Albert Einstein, in 1895 at the age of 16, performed one of his famous visual-spatial thought exercises – gedankenexperiments – in which he creatively imagined what it would be like to ride alongside a beam of light. As biographer Walter Isaacson argued, though Einstein was good at math, “he was not a very good verbal learner or a rote learner, so he thought in pictures in these visual thought experiments.”
Einstein very likely had extraordinary spatial ability – “defined as the ability to generate, retain, retrieve, and transform well-structured visual images.”
The cognitive scientist Roger Shepard describes in his book Mind Sights how one who sees the world through spatial imagery might describe it:
“My efforts toward the faithful externalization of particular, spontaneous visual images began in earnest following my involuntary experience of an extraordinarily vivid and geometrically regular visual image just before awakening one morning in 1970. With eyes still closed on that morning, I suddenly saw before me an immense, luminously shimmering, golden array of diamond-shaped panels separated by burnished beveled strips…my memory of the image remained so vivid and my feeling of awe at its vast scale, its pristine regularity, and its preternaturally luminous and shimmering quality remained so keen that I immediately set about making a pencil sketch of it…”
Though most of us very likely were not as spatially gifted or visually imaginative as Einstein or Shepard, it does hopefully make us more aware of kids who tend to have spatial, rather than verbal or mathematical talents, and who are often neglected in gifted identification and educational opportunities in school. This is because almost all standardized tests used in US K-12 schools include mathematical and verbal reasoning measures, but they fail to include spatial reasoning, among other talents.
In recent research using three US population representative datasets that span the last 60-years, Joni Lakin and I estimate in a paper published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology titled “Spatially gifted, academically inconvenienced,” that over 2 million students in K-12 schools are currently being missed in gifted education selection procedures. These spatially talented kids also tended to have greater academic challenges, such as reading difficulties, poor study habits, behavioral issues, and were less likely to complete college degrees.
So we know that there are millions of spatially gifted kids that are neglected in school systems and that they tend to have greater academic struggles and behavioral issues. But if we are interested in finding the missing Einsteins from disadvantaged backgrounds, which measures—cognitive (e.g., spatial reasoning) or noncognitive (e.g., the personality trait of conscientiousness)—could be fruitfully used to help identify them? Ultimately this is a question that requires data that is representative of the population.
Thus, using the same three US population representative datasets that spanned the last 60-years, we allowed numerous cognitive and noncognitive measures to compete with one another so that we could investigate which measures truly could be used in gifted identification or broader academic selection procedures to help identify a greater proportional representation of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. We report these findings in a new paper just published in Contemporary Educational Psychology titled “Finding the missing Einsteins.”
We discovered that mathematical and verbal reasoning measures—those already typically used in gifted and academic selection procedures—are useful for identifying gifted students from all backgrounds. However, the additional measures that would most fruitfully identify students from disadvantaged backgrounds included spatial reasoning measures, as well as conscientiousness, leadership, and creativity. We also showed that these nontraditional measures had reasonable “predictive validity,” meaning they were associated with later academic outcomes.
The educational psychologist Richard Snow pointed out that “if a broader array of aptitudes are more fully represented in education, they may also be more fully recognized as the goals of education.” The purpose of gifted identification is to find students who are ready for advanced learning opportunities so that they can develop their talent to the fullest. And ultimately, if you don’t identify talent early, it’s hard to develop it properly across the K-12 educational years and beyond.
Nobel prize winning economist James Heckman projected the rate of return to investment in human capital using payoff curves, showing that early investments in high ability students in comparison with low ability students result in much greater rates of return. Considering the wide range in learning ability rates among the gifted, this suggests even a small investment in advanced learners with spatial, mathematical, and verbal reasoning talents would result in a huge payoff in GDP and innovations.
As the research reviewed here illustrates, mathematical, verbal, and spatial reasoning abilities are important for gifted or academic selection and talent development. However, schools are currently set up to recognize and build upon mathematical and verbal symbol systems and strengths, but are not currently geared for students with spatial reasoning strengths. Many spatially talented students might be better served through more hands on curricula and through opportunities such as robotics.
As my colleague David Uttal and I argued, spatial reasoning matters for education policy and this has been true for decades. I. M. Smith wrote in 1964 that “At the present time, there is a developing educational crisis, because of the unsatisfied demand for personnel trained and qualified in all fields in which spatial ability is of fundamental importance. The technical revolution has put a premium on spatial ability at all levels, whether required for tile-laying or for topology.”
Some scholars recently estimated that COVID learning losses could add up to 10 trillion in earnings over students’ working lives. Given that some scholars have shown that the top 5% of a nation’s population is influential on that country’s GDP and innovation, along with findings from Heckman reviewed earlier, it stands to reason that learning losses among gifted students would be quite impactful. All these estimates of student learning and long-term payoff do not even include spatial reasoning.
Thus, finding the missing Einsteins from disadvantaged backgrounds and providing them with challenging educational opportunities suited to their strengths can be the first crucial steps to helping these neglected kids develop their talents to the fullest. This can not only improve equity, but simultaneously help improve GDP and societal innovation because these kids grow up to become innovators who creatively imagine and build things. Even things such as the device you are holding in your hand to read this article.