The role of spatial thinking in children's mathematics

This is the fourth in a series of interviews with researchers in Educational Neuroscience, to showcase current work that aims to bridge the gap between science and the classroom.

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Katie Gilligan is a PhD student at the UCL Institute of Education.

Hello Katie, please introduce yourself and your key research interests.

Hi Annie, so I am a second-year PhD student working in UCL’s Institute of Education. At the moment, my research investigates spatial thinking in children. This includes things like scaling and rotating objects, viewing scenes from different perspectives and navigating. It is surprising how often we use spatial thinking in our everyday life and I am interested in how and when spatial skills develop. In particular, I am looking at whether spatial thinking is important for maths. I am trying to figure out whether people with good spatial thinking skills have higher performance in maths.

How did you become interested in taking an educational neuroscience approach?

I have always had an interest in the brain and how it works, which led me to completing an undergraduate degree in Neuroscience. During the course of my undergrad I started thinking about the importance of the brain for how children learn in schools and for education more generally. This led me into the field of Education where I have now completed both a Masters, and am working on a PhD in Educational Neuroscience. I think that one of the most remarkable features of the brain is its ability to learn and change. I think that understanding how and why the brain learns at a neurological level can offer invaluable insight for Education.

Why have you chosen to focus on the role of spatial skills in particular?

I think my interest in spatial thinking stems from my own particularly bad spatial abilities. I am notoriously bad at finding my way around shopping centres or visiting new places in the car. And so, I have always wondered how individual differences in spatial thinking come about and whether there are particular activities in childhood that can promote good spatial skills. There are lots of promising papers that highlight the importance of spatial thinking in its own right, in addition to the role of spatial thinking for mathematics and other aspects of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). Given these associations, understanding the roots of good spatial skills and finding ways to improve spatial thinking have always seemed to me to be very important.

Is there anything that teachers, parents, or students can use from your field right now in their teaching and learning?

Absolutely. There are lots of easy ways that parents and teachers can encourage spatial thinking in children. One of the nice things about practicing spatial thinking is that it can be really good fun. Children can be encouraged to play games with lego, building blocks or other physical materials. Alternatively, there is also evidence that computer games that require navigation or building may help improve spatial thinking. Any task that requires children to navigate their surroundings or think about different perspectives are great practice for spatial thinking. This could be as simple as giving your child control of the sat-nav in the car and asking them to direct you, or letting your child take photographs from different standpoints and discussing with them why the pictures look different.

What do you think the future holds for this field of research?

I think that the field of Educational Neuroscience has really taken off in the past few years. I think that neuroscience offers novel insights for education. For me, I hope that understanding why good spatial skills may be associated with maths at a neural level, can help us to design interventions and tools for improving maths.

Dr Annie Brookman-Byrne

Deputy Editor of The Psychologist, British Psychological Society

Before my current role I used behavioural, neuroimaging, and classroom methods to examine the cognitive and neural bases of science and maths reasoning.