Source: NRC (2006)

Elements of Spatial Thinking

Note: this figure is an interpretation of the author(s)’ ideas by K. Grossner

In the 2006 NRC report, Learning to Think Spatially: GIS as a Support System in the K-12 Curriculum, several conceptual frameworks were put forth to describe “the nature and functions of spatial thinking.” I’ve undertaken to integrate them with the goal of illustrating how core spatial concepts, as considered by various academic disciplines, underlie spatial reasoning from infancy, to navigation, to the advanced positive and normative spatial analyses undertaken in many fields.

The frameworks include the ‘elements of spatial thinking,’ and the ‘component tasks of spatial thinking.’ Additionally, important distinctions are drawn between static and dynamic phenomena and between internal and external representations. In the course of developing the teachspatial.org portal at spatial@ucsb, we’ve harvested core spatial concepts as listed and organized by geographers, psychologists, other scientists, architects and others, along with some associated verbiage. As a first step, these terms have been placed in the integrated NRC outline below. One thing that leapt out was that virtually all of the ‘component tasks of spatial thinking’ are performed in some fashion from infancy through advanced research and, variously, internally (incidentally and naively, or expertly) and ‘externally’ with the aid of software for example. Likewise, representation is naturally divided as internal/external. Also, it seems intuitively the case that some terms represent spatial or spatiotemporal ‘primitives.’

Concepts of space

  • Space, space-time, object/field, place
  • Primitives of identity: [object, container, boundary, shape, texture]
  • Primitive spatial relations: static [location (distance, direction, distribution); connection]; dynamic [motion, flow, force, intersection/collision]

Tools of representation

  –  Internal (“distinguishing and encoding spatial features”)

  • Figure/ground; shape; size; texture; color
  • Mental images (a controversial notion)

  – External

  • Geometry: point, line, polygon;
  • Mathematical models
  • Visualizations: maps; graphs; diagrams; charts
  • Language

Processes of reasoning (“component tasks of spatial thinking”)

  – Extracting spatial structures (internal, external)

  • boundary; pattern; cluster; center; path; surface; network; sequence; hierarchy; region

  – Performing spatial transformations (internal, external)

  • perspective; rotation; 3D > 2D; scale; interpolation; generalization

  – Drawing functional inferences (internal, external)

  • spatial correlation; spatial dependence; heterogeneity; extrapolation; prediction; causation
concept graph concept graph