North Pole.
That's called spatial intelligence. It is finding your
way around in space, stretching your imagination as you
skip between the real world and the mental images it conjures
Everybody has spatial intelligence, and we use it every
day. We need it to get around, and we need it to build
a Brooklyn Bridge or a space station.
And, increasingly, educators are realizing children need
it to learn in school. Once thought to be a gift we were
born with, spatial intelligence is something many experts
now believe can be developed and taught.
Spatial intelligence also is being recognized as a powerful
teaching tool that can help children understand difficult
abstract concepts. It's the difference between learning
math through multiplication tables and by playing with
blocks and drawing pictures.
To develop spatial learning, a growing number of schools
are using techniques that range from low-tech mapmaking
and middle-tech computers to high-tech virtual reality.
Teachers are delighted and amazed to find that such instruction
is especially helpful to those children who usually don't
do well in school.
Beyond book learning, spatial intelligence is also seen
as a key to creativity and even genius. Frank Lloyd Wright
told how, as a child, he often played with a set of geometric
blocks his grandmother gave him. Later, as an architect,
he said he could still feel the blocks in his hands when
he was designing his famous buildings.
The importance of spatial learning is underscored by new
research showing that young children can grasp mathematical
and spatial concepts a lot earlier than previously thought.
By just 6 months of age, for example, babies are able
to use dead reckoning, or the ability to estimate the distance
to objects, to understand the location of things around
By the time children are of school age, educators say,
they are ready to use simple models, envision the ground
from a bird's-eye perspective and memorize their address
and understand what it means.
Over the millions of years of human evolution, spatial
intelligence was the predominant form of reasoning. Hunter-gatherers
used it to locate food and find their way home; pyramid
builders used it to envision monumental structures.
But since children were sent to school en masse with the
advent of the Industrial Revolution some 200 years ago,
spatial learning has taken a back seat to abstract learning.
That makes the education process harder, like trying to
force infants to walk before they learn to crawl, according
to many experts. Spatial intelligence uses real-world objects,
places and activities to reason out goals and solutions.
Abstract intelligence then goes one step further, using
shorthand symbols for the real world to convey content,
meaning and associations in a more streamlined way.
That's what happened with written language. The first
words were pictures, which evolved into symbols and eventually
letters. Picture books are still used to teach infants
Mathematics developed in a similar way, from simple marks
representing individual items to symbols for multiplication
and division. Playing with blocks is still considered an
effective means for children to develop a concept of numbers.
But by concentrating on teaching abstract concepts first--the
alphabet, word lists and math tables--the modern educational
system fails to take advantage of the natural transition
that shows students how the real world flows into the abstract
world, said David Uttal, a Northwestern University psychologist.
"We take kids who are very visually based in their
thinking, sit them in the 1st grade and we slam them with
a bunch of unrelated abstract verbal facts like multiplication
tables, the ABCs and lists of conjugated verbs," he
said. "Most kids eventually get it, but it's a big
Spatial learning is not only a way to make children smarter.
A growing number of experts believe it is the key to success
in the high-tech economy. The information age, they contend,
demands more mental agility--the ability to toss and turn
three-dimensional images of objects, landscapes and movements
to see new relationships.
Concerned that schools may not be teaching the kind of
spatial learning that engineers, computer programmers and
other future professionals will need, the National Science
Foundation is funding a wide range of research designed
to enhance spatial intelligence.
The foundation recently awarded a $1.6 million grant to
Uttal, University of Chicago psychologist Janellen Huttenlocher
and Nora Newcombe of Temple University in Philadelphia
to find out what successful teachers do to promote spatial
"The percentage of spatial intelligence used in elementary
school curricula is very low," Uttal said. "We
think that's a mistake in the graphic-centered world that
we're starting to live in."
In 1st-grade math classes that emphasize spatial learning,
pupils use charts and graphs, something most educators
had said children were not ready for until later grades,
"But the graphs and charts help you see things like
fractions and proportions in an easier and much more natural
way than sitting there and saying, "2 over 4 equals
1 over 2,'" he said. "Those are abstract ideas
that are very hard for children."
Scientists are taking a fresh look at the way children
learn because of revolutionary advances in the last 10
to 15 years showing that the brain builds its neural networks
for reasoning, memory, skills and talents from experiencing
its outside environment.
Until recently, it was commonly thought that intelligence
was fixed at birth and that learning occurred in a stepwise
fashion. Educators were generally guided by two opposing
philosophies: that the ability to learn is itself learned,
or it is something you are born with.
The new understanding is that it's both, said the U. of
C.'s Huttenlocher. A person is born with a certain ability
to learn, but that potential has to be stimulated by enriching
experiences, said Huttenlocher, whose earlier research
showed that a child's vocabulary increases the more a mother
talks to him or her.
