It’s All relative: Focusing on Relational Structure to Improve Young Children’s Scaling

The use of maps is suggested to be important for the development of spatial cognition, and experience with maps may improve spatial skills (Uttal, 2000). One important aspect of map use is children’s ability to complete spatial scaling. Children as young as three successfully scale from a model to referent spaces in extremely simple tasks (DeLoache, 1989). However, the age at which children succeed on scaling tasks seems to be dependent on the complexity of the task, perhaps due to the need for a more advanced understanding of the relational structure of maps and the space they represent. This project aims to investigate the specific aspects of a scaling task that are difficult for children, and to improve children’s spatial scaling using progressive alignment, guided exploration, and feedback.  Additionally, the relationship between children’s relational understanding of space and their numerical representation will be explored.


Representation of Large Magnitudes of Time

There is a well established literature on how people represent and reason about time. For example, people unitize time, people use a hierarchically nested structure of event units to estimate when an event took place, time is spatialized using two distinct spatial metaphors, and the direction time moves is culturally dependent. However, such research has examined experiential amounts of time; there has been relatively sparse research concerning larger magnitudes of time (e.g. geologic time). The current research aims to examine how the context of larger magnitudes of time may influence some of the findings discussed above. It is hypothesized that people reason about large magnitudes of time in the same way they reason about small magnitudes of time; however, different strategies and flexibility of representation may be related to expertise (those who have an expert understanding of thinking about large magnitudes). How experts (those who use large magnitudes) and novices represent large magnitudes will be examined in a series of experiments.


Hierarchical Alignment of Geologic Time

Students in the geosciences struggle to understand geologic time. Difficulty arises in part from the discrepancy between how people perceive and remember events in time and science’s conception of time as a single metric dimension. People tend to think in terms of familiar event units that range in magnitude bounded by a human lifetime. The current study examines the role of magnitude in understanding geologic time and reasoning about events that extend beyond the range of familiar experience. An intervention was designed based on the common classroom exercise of aligning time to a spatial representation. The intervention was designed to give students practice aligning time to space. Using progressive alignment, students aligned time to space beginning with a familiar personal time scale, working through different historic and geologic timelines, up to the Geologic Time Scale. The intervention group showed a reduction in the magnitude of temporal location errors compared to the control group, and had a more accurate sense of the relative proportions of geological events. Importantly, the intervention and control groups did not differ significantly on an item that was knowledge-based and did not require an understanding of magnitude. This suggests the intervention affected understanding magnitude of geologic time, and did not merely increase effort or motivation in the intervention group.


Visual Sequencing

A skill that most geologists possess is the ability to assess the temporal sequence of events that produced the present state from the spatial arrangement of outcrops, map patterns, or cross-sections. Geologists report combining multiple field observations with prior knowledge to mentally animate a sequence of transformations that correspond to geological events (sedimentation, folding, etc.) The skills used to interpret geological structures (e.g., unconformities) as temporal sequence may be generally applicable. We designed a working memory task to further investigate this skill. Results thus far indicate that visual sequencing memory is related to spatial working memory (r=.68).

Future research involves collecting data on geoscience experts and comparing their performance with student performance. Potential implications are: 1) That educators may be able to use students’ performance on established working memory tasks to determine who will have difficulty with the visual sequencing skill out in the field; 2) The effects of training spatial working memory may transfer to visual sequencing ability; and 3) Understanding ambiguity is difficult for students, and potentially merits being addressed pedagogically.