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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.

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(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 up.

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 them.

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 to read.

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 struggle."

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 learning.

"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, he said.

"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 9 months.

- 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 simple routes.

- 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 ready for.

"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 said.

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 out."

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 further.

"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 them."

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 other habits?

"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.

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