In praise of misfitsSpatial skills are particularly untapped in countries like Nepal
Our schools are designed for students who are good at reading, writing, talking and maths. In other words, these students have verbal strengths. But what about those students who are not talented with words and numbers, but show skills in mentally rotating figures and shapes in their minds?
In a regular school system, very little is offered to identify or motivate students with spatial ability. Even crucial standardised tests and school or college entrance exams do not include assessments to recognise this capacity. Spatial thinkers think in visual images and then convert them to words mentally. “It was a bit like being in a Marvel comic with more pictures than words,” says a successful engineer, with strong spatial ability, recollecting his childhood, “I know now that I hated reading and writing and did not like to verbally communicate my ideas even if I knew the answers.”
Too often, children are either unaware of the importance of their own strength in this basic mental ability or they are dismissed by teachers as merely being ‘good with their hands’ or ‘gifted at art’. “At school I would pretend to be present but was in fact absent. I would sit near the window, just staring out. The teachers thought I was dumb, but I found it absorbing to look outside since I would rather think in pictures than words,” says the engineer.
Emphasis on verbal ability therefore leads to a failure to tap all those students, who, from their early years, could have been identified and encouraged to develop spatial skills. The engineer had to discover and develop his skill himself: “I was using my strength of visual thinking to change the pictures in my mind, changing the playgrounds into fields, the fences into hedges and that taught me the creative spatial ‘technique’ I use today as an engineer. People say it looks as though I am staring into space, but actually I am forming a shape, perhaps a table, perhaps a handle, building a picture, in complete 3D, inside my head, before the design hits the drawing board.”
This kind of spatial skill is particularly untapped in countries like Nepal, where students have English as an additional language. As a result, a large number of Nepali children lacking in the social background or opportunity to acquire mastery over the English language, tend to go unnoticed in classrooms. One of the reasons is that the majority of the teachers are more comfortable with students who have strong language skills or verbal ability in expressing their ideas. A further disadvantage to children with weak language ability is that from the very beginning, school tests are designed to recognise a child’s achievement and potential solely based on the student’s linguistic skill. Psychologists agree that spatial thinking is an innate ability that we all have. Some use it well and some do not. Too often, children in many Nepali schools are completely led by what is taught by their teacher’s didactic instruction. That reduces the opportunity for children to think creatively.
Both the great scientist Albert Einstein and inventor Thomas Edison were spatial thinkers and rarely spoke in the classroom and were happy making things, excelling in science. Amazingly, both were regarded by their schools as no hopers! These great minds designed creatively and not by writing essays or even solving maths equations, but by imagining in their mind’s eye and then drawing or constructing.
Today, even in the developed world, only recently has there been serious acknowledgement of the importance of identifying people with spatial ability in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. A lack of encouragement in those so-called STEM fields has resulted in a drastic drop recently in workforce numbers available for manufacturing and production, areas that predominately require individuals with spatial skills. This is having a knock on effect on the economy of many countries.
Not so long ago, Nepal had a skilled workforce in arts and crafts, which diminished rapidly. There are relatively few now carrying forward the skills to continue the traditional work of their forefathers, who engineered temples and produced carved artefacts along with a range of creative work in textiles and manufacturing. As a result of this increasing vacuum, a relatively large percentage of Nepalis seek employment abroad in the service sector and as unskilled manual labourers.
Qatar currently employs a huge spatially talented semi-skilled Nepali workforce. I came across one of them, when I sat next to him by chance on our air travel from Dubai. He related that his cafe employer in Qatar wanted to find out why his coffee machine was vending unaccounted cups of coffee, which were not being paid for. He invented a simple Wi-Fi gadget that alerted his employer each time the machine vended coffee, indicating it was being operated without authorisation by employees making a quick buck. He explained he was not good in ‘education’ and as there were no opportunities to use his mind creatively in Nepal, he had ended up in Qatar as a waiter.
The waiter is only one example of the huge brain drain of young people, who obviously have spatial ability. There are undoubtedly many, still remaining in Nepal, unfortunately ignored. Hence, considering the current push the world over for STEM education and Nepal’s need for more STEM innovators, we should be trying to identify these talented spatial minds early in their school years instead of the current focus on just those with a verbal or mathematical bent.
If so, then the first action is a need to identify them. Second, we need to design educational intervention for them tailored to their spatial strengths, so that students are recognised for their true potential. During my visits to schools in Nepal, it was gratifying to discover that amongst many schools, Rato Bangala in Kathmandu has recognised the need to identify spatial talent, particularly in children from disadvantaged backgrounds they sponsor.
Nepal needs a national initiative to integrate spatial thinking across the curriculum. It also needs standards to be developed that can be used in teacher training and student assessment. Only then will creative minds be accorded their true value to society.
The Britain Nepal Teacher Training Centre has been launched recently in Nepal, by qualified UK professionals, to specifically identify and assess cognitive ability through recognised formal tests, certified to UK educational standards. It is hoped that through collaborative support from schools we will be able to identify not only children with well-known standard academic ability, but particularly those who have spatial ability and can create amazing things that could improve our lives and society.
Sen is Chief Executive at Britain Nepal Teacher Training Centre and Specialist Educational Consultant, UK