Last spring my principal sent around, with her weekly message to teachers, an article from the journal American Educator called "Picture This: Increasing Math and Science Learning by Improving Spatial Thinking." It says that there are three main kinds of thinking (not learning styles): verbal, mathematical, and spatial. Spatial thinking is apparently very important to learning in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math, for those not up on education jargon); yet while we focus intensely in schools on verbal and math skills, there has not been nearly the same focus on spatial thinking skills.
The article defines spatial thinking as concerning "the locations of objects, their shapes, their relations to each other, and the paths they take as they move," and describes some aspects of spatial thinking as being able to mentally rotate objects in space (two- or three-dimensional spatial visualization). Among their recommendations for improving spatial thinking in young children are to teach spatial words such as around, through, over, under, up, down, high, low, out, in, line up, etc., and to "encourage young children to gesture."
I of course emailed back immediately "Hmmm… sounds exactly like what we do all the time in dance education!" Of course, our work in the element of Space is all about spatial thinking — dance teachers teach entire lessons or units on concepts such as around and through, high and low, toward and away… We don't simply teach and use the words, we guide our students to explore as many variations on those concepts as they can discover through movement.
And those words and concepts pervade all of our teaching, no matter what dance element (or technique) we focus on… When we direct students, in the "freeze dance" to "find a shape with one arm high and one arm low… expand it… shrink it… make it spin… keep one part the same and travel around the room with it…" what are we doing if not prodding students to think spatially — and on a fairly sophisticated level? In technique classes, we quite naturally focus on nuances of space (size, direction, etc.) when correcting movements to a particular style. We constantly reinforce the ability to mentally rotate as we practice shapes and movements in different facings… and as far as encouraging children to gesture, what is dance if not gesture writ large (not to mention specific lessons on gesture abstraction)?
There is so much more that could be said about this… Perhaps just one more argument we can muster for the importance of dance education. There's a website devoted to spatial thinking which may be interesting to explore, so I'll add it to my arts ed advocacy links.