Nov. 16, 2000
Vol. 20 No. 5

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    Huttenlocher to continue spatial learning research with funding from NSF

    William Harms
    News Office

    Janellen Huttenlocher
    The traditional tension between nurture and nature as explanations for how children learn is being turned aside based on research on spatial learning by scholars at the University and their colleagues.

    The researchers are embarking on a new initiative to study spatial learning, which is being supported by a $1.6 million three-year grant from the National Science Foundation. The lead researcher is Janellen Huttenlocher, the William S. Gray Professor in Psychology and a leading expert on spatial learning.

    The research comes as scholars begin to appreciate more deeply the importance of spatial learning. A number of technology-related skills depend critically on an ability to understand space. Such skills are necessary to design computer hardware, read medical imaging material and understand graphs and are vital to fields such as science, mathematics and engineering.

    Huttenlocher and Nora Newcombe (Ph.D.,’76), a professor of psychology at Temple University, have written the recently published book, Making Space; The Development of Spatial Representation and Reasoning. It is one of the first books to look directly at issues of spatial learning and is based on years of research.

    “We may now have at least the general outlines for a way to understand cognitive development, not just in the spatial domain, but in other domains as well,” Huttenlocher said. “This is a welcome change––doctrinal wars have taken up a lot of time in the study of cognitive development.”

    The two scholars contend that growth in spatial understanding is the result of an interaction between the environment around a child and the child’s natural ability to understand spatial concepts. Other theories have suggested the dominance of either biological or culturally based factors in explaining how spatial skills develop.

    The work of psychologist Jean Piaget also suggested that children learn spatial information at certain ages. The work of Huttenlocher and Newcombe, however, points out that the understanding develops earlier than Piaget suggested. They identified a number of stages in spatial development.

  • Babies at the age of 6 months are able to use dead reckoning skills to understand the location of objects around them. Dead reckoning is an inborn ability to understand distances and people use it to navigate, for instance, through a darkened room.

  • By 12 months, babies are able to understand distance in a way that helps them find hidden objects.

  • By 18 months, children are able to understand and navigate simple routes.

  • By the second year of life, children are able to use distance information from landmarks to define locations. This seems to be related to the maturation of the hippocampal areas of the brain. Piaget had contended that this ability did not develop until ages 9 or 10.

  • By age 3, children are able to use simple maps and models.

    Children continue to grow in spatial understanding and complete their mental development in spatial learning by the time they are 9 or 10, Huttenlocher and Newcombe contend. Along the way, however, their development is influenced by an exposure to maps and other tools and objects that help them understand space.

    According to research by Janellen Huttenlocher, children continue to grow in spatial understanding and complete their mental development in spatial learning by the time they reach age 9 or 10. Acquiring spatial language and learning to use maps are part of the developmental process as children learn spatial concepts.
    That critical influence is being studied further with the assistance of the NSF grant, which will allow them to explore how the plasticity of the developing brain permits expanded growth in spatial ability.

    Also with assistance from the grant, the researchers will study the ways in which teachers influence spatial growth and accordingly understand how schools have an impact on the development of this form of intelligence. Earlier work by Huttenlocher, for instance, has demonstrated that experiences young children have in school heavily influence growth in spatial learning. “The mechanisms by which the environment affects spatial growth have not been identified, but clearly include acquiring spatial language and learning to use maps,” she said.

    Working with colleague Larry Hedges, the Stella Rowley Professor in Sociology, Huttenlocher intends to explore ways in which students learn geographical concepts. The researchers will look for ways in which people build from biases in their understanding of space as they initially view their home cities as centers of their world and compress the size of other regions of the country.

    In another set of experiments, the scholars intend to use computer games to find if they can improve students’ abilities to do such tasks as mental rotation, in which they imagine moving an object around to determine what it looks like from a variety of angles. The researchers also intend to use computer games to see if they can be used to improve students’ navigational skills and to develop computer software to help students sketch maps to convey spatial concepts.

    The team also plans to study how children use language to understand spatial concepts.

    In order to explore how teachers influence spatial learning, the team will study a sample of at least 36 classrooms in Chicago and Philadelphia over a two-year period beginning in fall 2001. They will study how teachers use maps, graphs and diagrams in the classroom and measure the growth of students’ spatial knowledge.