Initiative 4:
Educate using spatial learning at home and at school

Initiative Coordinators: Susan Levine (Co-PI), Louis Gomez, Thomas F. Shipley

We are building on the research carried out in Initiatives 1 through 3 to inform our efforts to educate in a way that fosters the growth of spatial skills and spatial learning in real-world learning settings. At the same time, the research carried out in Initiative 4 impacts the work carried out in Initiatives 1 through 3 as it helps to identify the kinds of STEM problems that students have difficulty with and the ways in which spatial learning can improve STEM achievement. While our educational research involves a broad range of age groups and STEM disciplines, we are currently focusing on research in two educational arenas: young children (PK through Grade 4), and higher education, with a focus on geoscience but additional work on other STEM disciplines such as engineering, chemistry and physics.

We chose to focus on early learners for several reasons. First, prior work suggests that the malleability of skills may be greatest early in life (Knudsen, Heckman, Cameron & Shonkoff, 2006). Further, early learning provides a foundation for everything that follows. Thus we believe that efforts to enhance spatial learning in preschool and elementary school age children may have large benefits in terms of building skills that have been shown to be important to STEM success. Moreover, we believe that building strong spatial skills early can help prevent spatial anxiety, an impediment to success in the STEM disciplines.

Our research aimed at improving spatial learning in young children occurs in two different educational settings: home and school. Our research in the home environment is observational. We are examining the spatial activities and spatial language that parents engage in with their children, and the relation between this input and children's development of spatial language and spatial skills. Although correlational, our analysis of a large longitudinal database that was gathered as part of an NIH-supported program project grant provides a rich source of hypotheses about the kinds of inputs that are important to building strong spatial skills. These hypotheses are leading to experimental studies that allow us to test whether the inputs that predict strong spatial skills are causal factors in the development of strong spatial skills.

Our research in the school environment uses a Teacher Work Circle (TWC) model, developed by Louis Gomez, to engage teachers as partners in developing new ways to spatialize the existing mathematics curriculum. In a series of Teacher Work Circle TWCs, we are working with a group of teachers to develop activities that improve children’s spatial skills and knowledge of spatial language. Our work involves an iterative cycle of activities that starts with teachers and researchers collaborating to develop activities that strengthen spatial skills, teachers trying these activities out in their classrooms, and researchers assessing the frequency and fidelity of their implementations based on checklists that teachers fill out, classroom observations, and periodic meetings and interviews with teachers. We then work with teachers to improve, modify, and add to these activities, and the next iteration of development begins. In addition, we are assessing the impact of spatializing the curriculum by assessing children in experimental and control classrooms on a set of targeted spatial skills Teacher Work Circleat the beginning and end of the school year. Our plan is to compile the curricular activities that are successful into a Spatial Toolkit (see Initiative 5).

Our second focus, geoscience, was chosen because this STEM discipline utilizes many spatial skills, including skills that fall in all four broad categories of spatial skills studied in Initiative 1. Further, our data indicate that geoscientists rate themselves as having more highly developed spatial skills of each of these types than other STEM scientists or individuals in non-STEM fields. Our efforts to improve spatial skill in geoscience students begin with identifying the spatial skills that students need to succeed in the geosciences, through observation of geoscience education, analysis of class materials, and prior published work in this area in the geosciences education literature. When we concentrate attention on particular STEM disciplines, such as our main testbed discipline of geoscience, we identify spatial skills required for expert functioning that have not yet received adequate attention within cognitive science. Thus the spatial skills that are important for success in particular STEM disciplines become the subject of our basic research efforts. In our geoscience research we are developing a test to measure each spatial skill we identify as relevant to expertise in this discipline, and use this set of tests to measure skill levels in experts, and to assess how these skills are acquired over time in geoscience students receiving particular kinds of instruction. This work will feed back to aid SILC's broader mission of characterizing spatial skills in STEM learning.

Working with geoscience experts provides a source of insight about what spatial skills are relevant to their discipline. It also helps guide our efforts to develop each spatial skill, identifying which spatial learning tools might be used in what ways to improve learning. These interventions are being collected into a resource for educators. We will form a group of practicing geoscientists as an analog to the Teacher Work Circle to help us understand the spatial skills that are important for geoscience problems and to help us develop a geosciences workbook. The workbook will provide faculty with a resource for improving students' spatial skills. The long-term goal will be a complete workbook that includes modules for improving each skill. The workbook will be a major contribution to the field because individual professors have had to struggle to help students develop requisite spatial skills on their own, often without much success.

