Classroom strategies for fostering spatial intelligence


An introduction to CAT4

The GL Assessment Cognitive Abilities Test (CAT4) provides a curriculum-independent and rounded profile of pupil ability, allowing schools to target support, provide the right level of challenge and make informed decisions about pupils’ progress. The tests can be taken online or on paper at any point in the academic year to assess an individual’s strengths and weaknesses across four categories or ‘batteries’.

Verbal reasoning

Verbal reasoning is the ability to express ideas and reason through words. This is essential for subjects with a high language content and the most obvious skill picked up by traditional assessment.

Non-verbal reasoning 

Non-verbal reasoning is the ability to problem-solve using pictures and diagrams. These skills are important in a wide range of school subjects but particularly in science and mathematics.

Spatial reasoning 

Spatial reasoning is the capacity to think and draw conclusions in three dimensions. This skill is needed in many school subjects but the relation between spatial thinking and STEM is particularly robust.

Quantitative reasoning

Quantitative reasoning is the ability to use numerical skills to solve problems and is applicable well beyond mathematics.

CAT4 at Brighton College Bangkok

CAT4 testing is currently implemented at admissions for prospective pupils entering Year 3 or above and, thereafter, every two years from Year 3 to Year 9 inclusively. In addition, as of 2019/20, all sixth-form pupils will be tested at the beginning of Year 12, prior to the commencement of their A level courses.

Assessment cycle

Perhaps the most important piece of information derived from CAT4 is the Standard Age Score (SAS). The SAS is based on the child’s raw score which has been adjusted for age and placed on a scale that compares a globally representative sample of children of the same age. The average score is 100. Here at Brighton College Bangkok the SAS data together with data generated from other external assessments including Progress Tests in English, Maths and Science and the New Group Reading Test (NGRT) is used to calculate baseline data and target grades for each pupil.

Furthermore, once a reporting cycle is complete, the baseline is compared alongside attainment grades assigned by subject teachers, allowing targets to be set and value-added to be monitored throughout the year. Specifically, the data is used to identify discrepancies in performance (i.e. the number of pupils performing below target, on target and above target) in different subjects for each child and groups of children allowing timely interventions to be put in place.

The CAT4 data is also used alongside teacher referrals and classroom observations to identify Able, Gifted and Talented (AG&T) pupils, children with Special Educational Needs (SEN), and those requiring additional support from our English as an Additional Language (EAL) department. For instance, although never used as an assessment tool in isolation, high scores in quantitative, non-verbal and spatial reasoning yet low scores in verbal reasoning (termed a ‘verbal deficit’) may indicate that a pupil is AG&T but EAL or SEN.

Pupils with spatial bias

Spacial bias is defined as, ‘a capacity for mentally, generating, rotating, and transforming visual images’ and is considered to be ‘one of the three specific cognitive abilities most important for developing expertise in learning and work settings’ (Park et al., 2010). However, while individuals with strengths in verbal and quantitative reasoning have numerous opportunities to be identified by standardised assessments, strong spatial abilities are often overlooked through traditional means. What is more, spatially talented people are often less verbally fluent, and unlikely to volunteer questions and answers in class. As such, teachers, who typically have the inverted profile of high verbal and lower spatial (Wai, 2012), are more likely to miss talent in students who are not very much like themselves.

Certainly, while children with verbal and quantitative strengths enjoy reading, writing and mathematics classes, there tend to be far fewer opportunities in schools for those with spatial abilities to discover and develop their innate talents. As a result, pupils who would most benefit from hands-on activities such as building, repairing and manipulating tangible things are often required to find an outlet on their own time or simply wait until their post-secondary education.


Despite this neglect of spacial ability, a number of studies assert that spatial thinking is in fact key to success in STEM disciplines (Wai et al., 2009; Charles et al., 2003; Shea et al., 2001). For example, in one longitudinal study entitled ‘Project Talent’, in which over 400,000 people were followed from their secondary school in the late 1950s to today, the findings report that people who had high scores on spatial tests at school were significantly more likely to study STEM subjects at university and go on to become scientists and engineers (Wai et al. 2009). Indeed, Albert Einstein was famously late to talk and once described his own thinking processes as primarily non-verbal, ‘The words of the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought’ (Einstein, 1980).

Critically to us as teachers, the evidence suggests that spatial thinking is malleable and, as such, children can be educated in such a way that it maximises their potential in this particular domain (Huttenlocher et al., 1998; Ceci, 1991). Having said that, it is important to note that spatial thinking is not a substitute for verbal and mathematical thinking (all of us learn by seeing, hearing and doing) and as such, teachers should be trying to provide pupils with the content, knowledge and skills that support all three ways of thinking.

Classroom strategies for fostering spatial intelligence 

Developing and then empirically testing curricula can be a slow process and much remains to be done in terms of identifying optimum instruction for children with spatial bias. However, there is evidence that the following activities and strategies are effective in infusing spatial thinking across the curriculum and are likely to yield important dividends for all pupils. Critically, whenever possible pupils should be given a choice of the format (i.e. video, animation, blog post or podcast), materials and resources used for their creative work.

Building models

Provide pupils with opportunities to demonstrate their conceptual understanding by building models. For example, using Plasticine to make models of plant and animal cells, constructing dioramas of historical events or geographical features, making clay figures to illustrate a story they have read, or using pipe cleaners, Lego or Molymods to show the structure of molecules etc. Apps such as Stop Motion Studio can even be used to produce stop motion animations.

