The Nature of Spatial Thinking


In Chapter 1, the committee defines spatial thinking as a constructive amalgam of three elements: concepts of space, tools of representation, and processes of reasoning. Space provides the conceptual and analytical framework within which data can be integrated, related, and structured into a whole. Representations—either internal and cognitive or external and graphic, linguistic, physical, and so forth—provide the forms within which structured information can be stored, analyzed, comprehended, and communicated to others. Reasoning processes provide the means of manipulating, interpreting, and explaining the structured information.

In this chapter, the committee describes and explains spatial thinking in more detail. It begins in Section 2.2 by looking at the current understanding of spatial thinking, distinguishing it from narrower concepts such as spatial ability, and viewing it as a means of problem solving. Section 2.3 explores the use of space as a framework for understanding, identifying the three contexts in which spatial thinking operates and pointing to the key role of spatialization. Section 2.4 turns to the three functions of spatial thinking: description, analysis, and inference. The basis for spatial thinking is the structure of space and the operations that can be performed on and in that structure. Section 2.5 builds a four-part structure of space based on primitives, languages of space, spatial concepts, and operations. The chapter ends in Section 2.6 with a psychological analysis of the cognitive processes underlying spatial thinking.


2.2.1 Forms of Thinking About Space

In terms of its power and pervasiveness, spatial thinking is on a par with, although perhaps not yet as well recognized and certainly not as well formalized as, mathematical or verbal thinking. It can be contrasted with verbal thinking. Language allows us to express the output of direct sensory perceptions of the world; it allows us to develop metaphors; and it can support abstractions such as

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