Jacobs Foundation Research Fellow

Zack Hawes

University of Toronto

Research Focus

Zack Hawes’s research combines methods and ideas from psychology, education, and neuroscience to advance the understanding of how people learn and develop. His research program has two major aims: firstly, to better understand the various factors (e.g., cognitive, neural, emotional, educational) that underlie and shape mathematics learning and performance; and secondly, to use this knowledge to design learning environments that most optimally promote mathematics learning and engagement.  

A major focus of Hawes’s research is spatial thinking (e.g., the visual-spatial imagination) and its role in learning and development, as well as its potential to increase access, opportunities, and interest in STEM.  

My plans for the Fellowship

As a Jacobs Fellow, my research program aims to better understand the role of spatial thinking in how people learn, do, and communicate mathematics. In general, individuals with stronger spatial skills—which involves the ability to generate, manipulate, and reason about spatial relations—are more likely to enter and excel in STEM, particularly in mathematics. Yet, spatial thinking remains an under-valued, under-recognized, and under-instructed aspect of mathematics education.  

A central question of my research is whether and how the teaching and learning of mathematics can be improved through ‘spatializing’ the curriculum; i.e., taking a more explicitly spatial approach to mathematics instruction. Relatedly, does such an approach make mathematics more engaging and accessible? 

To answer these and other related questions, my research team and I will design, implement, and test the effects of a novel mathematics intervention for elementary aged students. The intervention aims to enhance children’s mathematics learning through an instructional approach that better integrates research from the fields of spatial and numerical cognition.  

Ultimately, my research aims to test the hypothesis that attending to and developing students’ spatial thinking will lead to not only improvements in spatial thinking, but student interest, engagement, and performance in mathematics as well. 

How will my work change children’s and youth’s lives? 

The societal benefits of this research include a potential means for attracting a larger and more diverse range of students into spatially-demanding disciplines, including, but not limited to, the increasingly important and in-demand STEM domains. In terms of the international relevance, this study aims to highlight the importance of valuing spatial thinking in education. Indeed,a fundamental goal of this research is to test the theory that spatial thinking represents untapped potential, a hidden strength in students that can be drawn from and further cultivated to achieve new disciplinary insights, understanding, and appreciation of mathematics. In working towards this goal, I hope to demonstrate that one way of maximizing human potential is through providing more targeted spatial instruction and educational opportunities. 

From a more theoretical perspective, my research program aims to test and clarify the mechanisms underlying the well-established, but poorly understood, relationship between spatial and mathematical cognition. In doing so, we will obtain critical insights into the overarching question of when, why, and how spatial and mathematical cognition are linked. This research will help inform how to best leverage this relation in clinical and educational settings.