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Showcase January 2011: Learning Spatial Concepts: The Roles of Language and Structural Alignment

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Learning Spatial Concepts: The Roles of Language and Structural Alignment   Open .pdf document

Micah B. Goldwater, Department of Psychology, Northwestern University
Dedre Gentner (Co-PI), Department of Psychology, Northwestern University

How can we help children learn spatial concepts? Earlier research has shown structural alignment is a powerful tool in helping children learn novel spatial relations (Christie & Gentner, 2010; Gentner & Namy, 1999; Kotovsky & Gentner, 1996). Our goal in this project was to test whether these ideas could be applied to support children's learning of mechanical principles. In previous work towards this goal (Gentner, Levine, Dhillon, & Polterman 2009), SILC partnered with the Chicago Children's Museum to investigate whether structural alignment can facilitate the acquisition of stable construction principles: specifically, diagonal bracing (a subcase of the general principle that triangles confer stability in construction). This study also drew on prior findings that alignable differences— differences that relate to the common structure between a pair—are particularly salient (Gentner & Sagi, 2006; Markman & Gentner, 1993). In Gentner et al. (2009), children were presented with pairs of model buildings; one building was made with diagonal braces which gave the structure stability and the other had horizontal crosspieces which provided no structural support. There were two training groups: high-alignability [HA] and lowalignability [LA], which differed according to whether their pairs were highly similar and thus easily aligned, or were superficially different, and thus more difficult to align (See Figures 1a. and 1b.) During the training, children were shown that the building with the diagonal brace was more stable (harder to wiggle) than the other building. After a 15-minute unsupervised construction session, children’s understanding was assessed with a Repair Task: children were shown an unstable building and asked to show the experimenter where to put a piece to make it stronger. The orientation of the child's added piece (with respect to the building's frame) was coded as either diagonal, horizontal or vertical.

Figure 1a    Figure 1b

Model BuildingsFigure 1a: Low Alignability and Figure 1b: High Alignability

The results showed that children in the high-alignability condition generated more diagonal braces than those in the low-alignability condition (Gentner et al., 2009). Thus, as predicted children in the high alignability group learned the principle to a greater degree—for these children, the diagonal brace emerged as an alignable difference, thus helping them focus on how a diagonal brace helps make building stable.

In the present research, we are extending these results in two ways. First, we are testing whether alignment-based learning can support transfer to new structures that are less similar to the original training than in the Gentner et al. study. We are also testing whether such transfer will be facilitated by combining the use of relational language with analogical alignment. Such a finding would be consistent with the idea that language can foster transfer to new situations (Gentner, 2003, 2010). The current work tested how using the label brace for the concept can increase the robustness of the knowledge of that concept.

The experiment had two phases. The first phase was a replication of Gentner et al. (2009) in the laboratory. The children compared the two model buildings (either high-alignable, or lowalignable lowly), and then performed the Repair Task as described above. Replicating Gentner et al. (2009) the High Alignment condition (78% success) elicited more diagonal placements than the Low Alignment condition (41% success), t (62) = 3.25, p < .01 (see Figure 2).

Figure 2

Figure 2: Performance on brace-placement repair task

In the second phase of the experiment, we introduced the brace label for the spatial concept. The original two buildings were presented again. In the Spatial Language condition, the children were told that the building with a brace was strong “because it has a brace.” In the control condition, the children were simply reminded that “This building is strong”. After a filler task, children were presented with two new model structures—one braced and one not—which looked dissimilar to the first pair in numerous ways. size). Children were asked which building

Figure 3

Figure 3: Performance on transfer test

was the strong one. As seen in Figure 3, both alignment, f (1, 60) = 9.47, p < .01, and spatial language f (1, 53) = 13.66, p < .01 were helpful in aiding children to transfer the principle to the new structures. In fact, every child who received both the high-alignment training and the spatial label succeeded!

This study shows the power of structural alignment and spatial language in facilitating children’s learning of spatial concepts. Current follow up studies are investigating whether children retain this concept over a delay of a few weeks, and examining their ability to generalize their knowledge to real-world structures, such as bridges and skyscrapers.


  • ♦ Christie, S. & Gentner, D. (2010). Where Hypotheses Come From: Learning New Relations by Structural Alignment. Journal of Cognition and Development, 11(3), 356-373.
  • ♦ Gentner, D. (2003). Why we're so smart. In D. Gentner and S. Goldin-Meadow (Eds.), Language in mind: Advances in the study of language and thought (pp.195-235). Cambridge, MA:MIT Press.
  • ♦ Gentner, D., Levin, S., Dhillon, S., & Poltermann A. (2009). Using structural alignment to facilitate learning of spatial Concepts in an informal setting. In B. Kokinov, K. Holyoak and D. Gentner (Eds.) New Frontiers in Analogy Research: Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Analogy. Sofia, Bulgaria.
  • ♦ Gentner, D., & Namy, L. L. (1999). Comparison in the development of categories. Cognitive Development, 14, 487-513.
  • ♦ Gentner, D., & Sagi, E. (2006). Does "different" imply a difference? A comparison of two tasks. In R. Sun & N. Miyake (Eds.). Proceedings of the Twenty-eighth Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society.
  • ♦ Kotovsky, L., & Gentner, D. (1996). Comparison and categorization in the development of relational similarity. Child Development, 67, 2797-2822.
  • ♦ Markman, A. B., & Gentner, D. (1993a). Structural alignability during similarity comparisons. Cognitive Psychology, 25, 431-467.
  • ♦ Markman, A. B., & Gentner, D. (1993b). Splitting the differences: A structural alignability view of similarity. Journal of Memory and Language, 32, 517-535.
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