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Spatial Intelligence: Why It Matters from Birth Through the Lifespan

reviewed by Richard Sawyer

coverTitle: Spatial Intelligence: Why It Matters from Birth Through the Lifespan
Author(s): Daniel Ness, Stephen J. Farenga, & Salvatore G. Garofalo
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 1138850853, Pages: 288, Year: 2017
Search for book at Amazon.com

Reading all the references to New York in Spatial Intelligence: Why It Matters from Birth Through the Lifespan by Dan Ness, Stephen Farenga, and Salvatore Garofalo, I reflect on the city as constructed space. I visualize an immense human and non-human construction; a meso-system with apartments arranged to maximize small spaces and neighborhood stores for daily shopping; an exo-system with the spider webbing of subway lines, bridges, and tunnels, large private spaces like Columbia University that are locked at night, and open, well-planned public spaces like Central Park.

Indeed, cognitive spatial intelligence is needed to imagine New York City. In their text, which I would describe as dialogic, the authors explore questions about spatial intelligence and invite us, the readers, to engage in cognitive tasks related to spatial intelligence. They consider how spatial intelligence develops in humans and what we as educators can do to promote its development in both children and adults. As a backdrop to these questions, they refer to New York and many other places; their concrete and abstract qualities, their relationship to contextualized cognition, and their richness as a laboratory for learning about spatial intelligence. The text itself operates as a complex construction, scaffolding readers’ spatial thinking and intelligence and nudging them to imagine K-12 public education for spatial intelligence in a new key.

In the first part of the book, the authors explore and make sense of a wealth of theories and frameworks related to spatial thinking. This literature crosses many different domains of knowledge and includes the areas of cognition, psychology, ecology, ecology of human development, biology, mathematics, and education. It’s not surprising that given these different disciplines with very different academic traditions, research on spatial intelligence has developed along contradictory lines at times.

One strength of the book is the authors’ exploration and critique of the different epistemological locations of the various definitions of spatial intelligence. As they evaluate them for strengths and weaknesses, they maintain a stance of wishing to open the discourses around spatial thinking, rather than narrow or limit them to single theoretical framework. It would be simplistic for me to suggest that the core of their discussion of the development of spatial thinking draws from Piaget, as theirs is a deep interdisciplinary dive into the different frameworks and theories. However, they do foreground a Piagetian framework in their discussion. Within this framework, children progress “from topological to projective space, and from projective space to Euclidean relations” (p. 31). They also describe at length the concept of affordance, which relates to creativity. Basically, objects such as screwdrivers can direct our thinking about their use within space. Objects that strongly mediate a person’s thinking have greater affordance, which in turn, and perhaps counter-intuitively, limits their development of creativity and spatial thinking.

As the authors examine discourses that have influenced how researchers and educators have considered spatial intelligence, two clear critiques stand out. First are the discourses related to gender and science that have evolved over the decades. The authors expose and debunk the discursive genealogies of such theories (e.g., those that regulate the marginalization of women). In rejecting a gender component for spatial intelligence, the authors state:


Much of the research indicates that this difference [between boys and girls] in the socialization process of young children appears to favor young boys in that what they learn from their experiences and attitudes seems to foster their proclivity toward achievement in school science and mathematics. (p. 83)

Although consistent differences have been found in spatial ability between males and females, the size of the differences are generally small, and appear to be context-relevant. Studies that show significantly large differences under one set of conditions essentially disappear when conditions are modified.

Second, they critique more normative and Western theories of spatial intelligence by presenting examples of cross-cultural (i.e., non-Western) representations of spatial intelligence. For example, they discuss the Cokwe-Lunda peoples of northeastern Angola. They describe their sona, or sand drawings, as being highly sophisticated interconnections of geometric, algebraic, and spatial skills. The authors suggest that students in American schools might study sona geometry in a way that’s central, not ancillary, to their mathematics curriculum.

From these and other points of view, they begin to construct their own definition of spatial intelligence. In terms of spatial thinking and its interplay between theory and practice, they take a more interdisciplinary and holistic view.

In this book we take a global view of spatial intelligence through its intrinsic connections to practical, theoretical, and empirical domains of inquiry. That said, care must be taken when one attempts to classify complex behaviors because there is often overlap and integration of content represented by the subskills that comprise these behaviors…. Psychological perspectives on spatial thinking and cognition research have focused primarily on empirical and theoretical approaches to inquiry. Less emphasis has been placed in the spatial literature on the practical aspects of how spatial thinking can be used in our everyday lives. (p. ix)

Perhaps the largest contribution that Ness, Farenga, and Garofalo make is their discussion of children’s constructive play objects, such as blocks, which are intended to promote intellectual development. They suggest that research on block-play often presents findings that are generic and undifferentiated, ultimately providing limited information about children’s development. Instead, they have developed the term visual-spatial constructive play objects (VCPOs):

We define VCPOs as those materials individuals use when constructing or synthesizing structures that are either imagined or construed as a model of something in the everyday world. These play objects either snap together or touch each other and remain positioned by the force of gravity. (p. 128)

Their VCPO framework includes the concept of affordance, offering a more precise investigation of the relationship between the play activity and children’s development of creativity and imagination.

In their text they also explore the relationship between older and newer forms of technology and the development of spatial intelligence. They argue for continued research on how technology may or may not promote spatial intelligence. In this discussion, they apply the concept of affordance to the use of technology. Here they use the concept of affordance in a more counter-intuitive way, suggesting that the greater the affordance with the use of technology the less likely the possibility of promoting spatial thinking and imagination. For example, a driver’s use of GPS navigation sharply directs their thinking and action, thus limiting their development of spatial thinking.

Finally, spatial intelligence is an exceptionally complex phenomenon which pushes the limits of language as its primary medium of representation. Given the lack of space in this review, I simply want to acknowledge that there is an interesting theoretical discussion in their text (perhaps more of a subtext) about the role of language in how we consider spatial intelligence. As conversations in other fields examine complexities of representation and the debatable correspondence between language and external reality, Ness, Farenga, and Garofalo raise questions about the boundaries of spatial intelligence, boundaries that transcend language.

One of the key themes of the book is our pressing responsibility as educators to study and implement the pedagogical possibilities of spatial intelligence. The authors argue that the theoretical and applied aspects of spatial thinking can work together to promote praxis, individual development, and societal change:

With the development and launching of the digital age, it has become increasingly clear that praxis—the link between theory and practice—is a necessary process that must be considered in making space and spatial thinking conscious and evident for the twenty-first-century learner. (p. 21)

However, as they make clear with multiple examples in many different subject areas (e.g., geography, science, mathematics, and even the arts), the teaching of spatial intelligence has been dropped from the K-12 curriculum. And by “teaching” I should be clear that the authors are advocating for a curriculum in which students are active learners developing their knowledge from the concrete to more theoretical levels. Much of the book focuses on how people, from birth to adulthood, develop a sense of space and how educators need to facilitate that developmental process.

I have to say that as a curriculum theorist, I am grateful that the authors do not present cookie-cutter formulas or scripted lessons for curriculum design or implementation. A prescriptive approach would undermine our thinking as educators about how to develop a rich curriculum of and for spatial thinking and intelligence. Instead, what Ness, Farenga, and Garofalo do is provide the intellectual building blocks for our thinking about the development of a spatial intelligence curriculum in a new key–in New York or in another interconnected place on our planet.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, 2018, p. -
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22513, Date Accessed: 10/19/2018 3:04:31 PM

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