The lessons starts out much like any other.

Today, the P4/5 pupils of St Marnock’s Primary School will be learning to ‘identify shapes within images’ and ‘identify shapes within shapes’. They will be able to demonstrate success through the ability to name, manipulate and create various different shapes. Before the lesson begins, the class discusses the key vocabulary that they will need – words like shape, pattern, edge and tesselate. So far, so normal.

A solid-filled, six-pointed star appears on the smartboard and the pupils are asked to make one of their own. To help with this, a selection of colour-coded plastic shapes have been provided, and the children quickly get to work. For some this is a process of trial and error – placing different shapes on the desk, moving them around, swapping them about, and gradually finding the correct solution. Others are clearly carrying out most of the processes in their minds, working out what they need to do and then producing a completed shape.

This is all happening as part of project called STEM SPACE. Developed by academics at the University of Glasgow and funded by the Turner Kirk Trust, it aims to help improve the spatial thinking skills of primary four pupils and, as a result, enhance their confidence and competence in mathematics and other related areas.

The Herald:

Dr Jack Parkinson (left) and Professor Quintin Cutts with a young student

According to Professor Quintin Cutts, who leads the university’s Centre for Computer Science Education, the sort of “abstract thinking” being developing in these lessons is critical to success in STEM-related fields.

Using materials first developed in Australia, the project takes pupils through a series of carefully constructed lessons that introduce and progressively develop ‘spatial thinking and spatial strategies’.

This is not about developing spatial awareness, a term that typically refers to your ability to move yourself within a physical space without bumping into things – instead, the aim is to develop pupils’ ability to do things like manipulate and rotate objects in their mind, or construct larger shapes from smaller component parts. These skills are crucial to learning and are developed by a wide range of activities like building with LEGO or playing computer games, but they are not always taught explicitly to young people – this project has been established to find out whether doing just that might make a difference.

“With STEM SPACE, we’re building on a growing body of research which shows that kind of mental aptitude can be developed with deliberate practice,” Professor Cutts says. “Having children regularly practice spatial thinking in primary school could help set them up for improved results in related subjects further down the line.”

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The lesson continues. With the key principle – that larger shapes can be created by combining different, smaller shapes – now established, pupils are guided through a series of tasks and reflections designed to build their understanding, skills and confidence in a gradual and deliberately-sequenced way.

Having already creating their own six-pointed stars, the children are asked to take four green triangles and use them to make a larger triangle, and then to try using two triangles and a rombus to create another triangle. There’s a genuine buzz in the room as they start to soak it in, working in pairs or little groups to come up with a fascinating range of solutions to the challenges they are being posed.

Some complete the tasks more quickly and move on to their own experiments, connecting different shapes in different ways, and creating something new each time; others find the process more challenging but feel a sense of real excitement when the shapes finally come together. One boy, having rotated and rearranged several shapes over and over again, visibly thinking it all through each time, beams with pride when he finally succeeds and exclaims: “I got it!”

Eventually, their teacher draws everyone’s attention back to the front of the room.

The Herald:

Dr Jack Parkinson, Ewan Kirk and Professor Quintin Cutts

“So why,” he asks, “can we make two triangles, the same size, with different shapes?”

Throughout the lesson, and again at the end, pupils are encouraged to think, and talk, very explicitly about what they are learning. That is where the magic can be found, all tangled up in a series of simple question delivered with absolute precision by an expert teacher.  

Explanations are built up from contributions by several children, with more and more complex vocabulary added in as the process continues. This isn’t just about observing some activities and ticking some boxes – everything about the experience is designed to help pupils really secure their learning, with the hope that it can then boost their abilities not just in maths, but across the whole curriculum.

Pupils were tested before the lessons began to provide baseline data, as were another group of children who formed a control group. Once the project is complete, follow-up tests will allow the researchers to evaluate its success, and the data they have already gathered means that they should also be able to figure out whether any particular groups of young people enjoy specific benefits through their participation in the scheme. The P4/5 class at St Marnock’s is one of more than twenty taking part in the research nationwide, and initial responses have sparked high hopes of success.

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Ewan Kirk pictured with young students

Dr Jack Parkinson, from the University of Glasgow’s School of Computing Science, leads the STEM SPACE research. He said: “We’re now several months into the delivery of the initial phase of STEM SPACE, and we’ve been in close communication with teachers throughout. The feedback we’ve been receiving is very positive, and it’s been very helpful to have close to real-time insight into how pupils are reacting to the lessons.”

But it might not work. This whole project is, ultimately, an experiment and success is not guaranteed. According to Ewan Kirk, co-founder of the Turner Kirk Trust, that’s exactly why organisations like his should be funding schemes like this.

“Governments rarely have the resources to facilitate high-risk, high-reward education initiatives,” he says, “yet these hold the greatest potential to transform access to, and quality of, education. This is the space in which philanthropy in education should operate: funding high-risk, high-reward projects that would otherwise fail to secure funding.

“Failure to achieve predetermined results is too often seen as a failure, but this is the nature of learning, which is crucial to innovation. Whatever the results of this project, we’ll have advanced our understanding of how to increase confidence and ability in STEM subjects and we’ll be one step closer to education equality.”