Understanding Students with Spatial Intelligence

The Ability to Process Visual Information

female artist working on painting in studio
Thomas Barwick/Iconica/Getty Images

Spatial intelligence is one of researcher Howard Gardner's nine multiple intelligences. The word spatial comes from the Latin "spatium" meaning "occupying space."  A teacher may logically conclude that this intelligence involves how well a student may process information that is presented visually in one or more dimensions.  This intelligence includes the ability to visualize objects and rotate, transform, and manipulate them.

Spatial intelligence is a foundational intelligence upon which many of the other eight  intelligences rely and interact. Engineers, scientists, architects, and artists are among those that Gardner sees as having high spatial intelligence. 


Gardner seems to struggle a bit to give specific examples of those with high levels of spatial intelligence. Gardner does mention, in passing, famous artists such Leonardo da Vinci and Pablo Picasso, as examples of those with high spatial intelligence, but he gives few telling examples, even in the nearly 35 pages he spends on this intelligence, in his original work on the subject, "Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences," published in 1983. He does give the example of "Nadia," an autistic-savant child who could not speak but was able to create detailed, fully realized drawings by age 4.

Famous People With High Spatial Intelligence

Taking a look at famous people who display this intelligence shows how important it can be to succeed in life:

  • Temple Grandin: An autistic savant, Ph.D., and professor of animal science at Colorado State University, Grandin is credited with designing about one-third of the livestock facilities in the United States. Grandin has said that before she even begins to design a facility, she conjures up the image of the final project -- and is able to mentally picture the placement of every board and even every nail. 
  • Neils Bohr: One of the major voices in the early development of quantum mechanics, Bohr's Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of Copenhagen was responsible for some of the most important early thinking in formulating this branch of science.
  • I. M. Pei: Known for using large, abstract forms and sharp, geometric design, Pei's glass-clad structures seem to spring from the high-tech modernist movement. He is popularly known for designing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Ohio.

Importance in Education

An article published in "Scientific American" by Gregory ParkDavid LubinskiCamilla P. Benbow  notes that the SAT -- which is, essentially, a widely used IQ test to help colleges determine what students to accept -- mainly measures quantitative and verbal/linguistic abilities. Yet, neglecting spatial abilities could have widespread consequences in education, according to the 2010 article, "Recognizing Spatial Intelligence." Studies show that students "with relatively strong spatial abilities tended to gravitate towards, and excel in, scientific and technical fields such as the physical sciences, engineering, mathematics, and computer science." Yet, standard IQ tests, such as the SAT, tend not to measure for these abilities.

The authors noted:

"While those with verbal and quantitative strengths enjoy more traditional reading, writing, and mathematics classes, there are currently few opportunities in the traditional high school to discover spatial strengths and interests.​"

There are sub tests that can be added in order to test for spatial reasoning ability such as the Differential Aptitude Test (DAT). Three of the nine skills tested in the DAT are related to spatial intelligence: Abstract reasoning, Mechanical Reasoning, and Space Relations. The results from the DAT may provide a more accurate prediction of a student's accomplishments. Without such subtests, however, students with spatial intelligence may be forced to find opportunities (technical schools, internships) on their own time, or wait until they graduate from traditional high schools.

Unfortunately, many students may never be recognized for possessing this intelligence.

Enhancing Spatial Intelligence

Those with spatial intelligence have the ability to think in three-dimensions. They excel at mentally manipulating objects, enjoy drawing or art, like to design or build things, enjoy puzzles and excel at mazes. As a teacher, you can help your students enhance and strengthen their spatial intelligence by:

  • Practicing visualization techniques
  • Including artwork, photography or drawing in classes
  • Giving homework assignments in the form of puzzles
  • Having students provide step-by-step instructions or directions
  • Using maps and visual aids
  • Create models

Gardner says that spatial intelligence is a skill few are born with, yet while it is likely one of the more important intelligences -- it is often the most neglected. Creating lessons that recognize spatial intelligence may be the key to helping some of your students be successful in all areas.