Those experiences apparently lead to learning at younger
ages than had been believed. Jean Piaget, long regarded
as the father of childhood developmental milestones, seriously
underestimated the earliest times that children start to
learn, Huttenlocher said.
Huttenlocher and her colleagues found that children as
young as 2 and 3 can tell the difference between different
volumes, such as whether a glass is one-third or two-thirds
full, which Piaget said didn't occur till much later. Among
their other findings:
- By 3 months of age, infants know that a hidden object
still exists, a skill Piaget said didn't develop until
- By 12 months, they are able to understand the relationship
of things around them to find hidden objects.
- By 18 months, children are able to understand and navigate
- By the second year of life, children are able to use
distance estimates from landmarks to define locations,
something Piaget said doesn't develop until age 9 or 10.
- By age 3, children are able to use simple maps and models.
When Marcia Harris began teaching spatial learning four
years ago to preschoolers in Cranbrook Schools-Brookside,
a private school in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., she began
to ask children to do things that people thought they weren't
"We have them reading maps, constructing maps, being
aware of the cardinal directions and looking at things
from an aerial view instead of the usual horizontal perspective," she
Her teaching style is called authentic instruction. Everything
that is taught has a real-world connection.
When Harris teaches children about distance, for example,
they go for a mile hike. Children bring in pictures of
themselves and their parents as babies to understand how
time travels forward through past, present and future.
While learning their address, they make maps of their
neighborhoods and community. Typically, children are taught
to memorize their address at a later age, but often they
fail to understand the difference between the street number
and the street name.
"If they can understand what an address is at age
5, why keep them in a state of confusion so much longer
than they need to be?" Harris said.
"They can then go on to understand more things. We
want them to make sense out of their world. We're not pushing
them. You can't do that. We're just sort of clearing out
the cobwebs at a time when we believe they can be cleared
Some educators have expressed concern that more complex
learning experiences, such as authentic instruction, may
be too much for slower learners and may set them back even
"To date, we have found no evidence of that," said
Anthony Bryk, director of the University of Chicago's Center
for School Improvement, who is studying the effects of
authentic instruction in a number of Chicago public schools. "In
fact, if the tasks are good and the teachers know how to
teach them, even the weakest students become engaged in
By showing students there is not just one right answer,
which the same kids always come up with, the program broadens
the playing field for all the students, he said. Instead
of disconnecting from the lessons, slow learners realize
they can do it.
"We're finding quite significant differences in student
learning, not only in terms of the quality of the work
they're producing in the classroom, but also in terms of
what kinds of gains they're making in their scores, like
the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills," Bryk said. "Being
exposed to challenging instruction like this can make a
difference of upwards of 20 percent in how much students
learn in the course of a year."
The University of Washington's Bill Winn is finding similar
improvements when he immerses students in an eye-popping
virtual- reality environment.
"Children who don't do well in a traditional, language-based,
highly symbolic and often very abstract learning environment
do better in a more visual and concrete one," said
Winn, director of the Learning Center in the university's
Human Interface Technology Laboratory.
"Everyone learns in the virtual-reality setting,
but the slowest learners in the class learn the most, achieving
scores as high as the brightest students," he said.
With a grant from the National Science Foundation, Winn
and his colleagues are creating 3-D computer models of
the carbon cycle, global warming and Puget Sound.
To see the virtual 3-D images, a viewer wears headgear
with two small television screens. The screens present
slightly different views of a scene to the eyes, producing
a stereo effect. Sensors detect head motions and then tell
a computer to change the TV images accordingly--up or down,
right or left, forward or backward--so a person has the
sense he is moving in an environment.
When students study Puget Sound, for instance, they can
travel from the top of the Cascade Mountains to the bottom
of the ocean. Along the way, they can pause to measure
temperature, humidity, water currents, tides and salinity.
Then they are given a problem: A fisherman has caught
a strange fish. He takes it to the state fisheries department,
where it is identified as a salmon predator and a potential
threat to the state's fishing industry. Where would the
student go to find the predator's hideout, knowing its
preferences for water temperature, salinity, depth and
"We didn't find anybody who didn't learn from this," Winn
said. "We've known all along that people have spatial
ability. The schools simply haven't adapted to recognize
that, although some of them are beginning to now."
Virtual reality might come in handy to solve another puzzle:
Where is the only other place on Earth besides the North
Pole where you can walk a mile south, a mile east and a
mile north and end up where you started?
The spot, if you have a bird's-eye view, is near the South
Pole, where the circumference of the globe is 1 mile. By
starting a mile north of that circle you can walk a mile
south, a mile east--thereby completing a full circle--then
a mile north along your original path to the starting point.