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Is Britain Being Starved of Vital Skills?

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Last year, The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee advised the Government that it will fail to drive economic growth through education and hi-tech industries unless it takes immediate action to ensure young people study Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects and recommended that maths should be compulsory for all students post 16.

Nigel Whitehead, Group Managing Director of multinational defence, and aerospace company BAE Systems, backed up this warning when he revealed that just 10% of people in the UK study STEM subjects beyond the age of 16, when 60% of UK jobs over the next decade will require STEM skills.

Yet, there's a case that students, who could be the next generation of leading scientists, architects, designers and mathematicians, could be slipping through the net through lack of awareness about visual/spatial thinking and the skills that those with a bias towards such thinking can bring to the table. I speak through personal experience.

The World of a Spatial Thinker

I am a 'visual/spatial thinker' and that is someone who thinks first in images and only afterwards translates the pictures to words; someone with a capacity for mentally generating and transforming visual images. It is, in fact, one of the mental tools that every one of us has and needs to use.

Research has shown that spatial learners often excel at STEM subjects, as shown by Project Talent in America. This longitudinal study followed 440,000 pupils over a 50-year period and found that those who had high scores on spatial tests were much more likely to follow STEM careers.
So what's it like to be a spatial thinker?

In my experience, it's like being in a Marvel comic; there are more pictures than words.

When I was at school neither I, nor to the best of my knowledge, did my teachers have any understanding of my dyslexia let alone spatial thinking. I was consigned to the 'D' stream of the local secondary modern school and my educational experience was vile, violent and humiliating. It was an altogether lonely experience.

I truanted a lot but the school would find me and take me back, so I practiced being present but absent. I would sit near the window and just stare out. The teachers thought I was dumb, but I found it utterly absorbing.

I was changing the pictures in my mind, changing the playgrounds into fields, the fences into hedges, and it taught me the creative 'technique' I use today. 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 3-D, inside my head, before the design hits the drawing board.

At school, staring through the window convinced my teachers that I was an absolute no-hoper. My headmaster told me that, as public examinations were £1/2s/6d, he considered them to be in my case a waste of taxpayers' money.

I was well into my 30s before I realised that what I found natural was in fact anything but. I now see that, when weighed in the balance, this 'gift' has proven to be a great benefit to me and to the thousands that have been directly and indirectly employed in my name chasing their own and my dreams, helping develop my pictures.

Understanding the Value of Spatial Thinkers

Recently, I became aware that among leading education professionals there is a growing understanding of the value of visual/spatial thinkers, not least because of the link between spatial thinkers and their aptitude for STEM subjects. Test publishers such as GL Assessment are working to make the skill more easily recognised.

Evidence shows that those with strong spatial abilities tend to gravitate towards and excel in fields such as physical sciences, engineering, maths and computer science, as well as art and design. This could indeed be why NASA reportedly recruits in excess of 50% of its employees from amongst the spatial thinking community.

Yet, sadly, spatial thinkers have often been sidelined in schools as the education system tends to favour learning through reading and writing.

Many children are either unaware that they have a strength in this basic mental ability or it has been dismissed as merely being 'good with their hands' (a statement which, by the way, raises the hackles of even the calmest of spatial thinkers).

Famous spatial thinkers include Einstein, Newton and Lord Rogers and experts say the earlier a child's potential in these subjects is identified, the better. Until now, there have been very few tests that can identify a child's spatial ability. However, there have been significant advances in this area and I hope this will make a difference to the next generation.

I learned less at school than my heart desired. I largely taught myself to read after I left and to me it didn't matter much if I didn't follow a prescribed method of maths although I managed to frequently reach the correct answer. It doesn't have to be this way.

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