One important component of work in Initiative 4 is the use of CogSketch to develop two types of educational software. Worksheets are a domain-general way of providing feedback and assessment concerning material where spatial configurations and layouts are involved. Design Buddy is aimed at helping engineering design students learn how to communicate via sketches. Students find design highly engaging, and consequently design courses are being added early in engineering programs to help attract and retain students, so technology that facilitates such courses could have an especially beneficial impact. By exploring two very different types of educational software, in quite different domains, we help ensure that CogSketch develops into a generally useful system. Our long-term goal is to bring CogSketch’s visual, spatial, and conceptual abilities to the point where it can model the full range of phenomena that occur when people sketch concerning STEM subjects. Clearly, achieving this goal is a tall order, but we can make an excellent start. We view bootstrapping the basic visual and spatial abilities as something that SILC can achieve, over a ten-year period. The basic conceptual reasoning abilities needed for fluent sketch understanding can, we believe, also be achieved during the same period. However, adding appropriate domain knowledge and domain-specific visuospatial skills is an extremely resource-intensive enterprise. Consequently, we decided to focus on two domains in SILC's first five years, geoscience and engineering design education, both of which make heavy use of sketching. During the second five years of SILC, we will go more deeply into modeling expertise and learning in other STEM domains, in order to develop the ideas and software to the point where others can build upon it for a broad variety of STEM areas and student ages. One longer-term goal is to enable CogSketch to support project-based classes more generally, where the need to have experts craft particular domain-specific software remains a significant stumbling block for providing computer-based scaffolding and portfolio assessment.

Supporting spatial learning in young children as well as in college students studying various STEM disciplines requires working on many fronts. It is not enough to study spatial processes by themselves; we must also work to remove known barriers to learning. To this end, SILC is exploring how working memory capacity and motivational and emotional processes impact learning. Studies with adults have shown that anxiety about mathematics negatively impacts math performance through its effects on working memory (Beilock, 2008), and a study carried out with an NSF supplement shows that early elementary teachers’ anxiety about mathematics negatively affects the mathematics learning of girls in their classrooms (Beilock et al., 2010). Given known stereotypes about gender and spatial ability, we are extending studies of this sort to the spatial domain.

Relevant links:

        From their website: is a collaborative web site devoted to promoting applications of spatial concepts and spatial tools in teaching and learning.

