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Showcase August 2015: Spatial Grounding of Learning Workshop: Action, Gesture and Language

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Spatial Grounding of Learning Workshop: Action, Gesture and Language

Rebecca Frausel and Alana Dulaney

University of Chicago

On June 11th and June 12th, 2015, researchers, faculty, and students met at the University of Chicago for a workshop on the Spatial Grounding of Learning. The workshop was sponsored by the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center, the Center for Gesture, Sign and Language, and the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society. The workshop was organized by SILC PIs Susan Goldin-Meadow and Nora Newcombe, as well as University of Chicago psychology professor Daniel Casasanto. The workshop invited speakers from many universities, including the University of Chicago, Radboud University, and Indiana University, to present new and exciting research on the contributions of spatial thinking to learning.

The speakers and the titles of their talks were:

  • ♦ Sian Beilock, University of Chicago, “Physical experience enhances science learning”
  • ♦ Harold Bekkering, Radboud University, “The spatial grounding of other’s actions: A probabilistic account of action perception”
  • ♦ Daniel Casasanto, University of Chicago, “Metaphors we learn by”
  • ♦ Anjan Chatterjee, University of Pennsylvania, “Spatial schemas and intermediate representations”
  • ♦ Karen Emmorey, San Diego State University, “Unique challenges for spatial thinking in a sign language”
  • ♦ Sotaro Kita, University of Warwick, “How gesture drives spatial thinking”
  • ♦ Susan Goldin-Meadow, University of Chicago, “How our hands help us learn”
  • ♦ David Landy, Indiana University, “Leveraging spatial reasoning in the construction of innovative mathematics learning environments”
  • ♦ Barbara Tversky, Columbia Teacher’s College, “Mapping thought to space”

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The workshop was attended by around 50 participants. The goal of the workshop was to foster intimate conversations around the topics of action, gesture, and language, and particularly their application to education. Daniel Casasanto, one of the organizers, says, “Since the time SILC started, there have been huge advances in our understanding of ways in which our bodies interact with language and cognition. It has become clear that studies on action, gesture, and sign language can be critical for addressing broad theoretical questions about the mind and brain. A goal of this meeting was to gather some of the people who have been making these theoretical advances, and to focus their attention on potential applications of their work for learning.”

Another aim of the workshop was to share and discuss research through the lens of SILC’s action-to-abstraction theme. To this end, the speakers presented on applications of the action-to-abstraction spectrum for several domains in education.

Speaker Snapshots: David Landy and Barbara Tversky

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David Landy, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University, discussed how learning in the domain of mathematics is something that could be fluid and tangible, but is instead represented very abstractly. He provided the analogy of learning to play chess while re-drawing the board each time a player makes a move: doing this provides many opportunities for student errors, which become crystallized. Similarly, students learn algebra, which represents objects moving through space, by rewriting proofs, which obfuscates without connecting the equations to the spatial information they represent. He and his research colleagues have been developing a new program to help make math more “tangible”, called Graspable Math. He demonstrated the use of Graspable Math and discussed its possible research applications to mathematics education. More information about Graspable Math is provided here. A Chrome extension for Graspable Math may be downloaded here.

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Barbara Tversky, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, discussed how visual communication (e.g., diagrams, gesture, maps, etc.) can convey structure and content directly, as opposed to symbolic words, which convey this information indirectly. This feature of visual communication makes it a useful learning tool. However, there has been little investigation into the mechanics of using visual communication for cognitive purposes (e.g., to organize thought), as opposed to the use of visual communication for artistic purposes. Despite our limited understanding of the nature of visual communication, there is convincing evidence that visual communication can facilitate learning. For example, Tversky and her colleague Eliza Bobek showed college students a brief video lesson on chemical bonding, after which they instructed students to provide either visual or verbal explanations—based on random assignment—of the process of chemical bonds. Students in the visual explanation condition were asked to explain the process by drawing, whereas the students in the verbal explanation condition were asked to explain the process using written words. On a delayed post-test, which was given in a verbal format (i.e., written words), students in the visual explanation condition demonstrated greater learning than students in the verbal condition. Coding of students’ explanations revealed that structural information was more often conveyed in visual, as opposed to verbal explanations.

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Moving Forward

The general aim of the next two workshops SILC is sponsoring is to consolidate what is known in the field of spatial learning. Additionally, a conference that will explore the connection between space and math is also being planned for the University of Chicago campus in November by Nora Newcombe, Susan Levine, and Kelly Mix.

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