Section 4.2 asks: What do we mean by being good at spatial thinking? Experts think more deeply and remember in more detail within their domain of expertise, but not necessarily outside of that domain. Given the domain specificity of expertise, what does it mean to achieve expertise in spatial thinking? Section 4.2 describes the processes involved in generating spatial representations and explains ways in which those processes can facilitate and limit thinking. Our conclusions are that similar processes underpin some aspects of spatial thinking in all domains, whether thinking about tectonic plates, troop movements in the Civil War, or weather. Of equal importance, we believe that practicing spatial thinking pays off. Some features of practice and expertise at spatial thinking in one domain do transfer to other domains (for example, knowing what it takes to construct a spatial representation). Yet many features do not transfer and, therefore, spatial thinking needs to be practiced in specific contexts where it is appropriate.

Section 4.3 turns to the development of expertise in spatial thinking, showing how expertise is a function of time and how it involves the use of spatial representations. Given an objective of infusing and integrating diverse spatial thinking activities throughout the K–12 curriculum, Section 4.4 addresses the question: To what extent is learning to think spatially transferable from one context or from one domain to another? Section 4.5 presents a position statement on fostering expertise in spatial thinking. Section 4.6 presents the committee’s conclusions regarding the teaching and learning of spatial thinking and derives two educational principles that should inform the development of curricula to foster spatial literacy.


4.2.1 The Nature of Expertise

In everyday life and in cognitive science, we equate superior performance in a domain of activity—sport or classical music or nuclear physics—with expertise. Experts in an intellectual knowledge domain think fluently and deeply within their domain of expertise (as in the case of Marie Tharp with respect to marine geosciences and Walter Christaller with respect to human geography [Chapter 3]), but experts do not necessarily think with comparable fluency or depth outside of those domains. Expertise is not an automatic result of high intelligence. Instead experts have acquired extensive understanding of the spatial knowledge, spatial ways of thinking and acting, and spatial capabilities within their domains. The knowledge and skills shape what they attend to and notice, how they organize new information, and how they solve problems.

Fluent and deep expert thinking occurs in every knowledge domain, and reasoning with spatial representations often serves as a central feature of expertise in a range of areas: electronic circuit design (Biswas et al., 1995; Cheng, 2002), reading X-rays (Manning and Leach, 2002), air traffic control (Ackerman and Cianciolo, 2002), architecture (Salthouse et al., 1990), video gaming (Greenfield et al., 1994; Sims and Mayer, 2002), and driving a taxi (Maguire et al., 1997).

Experts often acknowledge the role of spatial representations and imagery. Shepard (1988) compiled autobiographical accounts from notable figures in the sciences, arts, and literature in which these experts attributed the emergence of their original ideas at least in part to the use of spatial imagery. For example, Einstein described developing the concept of special relativity in part through thought experiments in which he imagined the properties of space and time while he was traveling at different speeds. Kekulé described developing the molecular model of the structure of benzene in part as a consequence of dreaming about a snake coiled in a circle, biting its own tail.

We do not know the extent to which experts are correct in believing that their scientific discoveries emerged from using spatial representations of actual or hypothetical events: the images may have simply allowed them to describe and explain their discoveries, which may have emerged

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