Spatial Reasoning and Student Success



Spatial Reasoning

This year, I have had the privilege of designing a brand new makerspace for our school. In addition, I have been able to focus on visual-spatial reasoning as the thread that pulls together science, math and technology.

What is spatial reasoning?

According to the Ministry of Education, Spatial reasoning is the ability to engage in reasoning, and understand the location, rotation and movement of ourselves and other objects in space. It involves a number of processes and concepts. More information about this can be found here:


Why is Spatial Reasoning important?

There already exists a very strong body of research that spatial thinking correlates with later performance in math. In addition, research consistently demonstrates strong linkages between spatial ability and success in math and science — and those students with strong visual and spatial sense are more likely to succeed in STEAM careers.

It is absolutely clear that early exposure to visual-spatial reasoning is very important.

However, as educators, we traditionally have failed to recognize that our youngest students are actually able to perform way above the expected levels of spatial reasoning. We generally leave these tasks for older students. This has to change.

Not only is this a problem because we are neglecting our youngest students who already come to school with a high level of spatial-reasoning skills, but this also means that our youngest students are not having equal access to spatial reasoning activities that they are able to perform. This is a social justice issue. Especially when we consider that visual-spatial reasoning positively correlates with later performance in math (Mazzocco & Myers, 2003). If we know the research, and have the opportunity to employ high quality spatial reasoning activities for all students in Kindergarten, should we let older curriculum and older beliefs hold us back? Do we recognize when we are teaching in the ways that we used to be taught? What if we had the ability to ensure all of our youngest students engage in spatial reasoning? How would this impact their future?

In fact, students who experience issues with math, often have difficulties with geometry and visual spatial sense (Zhang, et al., 2012). This to me sounds like an amazing opportunity to understand mathematical achievement via spatial reasoning. The earlier we recognize this, the earlier we can respond.

Wouldn’t it be great if we gave all students the ability to access higher level learning associated with visual-spatial sense right from the get-go? Imagine the impact this could have in overall math achievement throughout our students entire school career, and beyond, in their STEAM based careers.

To me, I think this behooves us to ensure we have access to makerspaces – regardless of where they are located in our schools – to promote visual spatial reasoning skills.

What do you think?


Deborah McCallum

c 2016

Mazzocco, M. M. M., & Thompson, R. E. (2005). Kindergarten predictors of math learning disability. Learning Disablilities Research & Practice, 20(3), 142-155. doi:10.1111/j.1540-5826.2005.00129.x
Mazzocco, M. M. M., & Myers, G. F. (2003). Complexities in identifying and defining mathematics learning disability in the primary school age years. Annals of Dyslexia, 53, 218–253
Zhang, D., Ding, Y., Stegall, J., & Mo, L. (2012). The effect of Visual‐Chunking‐Representation accommodation on geometry testing for students with math disabilities. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 27(4), 167-177. doi:10.1111/j.1540-5826.2012.00364.x

STEAM Job descriptions for Curriculum Planning




Using job descriptions can facilitate program planning and student learning. A job description provides us with rich opportunities to extract content areas, learning goals, success criteria, and rich tasks for learning. It just doesn’t matter if the position is paid or not, volunteer or mandatory. The point is that you will often find key information about skills that are important in our world today, and perhaps discover more relevant ways to teach those skills.

In my quest to make learning relevant for students, I have begun to look at job postings for S.T.E.A.M. related work, and think about ways that I can apply them to the curriculum. There are a great number of possibilities that crop up when we consider how our curriculum can be interpreted through the lens of a real job.

Consider the following job description in blue. As you review it, consider the cross-curricular, and integrated learning opportunities that may present themselves. Consider the project-based learning opportunities you can use to help students gain the necessary skills to apply for this job. Where do various technologies fit into this picture?

Check it out: 



Organization: Ministry of Transportation
Division: Provincial Highways Management
City: London
Job Term: 1 Permanent
Job Code: 12682 – Engineering Services Officer 3
$1,122.02 – $1,410.37 Per Week*
*Indicates the salary listed as per the OPSEU Collective Agreement.
Understanding the job ad – definitions

Posting Status:

Job ID:
Apply Online
View Job Description
Are you looking for a new challenge? Would you like to apply your knowledge of civil engineering technology and computer abilities in a new way?
Consider this opportunity in structural design while contributing to the safety of Ontario’s transportation system.

What can I expect to do in this role?

