Effective Teaching Strategies for Gifted/learning-Disabled Students with Spatial Strengths

By Mann, Rebecca L. | Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Effective Teaching Strategies for Gifted/learning-Disabled Students with Spatial Strengths


Mann, Rebecca L., Journal of Secondary Gifted Education


This study sought to determine effective teaching strategies for use with high-ability students who have spatial strengths and sequential weaknesses. Gifted students with spatial strengths and weak verbal skills often struggle in the traditional classroom. Their learning style enables them to grasp complex systems and excel at higher levels of thinking while struggling with material typically considered "easy." Many high-ability students with spatial strengths and verbal weaknesses underachieve and even drop out of school. Teachers must develop effective strategies to help these at-risk students experience success in educational settings. If students with spatial strengths find success in the educational system, then they are more likely to become creative producers in society and less likely to underachieve and be underemployed.

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High-ability students with spatial strengths and verbal deficiencies rarely have the opportunity to demonstrate their gifts in American high schools. Many of the tests used to identify gifted students or judge achievement in students value performance speed over the careful and reflective thinking that is characteristic of learners with spatial strengths (Gallagher & Johnson, 1992). For example, college admission tests (such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test [SAT] and the Graduate Record Exam [GRE]) are traditionally used to determine entrance to undergraduate and graduate programs but do not assess spatial ability (Gohm, Humphreys, & Yao, 1998). The emphasis on mathematical and verbal abilities on college admissions tests and other high-stakes testing may cause high school personnel to emphasize these areas when teaching and advising students. As a result, individuals identified as having spatial gifts or talents are disproportionately undereducated and underemployed relative to their ability level when compared with equally gifted individuals with strengths in mathematical and verbal areas (Gohm et al.). Individuals with high spatial abilities are more likely to drop out of school, are working in larger proportions in traditional blue-collar occupations, and hold a smaller proportion of credentials at every educational level beyond high school (Gohm et al.; Humphreys, Lubinski, & Yao, 1993). The underemployment and undereducation of gifted students with spatial strengths is of concern because they are ideal candidates to become America's future engineers, scientists, and innovators. Many occupations associated with cognitively demanding educational tracks rely on spatial reasoning such as engineering, cartography, architecture, physics, chemistry, and medical surgery (Gohm et al.; Humphreys et al.; Shea, Lubinski, & Benbow, 2001).

Spatial ability is closely related to visual thinking but is not a single entity; consequently, there is no one specific pattern of characteristics that will manifest itself in children with spatial gifts (Dixon, 1983; Olson, 1984). Combinations of the traits described vary widely from individual to individual, yet there are some common behaviors that will be seen in these individuals who process information visually. Children who manipulate images in their minds excel at activities such as puzzles, mazes, map reading, model building, tinkering, and craftwork (Mann, 2001; Olson; Silverman, 1989, 2002). At school, students with spatial strengths may struggle to master material that is typically considered "easy" and requires rote memorization, yet they thrive when engaged in activities that require higher order thinking skills and creative problem solving (Baum, 1984; Silverman, 2002). High spatial students have a holistic approach to learning and benefit from interdisciplinary activities that illustrate how changes in one subject area influence other domains. As a result of their whole-to-part processing style, these students appear to be slow processors when in reality, they are taking in the new information and considering the significance of it and interpreting how this new piece of knowledge fits into the larger system (Mann, 2005; Silverman, 2002; West, 1997). …

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