All that Lego has a purpose: Researchers find that spatial memory improves kids' mathematical powers

Textbooks aren't everything

A couple of Swedish scientists have been able to show that practising maths is not the only way to get better at the subject.

For a long time, it has been observed that the ability to remember the shapes of objects and manipulate them in one's imagination is closely linked with a propensity for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

But there has been a lack of consensus over the exact processes at play and whether training in spatial memory and reasoning could help with performance in maths.

For the first time, researchers at Sweden's Karolinska Institutet have tackled that problem with a study of around 17,000 children between the ages of six and eight years old.

PhD student Nicholas Judd and Torkel Klingberg, professor of cognitive neuroscience, wanted to figure out how spatial cognitive training affects mathematical learning, whether it is more effective to train mental rotation or visuospatial working memory, and whether there are differences between individuals that mean there is a cognitive training method more suited to them.

In the study, children spent half their time studying maths, and the other half undertook various types of cognitive training. The latter included controlled mixtures of tangram puzzles, 2D rotation tasks, non-verbal reasoning, and visuospatial working memory tasks.

The researchers had been expecting rotation training to help in learning mathematics. However, it turned out to have the smallest effect.

In actual fact, the research found that training on memory was more effective than both types of rotation training (2D mental rotation and the tangram task). "This suggests that, when it comes to transfer to mathematics, the crucial aspect of spatial training is maintaining a spatial representation, rather than manipulating it," the team said in a paper published in Nature Human Behaviour this week.

They said the finding suggested the "bottleneck for spatial cognition is the ability to maintain the spatial representation and that individuals with problems relating to mental rotation lose the image they attempt to keep in mind."

With such a large sample size, and working using common classroom tasks, they had something of a coded message for policymakers and researchers in education.

"This study offers a proof of principle that spatial cognitive training transfers to academic abilities. Given the wide range of areas associated with spatial cognition (including not only other fields of mathematics but also science, technology and engineering) it is possible that training transfers to multiple areas, which should be included in any calculation, by teachers and policymakers, of how time-efficient spatial training is relative to training for a particular test," they said.

The suggestion is that the right kind of training might provide multiple benefits, and relief from the rote teaching of times tables and endless number bonds.

Time to tackle the Space Shuttle with your little one, perhaps? ®

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