Thinking maps

Let pupils use thinking maps when note-taking or in place of or alongside extended writing tasks. Thinking maps allow learners to grasp new concepts by constructing visual representations of otherwise abstract things. They have been proven to minimise cognitive load by highlighting key concepts and they support engagement by making content accessible and interesting (Clark and Lyons, 2011). There are some excellent thinking map apps and software available, such as Kidspiration  and Padlet but paper templates (available here) can simply be printed and laminated.


Show videos to accompany material being learned. A large number of instructional videos and content are available for free from TeacherTube and, of course, YouTube. Online videos can be customised with questions and quizzes using EdPuzzle.


Using illustrated reading materials for academic subjects are especially helpful for children with high spatial abilities. Use photographs and diagrams in all lesson presentations and printed resources to illustrate key words and concepts. Let pupils sketch or draw pictures of the material they are learning in order to elaborate on their understanding of topics.

Flow maps

Display sequential instructions of how to complete a particular task using flow maps with photographs or other visual cues.


Working walls

Create working walls and interactive displays in classrooms, allowing pupils to display and organise their work and to make visual connections between otherwise disparate topics.

working wall

Time to visualise

Ask pupils to imagine where things will go and what will happen in experiments, sporting activities or before completing a practical task. Furthermore, before moving from one key idea or learning intention to another, allow pupils time to close their eyes and visualise what they have just read or learned (e.g. “picture in your mind how the main character in this novel might respond to his car breaking down”).

Discovery learning

Use inductive and constructivist-based discovery learning to capitalise on the spatial learner’s pattern-finding strengths. For example, start new topics in science with a practical or extended investigation as opposed to explaining everything beforehand. As Dr. Paul Weeks, the Royal Society of Biology (RSB) School Biology Teacher of the Year reasons:

The GCSE kidney is a good, simple example of where I’m coming from. Many teachers just don’t bother with a kidney dissection. After all, it’s not a very challenging or interesting activity, it takes the students all of 5 minutes to do and there’s a profound sense of anti-climax. Is that it? The best reaction you’re likely to get is, “oh, it looks just like the picture in the textbook”. This is because the whole topic has been done the wrong way round. If you start by telling them everything and showing them everything and explaining everything, there’s nothing left to explore (Weeks, 2015).


Encourage pupils to use gestures when solving problems. Research has found that when children are asked whether two shapes can be fitted together to make another shape, they do significantly better when encouraged to move their hands to model the movements that would be made in pushing the shapes together (Chu and Kita, 2011). Some children do this spontaneously, but others who do not will perform better when asked to gesture.

Realia, maps and models

Use realia (real objects), maps and models to create visual and kinesthetic connections. Develop mapping skills in geography lessons.

map reading

Highlight spatial elements

Highlight spatial elements in lessons. For example, by highlighting the unit between hash marks on a ruler.


Co-curricular activities (CCAs)

Suggest beneficial co-curricular and recreational activities such as photography, origami and playing video games like Tetris in order to develop a sense of shifting viewpoints and changes in scale, as well as to deepen knowledge and skills in combining shapes.



WAGOLL stands for ‘What A Good One Looks Like’ and are exemplary models of pupils’ work. These can form an ever-changing display of outstanding work or be used in critique sessions by providing enlarged laminated photocopies on which the pupils can highlight or annotate evidence of its quality. A library of WAGOLLs could be stored on Google Classroom for pupils to refer to.

References and further reading

Ceci, S.J. (1991) ‘How Much Does Schooling Influence General Intelligence and Its Cognitive Components? A Reassessment of the Evidence,’ Developmental Psychology 27 (5), pp. 702-722.

Charles, H.W., Stannard, L., and Jones, I. (2003) ‘Advanced Constructional Play with LEGO among Preschoolers as a Predictor of Later School Achievement in Mathematics,’ Early Child Development and Care 173 (5), pp. 467-475.

Chu, M. and Kita, S. (2011) ‘The Nature of Gestures’ Beneficial Role in Spatial Problem Solving,’ Journal of Experimental Psychology 140 (1), pp. 102-116.

Clark, R.C. and Lyons, C. (2004) Graphics for Learning. London: Wiley

Einstein, A. (1980) ‘Letter to Jacques Hadamard, in The Creative Process: Reflections on Invention in the Arts and Sciences, ed. Brewster Ghiselin. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980.

GL Assessment (2018). Available at: (Accessed 23 March 2018).

Huttenlocher, J., Levine, S., and Vevea, J. (1998) ‘Environmental Input and Cognitive Growth: A Study Using Time-Period Comparisons,’ Child Development 69 (4), pp. 1012-1029.

Park, G., Lubinski, D., and Benbow, C.P. (2010) Recognising Spatial Intelligence. Scientific American. Available at: (Accessed 21 November 2018).

Shea, D.L., Lubinski, D., and Benbow, C.P. (2001) ‘Importance of Assessing Spatial Ability in Intellectually Talented Young Adolescents: A 20-Year Longitudinal Study,’ Journal of Educational Psychology 93 (3), pp. 604-614.

Wai, J. (2013) Why We Need To Value Students’ Spatial Creativity. Mindshift. Available at:

Wai, J., Lubinski, D., and Benbow, C.P. (2009) ‘Spatial Ability for STEM Domains: Aligning over 50 Years of Cumulative Psychological Knowledge Solidifies its Importance,’ Journal of Educational Psychology 101 (4), pp. 817-835.

Weeks, P. (2015) Case Study. Royal Society of Biology. Available at: (Accessed 20 November 2018).


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