In this role you will:
• Prepare scale drawings depicting bridge details and materials for review and approval;
• Prepare associated contract documentation according to Ministry standards using required software;
Review bridge site plans and preliminary geometry information supplied by consultants;
• Carry out quantity calculations and cost estimates;
• Provide and assist in the training of regional staff in bridge inspections, in the use of computerized bridge detailing systems and bridge management systems;
• Provide interpretation of standards, specifications and policies as required;
• Assist in bridge inspections by carrying out inspection of simple structures, and updating and maintaining related databases;
• Provide technical guidance, training and advice to junior staff on bridge drafting and contract preparations, durability and construction issues with complex structural details and innovative techniques ensuring safety and economy;
• Answer queries on technical issues from other jurisdictions as required.

How do I qualify?

(aka learning goals and success criteria, criteria for rubrics and other assessment methods)

Knowledge of Bridge Design

• You have knowledge and skills in the design, detailing and contract preparation of provincial bridge contracts.
• You have knowledge and skills to be able to inspect bridges.
• You have knowledge in bridge design and detailing principles, and ability to consider various constraints such as materials, fabrication and production techniques.
• You have practical working knowledge of the varied and complex safety issues related to the design of bridges.

Communication Skills

• You have well-developed oral and written communication and presentation skills.
• You can use consultation skills to identify needs and maintain effective working relationships with regions and other functional teams
• You are committed to customer service.

Research and Project Planning Skills

• You can understand and interpret engineering plans and profiles, technical reports and relevant codes of practice.
• You have knowledge of project planning in order to design, detail, implement, lead and manage a number of concurrent projects of varying degrees complexity, individually or within a team environment.
• You have demonstrated analytical, planning, scheduling, project management and work coordination skills.

Computer Skills

• You can use computer systems and their applications, including Computer Aided Design (CAD) systems and database systems.

Now that you have had a chance to look at this, tell me you are not inspired by the sheer opportunities to connect science, math, technology and literacy? How many skills can be extracted and channeled into balanced literacy and math activities? How many rich tasks can be created? What projects and inquiries can be facilitated? How will they culminate into an end of unit(s) assessment task that includes applying for this job?
How can we help students figure out what they need to do next in order to ‘prove’ that they have the skills to apply?
What if my students were given a small bank of job descriptions, and they need to choose one that looks interesting that they will apply for.
Here are a few steps to consider:
1. Conduct your hypothetical job search
3. Teach the feedback skills that enable all students to engage in higher quality feedback and assessment as learning processes.
4. Find the Big Ideas
5. Plan your projects, centers, and assessment protocol.
6. Reflect
7. Share
Job searching can provide key information into the skills and knowledge that are important in our world. They can even help inform our curriculum planning and instructional design. Next time you are wondering how to infuse math, science, literacy and more into your short and long range plans, consider starting with a job search.
Deborah McCallum
c 2016

Makerspaces for All




Over this last year, I have had the opportunity to understand what Education for All, Learning for All, differentiation and equity on deeper levels due to working in a Makerspace.

Learning is about problem solving, creating positive math mindsets, constructing and building knowledge through hands on activities, and most of all, promoting equity. No where is this more true than in a Makerspace.

However, I think that we have very deep issues pertaining to equity in our schools and classrooms. The ways that things are traditionally done simply do not facilitate success for everyone – but this is what education is all about – doing whatever we can to help students be successful.

Makerspaces (or S.T.E.A.M. Rooms – Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math), are opportunities for new kinds of teaching and learning that promote equity. Based in Constructionism, Makerspaces are designed to give students the ability to build knowledge themselves with hands on tasks. Our students do not have to learn from the teachers experiences and knowledge, they can actively build it themselves.

Working in a Makerspace means that timelines need to be flexible. This fits in beautifully with Growth Mindsets. Students should not have to feel bad because something wasn’t built by the end of the period – this alone does not prove how much a student learned. What matters is the knowledge built from the experience and the process.



Consider this example for a moment:

A class is given a design challenge that brings in many elements of structures in science and math concepts with geometry and spatial reasoning. There are multiple entry points, where students can build as simple, or as complex as they would like. Next:

Student A builds a structure in 5 minutes, whereas Student B struggles with the process for an entire learning block, and does not come close to finishing.

The most important questions become: What was learned? What value did each student get out of the process?

Student A feels great because they built something on time. It came fast, and easy. However, student A did not learn anything.

By contrast: Student B doesn’t finish, feels terrible about not finishing. Frustration levels go high. Self-esteem drops.

Both develop a fixed mindset about learning.

What a travesty it would be if Student B did not have the opportunity to understand why there was struggle with the process? What if this student struggled because they were figuring out a very complex piece of learning for them? What if they were taking the risk to learn, even though the stakes might be high?

Student B did not take the easy route. Student B made mistakes. Student B is experiencing frustration which is what happens in learning. Student B doesn’t realise that they are reinforcing an image of not finishing in time as being a bad thing.