Publications from SILC

    • ♦Beilock, S. L., Gunderson, E. A., Ramirez, G. & Levine, S. C. (2010). Female teachers' math anxiety affects girls' math achievement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107, 1060-1063.
    • ♦Beilock, S. L., Gunderson, E. A., Ramirez, G. & Levine, S. C. (2010). Reply to Plante et al.: Girls' math achievements is related to their female teachers' math anxiety. PNAS, 107(20), E80.
    • ♦Boyer, T., Levine, S.C. & Huttenlocher (2008). Development of proportional reasoning: Where young children go wrong. Developmental Psychology, 44, 1478-1490. [doi: 10.1037/a0013110]
    • ♦Cartmill, E. A., Pruden, S., Levine, S. & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2010). The role of parent gesture in children's spatial language development. In Proceedings of the 34th Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.
    • ♦Davies, C. & Uttal. D. H. (2007). Map use and the development of spatial cognition. In J. Plumert & J. Spencer (Eds.), The Emerging Spatial Mind (pp. 219-247). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • ♦DeCaro, M. S., Rotar, K. E., Kendra, M. S. & Beilock, S. L. (in press, 2010). Diagnosing and alleviating the impact of performance pressure on mathematical problem solving. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Experimental Psychology.
    • ♦Diamond, J., Luke, J. & Uttal, D. H. (in press). Practical Evaluation Guide: Tools for Museums and Other Informal Educational Settings (2nd Edition). Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press.
    • ♦Edelson, D. C., Smith, D. A., & Brown, M. (2008). Beyond interactive mapping: bringing data analysis with GIS into the social studies classroom. In A. J. Millson & M. Alibrandi (Eds.), Digital Geography: Geo-spatial Technologies in the Social Studies Classroom. Greenwich, CT: Information Age.
    • ♦Ehrlich, S. B., Levine, S. C. and Goldin-Meadow, S. (2006). The importance of gesture in children's spatial reasoning. Developmental Psychology, 42(6), 1259-1268. [doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.42.6.1259]
    • ♦Fisher, K., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R.M., & Glick Gryfe, S. (2008). Conceptual split? Parents' and experts' perceptions of play in the 21st century. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 29, 305-316.
    • ♦Fisher, K., Marshall, M. & Nanayakkara, A. (2009). Motivational orientation, error monitoring, and academic performance in middle childhood: A behavioral and electrophysiological investigation. Mind, Brain, and Education.
    • ♦Forbus, K., Usher, J., Lovett, A., Lockwood, K. & Wetzel, J. (2008). CogSketch: Open-domain sketch understanding for cognitive science research and for education. Proceedings of the Fifth Eurographics Workshop on Sketch-Based Interfaces and Modeling. Annecy, France.
    • ♦Gentner, D., Levine, S., Dhillon, S. & Poltermann, A. (2009). Using structural alignment to facilitate learning of spatial concepts in an informal setting. In B. Kokinov, K. Holyoak & D. Gentner (Eds.), Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Analogy. Sofia, Bulgaria: NBU Press.
    • ♦Gentner, D., Loewenstein, J., & Hung, B. (2007). Comparison facilitates children's learning of names for parts. Journal of Cognition and Development, 8(3), 285-307.
    • ♦Göksun, T., Hirsh-Pasek, K. & Golinkoff, R. M. (2010). How do preschoolers express cause in gesture and speech? Cognitive Development, 25, 56-68.
    • ♦Goldin-Meadow, S. (in press). When gesture does and does not promote learning. Language and Cognition.
    • ♦Goldin-Meadow, S., Cook, S. W. &p; Mitchell, Z. A. (2009). Gesturing gives children new ideas about math. Psychological Science, 20, 267-272.
    • ♦Huttenlocher, J., Levine, S.C. & Ratliff, K.R. (in press). The development of measurement: From holistic perceptual comparison to unit understanding. Chapter to appear in N.L. Stein & S. Raudenbush (Eds.), Developmental Science Goes to School: Implications for Education and Public Policy Research. New York: Taylor and Francis.
    • ♦Jordan, N.C. & Levine, S.C. (2009). Socio-economic variation, number competence, and mathematics learning difficulties in young children. Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews, 15, 60-68.
    • ♦Krakowski, M., Ratliff, K., Gomez, L. & Levine, S. (in press). Spatial Intelligence and the Research –Practice Challenge. Proceedings of the 9th International Conference of the Learning Sciences, Chicago, IL (June 2010).
    • ♦Levine, S.C. (2009). Individual variation in preschooler's mathematical and spatial knowledge: Parent talk matters. Cognitive Development Society. San Antonio, TX (October, 2009).
    • ♦Levine, S. C., Gunderson, E. A. & Huttenlocher, J. (In press). Mathematical development during the preschool years in context: Home and school input variations. In N. L. Stein & S. Raudenbush (Eds.), Developmental Science Goes to School: Implications for Education and Public Policy Research. New York: Taylor and Francis.
    • ♦Levine, S.C., Kwon, M., Huttenlocher, J., Ratliff, K.R. & Dietz, K. (July, 2009). Children's understanding of ruler measurement and units of measure: A training study. Proceedings of the 31st Annual Cognitive Science Society. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Cognitive Science Society.
    • ♦Levine, S.C., Suriyakham, L., Rowe, M., Huttenlocher, J. & Gunderson, E. A. (in press). What counts in the development of young children's number knowledge? Developmental Psychology.
    • ♦Mattarella-Micke, A. & Beilock, S. L. (2010). Situating math problems: The story matters. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 17, 106-111.
    • ♦Matuk, C. & Uttal, D. (2008). Entertaining evolution: Understanding evolution from animations. In ICLS'08: Proceedings of the 8th international conference for the learning sciences, Utrecht, the Netherlands (pp. 93-94). International Society of the Learning Sciences.
    • ♦Newcombe, N.S. & Chiang, N. (2007). Learning geographical information from hypothetical maps. Memory and Cognition, 35, 895-909.
  • ♦Newcombe, N.S. (2007, November). Psychology's role in math and science. Monitor on Psychology, 8.
  • ♦Newcombe, N. S., Ambady, N., Eccles, J., Gomez, L., Klahr, D., Linn, M., Miller, K. & Mix, K. (2009). Psychology's role in mathematics and science education. American Psychologist, 64, 538-550.
  • ♦Pruden, S.M., Levine, S.C. & Huttenlocher, J. (2010). Individual differences in children’s spatial language use predicts later spatial cognition. Paper presented in S. Roseberry & T. Goksün (Chairs), When representational systems collide: Aligning space and language. International Society on Infant Studies, Baltimore, MD (March, 2010).
  • ♦Ramirez, G. and Beilock, S. L. (2011). Writing About Testing Worries Boosts Exam Performance in the Classroom. Science, 331(14:6014), 211-213. Retrieved January 13, 2011.
  • ♦Rapp, D.N. & Kurby, C.A. (2008). The 'ins' and 'outs' of learning: Internal representations and external visualizations. In J.K. Gilbert, M. Reiner & M. Nakhleh (Eds.), Visualization: Theory and Practice in Science Education (pp. 29-52). New York: Springer.
  • ♦Ratliff, K.R., McGinnis, C.R. & Levine, S.C. (2010). The development and assessment of cross-sectioning ability in young children. Proceedings of the 32nd Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society. Portland, OR (August, 2010).
  • ♦Rowe, M.L. & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2009). Differences in early gesture explain SES disparities in child vocabulary size at school entry. Science, 323, 951-953.
  • ♦Terlecki, M.S. & Newcombe, N.S. (2008). Durable and generalized effects of spatial experience on mental rotation: Gender differences in growth patterns. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 22, 996-1013.
  • ♦Uttal, D. H., & O'Doherty, K. (2008). Comprehending and learning from visual representations: A developmental approach. In J. Gilbert, M. Reiner, & M. Nakhleh (Eds.), Visualization: Theory and Practice in Science Education (pp. 53-72). New York: Springer.
  • ♦Wright, R., Thompson, W. L., Ganis, G., Newcombe, N.S. & Kosslyn, S.M. (2008). Training generalized spatial skills. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 15(4), 763-771.
  • ♦Yin, P., Forbus, K., Usher, J., Sageman, B., Jee, B. (2010). Sketch Worksheets: A Sketch-based Educational Software System. Proceedings of the 22nd Annual conference on Innovative Applications of Artificial Intelligence.

