approach, which leads to fundamental changes in the relationship between teacher and student. The teacher becomes a facilitator or guide for the student’s own process of exploration, discovery, and understanding. The teacher relinquishes the role of expert authority and instead models and supports the learning process of students. Learning is no longer the accumulation of a specific body of knowledge or the memorization of correct answers—it is a process of exploration and discovery driven by curiosity (the students in Bruner’s study described in Chapter 1 [Bruner, 1959]). At the same time, there is a premium on connectivity and interdisciplinarity. Despite the power of the disciplinary approach to knowledge, real-world problems and the challenges of the workforce transcend traditional disciplinary boundaries. Multidisciplinary, collaborative approaches to problems are increasingly important. Again, spatial thinking is integral to these changes because it is a fundamental means of inquiry and because it connects across and adds coherence to the curriculum.
Therefore the committee believes that (1) we must recognize that spatial thinking is a fundamental and necessary mode of thought applicable across the life span in everyday life, in work situations, and in science; (2) we must foster a generation of students who are spatially literate; and (3) we must facilitate the transfer of generalizable spatial thinking skills across domains of knowledge in the K–12 curriculum, thus enhancing learning across the curriculum.
Spatial thinking can and should be taught in American schools. Students need formal training in specific spatial thinking skills (e.g., using point and cross-sectional data to create a three-dimensional model in anatomy or geology). There are many such spatial thinking skills, some of which may be specifically “tuned” to the needs of a particular disciplinary community.
We also need an educational process that leads to a fundamental understanding of spatial thinking in general, something that is more than a set of specific skills tailored to a particular discipline or school subject. Currently there are no standards for how we should think or learn spatially and no standards for how spatial thinking can be taught and assessed.
Recommendations for change in education encounter many problems, not the least of which is the understandable resistance of teachers who face increasing public demands for accountability on the one hand and demands for depth of coverage in specified knowledge domains on the other. Examples of such demands are those present in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (Public Law 107-110), which mandates coverage of core areas of knowledge and regular assessment of student achievement in those areas. Adding another set of stand-alone standards to an already overcrowded curriculum would be unwelcome to say the least.
The breadth and variety of spatial thinking and of spatial thinkers pose an educational challenge. How can we design instructional programs to fit such a rich, diverse, complex, and intriguing set of learning tasks and domains? Clearly, education in spatial thinking must be strengthened. However, this should not add another layer to an increasingly complex and congested curriculum structure or overburden teachers. Spatial thinking is a missing link across the curriculum and it will help to make the curriculum more coherent. It is an invaluable approach to achieving existing curricular objectives. Spatial thinking is a fundamental process skill that transcends the bounds of particular disciplines. While it is central to the sciences, it is applicable in most, if not all, subject areas. It runs across the curriculum and extends from kindergarten through to twelfth grade (and beyond). It is increasingly possible to support the training of specific skills in spatial thinking and to foster a generation of students who are educated to think spatially. Moreover, because of emerging technologies, spatial thinking is more readily possible, and more challenging skills are being demanded and used because of the rapid evolution and widespread diffusion of technology. Technical systems for support leverage the human capacity for spatial thinking in many ways. They can speed up routine operations, manage massive data sets, generate alternatives, allow easy communication between people, and display results. Therefore, in Chapter 6, the committee develops a position statement about the nature and role of support systems in the K–12 context.