Student A doesn’t feel the need to learn anything new. Student A believes that finishing quickly is a good thing. Student A doesn’t have a teacher who will continue to provide opportunities to take the learning even deeper. Student A’s learning stalls, yet Student A benefits from an image of being a model student.



Can you imagine if people were not allowed to change their plans, make mistakes and start fresh? Or worse, what if we as educators are the ones sending these messages to our students that they cannot?


I always ask my students, What would happen if an engineer did not ever change plans, make mistakes and even start over?

Now, some students need scaffolding with this – they need to understand what an engineer does, and they need to understand that ‘creating’ and ‘making’ follow a process. They need to understand that we design new ideas and structures to help people.

But when they do understand this, it really seems to click with them. They would WANT an engineer who is designing a bridge, for instance, to stop, revise plans, fix mistakes and start over if necessary. This is far more advantageous than quitting after a mistake, or quitting because work needed to extend past a deadline.

Therefore, working in a Makerspace has to mean becoming flexible with timelines and tasks. It has to be about building knowledge in ways that are very new in our school systems.

My experiences in creating a community atmosphere where students have choice and voice, has taught me a great deal about student learning. It has taught me that I do not have to ‘control’ student learning, yet I can facilitate the learning and help students meet their learning goals in many ways.

This has a huge impact on classroom management as well. In fact, the biggest behaviour issues that surface are the ones directly related to problem solving skills, and from having fixed mindsets. Not from students feeling bored, ‘dumb’, or disconnected from learning.

The fact is, that providing students with different ways of doing things, and providing students with opportunities to learn differently and share their voices in different ways produces greater focus, growth mindsets, and student-centered knowledge building opportunities. In my humble experience, this demonstrates that all students can be successful with opportunities to learn in different ways. It promotes equity.

This takes differentiation and Education for All to a whole new level. We are not differentiating so that students can do what WE want them to do all the time. We are differentiating for them – so that the students can build knowledge in ways that are personally meaningful to them. While still meeting the learning goals. While still learning about the Big Ideas.

What does this look like? 

  • We are facilitating, asking questions, promoting student inquiry.
  • We are starting with the Big Ideas.
  • We are setting key learning goals.
  • We are clustering the specific expectations around them – from many different subjects.
  • We are allowing students to design, plan, construct, and then allowing them to write about it, reflect, problem solve, engage in visual-spatial reasoning. All skills that are proven to increase reading scores and help students to become literate learners.

In addition to problem solving, promoting positive math mindsets, and having the opportunity to build knowledge and understanding in new ways, I believe that Makerspaces have the powerful opportunity to begin to promote equity for students in our school systems.


Deborah McCallum


The Big Ideas in Education and STEAM


How do we plan for STEAM?

We start with the Big Ideas.


Attached is a chart I created to link the Big Ideas in Education with S.T.E.A.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math). Big Ideas in Education STEAM

This chart is specifically geared toward the Ministry of Ontario curricula that address STEAM subjects, and specifically for Grade 3. However many of the Big Ideas remain the same across grades.

I also included overall expectations where there were no explicit big ideas already mapped out– just to get the picture.

The next step after this chart, is to first ask ourselves what other specific variables might come into play. We don’t need to have them all mapped out first however. Some specific expectations arise when student inquiries take us there.

Next, we need to think about the teaching strategies we will use. Our choices will depend on our students interests, inquiries and needs. They will also depend on social justice variables including equity, access, and privilege.

Finally, we will consider what tools will best support us.

Things to think about:

  • How does this relate to Growth Mindsets?
  • How can we harness strategies that help us understand what students are thinking, vs helping get the ‘right’ answer?
  • Can we be flexible enough to allow students to share their thinking in many different ways without being judgmental?
  • How can we help students document their own learning and engage in ongoing reflection?
  • How will our strategies help us to create a #feedbackfriendly classroom?


If you choose just 1 Big Idea, this does not mean that you are stuck only teaching that one subject. Remember that when you cluster the specific expectations around the Big Idea, they can be from any subject. However, you can also choose 1 or more Big Ideas to make explicit links to different subjects from the start. It is my belief that we cannot plan ahead for all specific expectations that will be met. If we did then this is treating education as a knowledge repository where students come to get the information from the teacher about the specific expectations. When we know the curriculum, we can allow for flexibility and let student inquiries, learning needs, interests and more guide us to the specific expectations that can be taught with various strategies and tools that best helps our students to achieve. All the while, still ensuring that we are covering the curriculum. It also allows for innovation, collaboration, and connections to real life.

Check out the attachment here. It always helps me to see the Big Ideas in one place.

Big Ideas in Education STEAM D


Deborah McCallum

c 2016