Presentations from SILC

  • ♦Boyer, T., Levine, S.C. & Huttenlocher, J. (2007, March) Proportional reasoning: Intuition, problem representation and problem-solving success. Presented at Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research on Chld Development, Boston.
  • ♦Cannon, J., Levine, S.C. & Huttenlocher, J. (2007, March) Are young children part-whole thinkers? Children's strategies for solving proportional equivalence problems. Presented at Society for Research on Child Development Biennial Meeting, Boston.
  • ♦Cannon, J., Levine, S. C., & Huttenlocher, J. (2007). Sex differences in the relation between puzzle play and mental transformation skill. Paper presented at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development. Boston, MA.
  • ♦Ehrlich, S.B., Levine, S.C. & Huttenlocher, J. (2007, March). Mathematical knowledge in low and middle-SES Preschoolers: The effect of teacher "math talk." Talk presented at Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research on Child Development, Boston.
  • ♦Levine, S.C., (2009, April). Mathematics in early childhood education: A time for a new beginning. Paper presented at the Society for Research in Child Development Biennial Meeting, Denver, Colorado.
  • ♦Levine, S.C., Huttenlocher, J., Gunderson, E.A., Rowe, M.L. & Pruden, S., (2009, April). Preschoolers' number and spatial knowledge: Relation to early parent-child interactions. Paper presented at the Society for Research in Child Development Biennial Meeting, Denver, Colorado.
  • ♦Ehrlich, S.B. & Levine, S.C. (2007, March) What low-SES children DO know about number: A comparison of hear start and tuition-based preschool children's number knowledge. Presented at Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research on Child Development, Boston.
  • ♦Gunderson, E. A. & Levine, S. C. (April 2009). SES-related variations in early parent number input. Poster presented at the Society for Research in Child Development Biennial Meeting, Denver, Colorado.
  • ♦Krakowski, M., Ratliff, K.R., Levine, S.C. & Gomez, L. (April 2010). Fostering spatial learning in the classroom: Integrating psychological research with educational practice. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association, Denver, CO.
  • ♦Levine, S.C. (2009, September). Spatial language and spatial cognition. Presented at International Conference on Spatial Cognition, Rome.
  • ♦Levine, S.C. (2008, March). Challenges and rewards of interdisciplinary research. Invited talk presented at at Northwestern University, Department of Learning Sciences.
  • ♦Levine, S. C. (2008, June). Learning to think spatially: Role of early spatial language and activites. Presented at The Ins and Outs of Spatial Language: From Theory to Practice, Chicago, IL.
  • ♦Levine, S.C. (2007, February). Math in the Early Years: Starting points and the importance of experience. Presented at Chicago Metropolitan Association for the Education of Young Children.
  • ♦Levine, S.C. (2007, March) Mathematics and spatial development: The role of input. Chair, Paper Symposium. Presented at Society for Research on Child Development Biennial Meeting, Boston.
  • ♦Levine, S.C. (2007, March). Preschoolers mathematical and spatial skills: Effects of input. Invited Talk presented at University of Illinois, Departament of Psychology.
  • ♦Matuk, C.F. & Uttal, D.H. (October 6-9, 2009). When form contradicts content: The cognitive and communicative functions of cartoons for teaching evolution. Paper presented at the International Visual Literacy Association (IVLA2009). Chicago, IL.
  • ♦Pruden, S.M., Levine, S.C. & Huttenlocher, J. (2010). Individual differences in children's spatial language use predicts later spatial cognition. Paper presented in S. Roseberry & T. Göksun,(Chairs), When representational systems collide: Aligning space and language. International Society on Infant Studies, Baltimore, MD (March, 2010).

Additional References

  • ♦Matuk, C.F., Diamond, J. & Uttal, D.H. (October 6-9, 2009). Heroes, villains and viruses: How graphic narratives teach science. Paper presented at the International Visual Literacy Association (IVLA2009). Chicago, IL.

Tools from SILC

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