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The role of spatial-reasoning learning and development across social and educational contexts

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posted on 2023-10-26, 04:57 authored by Signe Moa Duff

In this thesis by publication, I explored children’s opportunities for spatial reasoning across social and educational learning environments and how gesture use in everyday interactions between children and adults can support spatial communication and reasoning, how curricula provide opportunities for spatial reasoning engagement and subsequent development, and how children’s television shows use gestures when engaging in spatial reasoning activities. Research has shown that higher spatial reasoning ability before starting school and across the primary years can have a positive effect on academic achievement, particularly in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). To date, however, nobody has considered holistic opportunities for spatial reasoning learning across formal and informal learning environments. Children learn and develop skills and abilities both inside and outside of formal educational settings. Thus, it is important to understand how parents, educators, and others in the social world can promote children’s spatial reasoning development.

Across three articles, I apply sociocultural theory, dual coding theory, and the cognitive theory of multimedia learning, drawing together insights about social scaffolding from social interactions between a more knowledgeable other and learner, and about environmental differences and concerns regarding encoding to inform learning.

The first article in the thesis is a systematic review exploring gesture use in children’s spatial reasoning tasks. My co-authors and I assessed the use of gestures when engaging in spatial reasoning task performance for children aged 3–12 years. Twenty studies were coded for gesture use, including both children’s and adults’ instructed versus spontaneous gestures, type of tasks used, and gender differences. Both viewing and performing gestures were found to improve children’s spatial task performance in multiple contexts, including whole-class intervention and individual experimental research conditions. This was particularly the case for children who initially had insufficient strategies for spatial-reasoning problem solving, where gestures were used as a novel strategy for solving these tasks. Additionally, children frequently engaged in spontaneous gestures when problem solving or engaging in navigational tasks. These findings emphasise gestures as a useful interactional technique for supporting spatial reasoning development. There were individual differences in children’s gesture use in experimental research, however, with findings suggesting that children with better spatial reasoning task performance used more gestures, which contributed to them solving a task effectively. This highlights the different spatial learning opportunities children may have from a young age and the impact this can have if adults do not support and scaffold the development of effective spatial reasoning strategies.

The second article in the thesis is a curriculum document analysis in which my co-authors and I compared spatial reasoning opportunities in the NSW, Singaporean, and Swedish primary education curricula for children aged roughly 5 to 9 years of age. Across each of the three jurisdictions, and for each school subject, curriculum outcomes that had the potential to relate to spatial reasoning were classified into four categories: outcomes with an explicit spatial focus, outcomes with spatial requirements, outcomes with spatial affordances, and outcomes with spatial possibilities. Consistent with past research, most outcomes that had the potential to relate to spatial reasoning were found across STEM subjects. There were, however, differences within STEM subjects, with mathematics outcomes predominantly categorised as explicit spatial focus but science outcomes predominantly categorised as spatial requirements. There were also important differences across jurisdictions, including differences in subject offerings. For example, there is currently no curriculum for science in the early primary years in Singapore, suggesting that children may be afforded different spatial reasoning opportunities at school, depending on their geographical location. Outcomes in non-STEM subjects also presented opportunities to include spatial reasoning, suggesting additional avenues for spatialising the curriculum and promoting early spatial reasoning learning, and these too varied across both subjects and jurisdictions.

The third and final article is a video analysis exploring how spatial reasoning information is communicated in a children’s educational television show. Across 20 episodes, my co-authors and I explored the type of gestures that presenters used during spatial reasoning. Given that observing gestures were found to be beneficial in the systematic review, and that the curriculum document analysis emphasised science as a subject with many opportunities for spatial reasoning, the video analysis allowed for exploration of informal learning environments drawing on gestures as a strategy for supporting spatial reasoning during scientific exploration. The previous two articles emphasised learning in a shared contemporary learning space. In contrast, the focus of this article was how spatial information was communicated in a para-social learning environment, using the ABC Play School Science Time as a case study. This enabled us to explore how informal learning environments can be constructed and theoretically optimised when there is no immediate feedback from the learner. Underpinned by the principles of the cognitive theory of multimedia learning and dual coding, we evaluated gesture use across episodes in specific segments and how gestures align with spatial reasoning language and performance, finding that presenters most commonly engaged in metaphoric gestures. In addition to gestures, we explored action-on-objects (operations on a physical object) which were more frequent than any type of gesture during spatial reasoning. These may replace some gestures, which align with dual-coding theory and the cognitive theory of multimedia learning and may therefore also benefit learning.

Across the three articles, I highlighted how different learning opportunities may be shaped and constructed with the guidance of an adult and how spatial reasoning is embedded and promoted in various environments. Through social and educational learning experiences, children have multiple avenues that promote spatial reasoning. By engaging in such learning opportunities, children’s spatial reasoning abilities can be developed early.


ARC DP170101588


Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Introduction -- Chapter 2. Theoretical framework -- Chapter 3. Literature review -- Chapter 4. Article 1 – The role of gestures in children’s spatial reasoning and navigation: A systematic review -- Chapter 5. Article 2 – A comparative analysis of spatial reasoning in cross-cultural primary curricula across NSW, Singapore, and Sweden -- Chapter 6. Article 3 – “Let’s investigate!” Presenter’s use of gesture and spatial language in ABC Play School Science Time -- Chapter 7. Discussion -- Chapter 8. Concluding remarks -- References -- Appendices


Thesis by publication ADDITIONAL SUPERVISOR 3: Naomi Sweller

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


Doctor of Philosophy

Department, Centre or School

Macquarie School of Education

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Penelope Van Bergen

Additional Supervisor 1

Elizabeth Austin

Additional Supervisor 2

Joanne Mulligan


Copyright: The Author Copyright disclaimer:




333 pages

Former Identifiers

AMIS ID: 275248

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