Visual-spatial thinking / Overlooked in science ed.

Pay-to-read article at Wiley Online Library

 Visual thinking is regarded as a “defect” by psychologists – because they don’t understand it. Irrational prejudice and ignorance have resulted in a science and math illiterate U.S. population. Psychologists have taken over education theory and practice – and have managed to destroy one of the most amazing human attributes:  enthusiasm for learning. 

Clichés from the Internet, and one positively boneheaded slide show: Suzy Housewife and Joe Texas (vaccines and Autism)

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Visual-spatial thinking: An aspect of science overlooked by educators

by James Mathewson  Department of Chemistry, San Diego State University, San Diego, CA 92182, USA. First published: 12 January 1999.


Thinking with images plays a central role in scientific creativity and communication but is neglected in science classrooms. This article reviews the fundamental role of imagery in science and technology and our current knowledge of visual-spatial cognition.

A novel analogic and thematic organization of images and visualization within science and technology is proposed that can help in the generation and evaluation of classroom activities and materials, and serve as a focus for professional development programs in visual-spatial thinking for science teachers. Visual-spatial thinking includes vision—using the eyes to identify, locate, and think about objects and ourselves in the world, and imagery—the formation, inspection, transformation, and maintenance of images in the “mind’s eye” in the absence of a visual stimulus.

A spatial image preserves relationships among a complex set of ideas as a single chunk in working memory, increasing the amount of information that can be maintained in consciousness at a given moment. Vision and imagery are fundamental cognitive processes using specialized pathways in the brain and rely on our memory of prior experience. Visual-spatial thinking develops from birth, together with language and other specialized abilities, through interactions between inherited capabilities and experience. Scientific creativity can be considered as an amalgam of three closely allied mental formats: images; metaphors; and unifying ideas (themes).

Combinations of images, analogies, and themes pervade science in the form of “master images” and visualization techniques. A critique of current practice in education contrasts the subservient role of visual-spatial learning with the dominance of the alphanumeric encoding skills in classroom and textbooks. The lack of coherence in curriculum, pedagogy, and learning theory requires reform that addresses thinking skills, including imagery.

Successful integration of information, skills and attitudes into cohesive mental schemata employed by self-aware human beings is a basic goal of education. The current attempt to impose integration using themes is criticized on the grounds that the required underpinning in cognitive skills and content knowledge by teachers and students may be absent. Teaching strategies that employ visual-spatial thinking are reviewed. Master images are recommended as a novel point of departure for a systematic development of programs on visual-spatial thinking in research, teacher education, curriculum, and classroom practice.

© 1999 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Sci Ed 83:3–54, 1999.


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