Saturday, May 19, 2012

"No, your other left!": Understanding Spatial Awareness and Cognitive Development

Do you ever encounter problems in your lessons because your students lack lateral spatial awareness? Many musical activities require students to understand the difference between their left and right. Dances and hand games in a circle formation are more difficult if they involve lateral directions of left and right because they cannot be mirrored from across the circle.  When playing xylophones and other instruments, children often struggle when asked to alternate their hands to play even simple rhythms or melodies.  Understanding the cognitive and motor development of a child can aid music teachers in developing lessons and adapting activities for any age level.

Spatial Awareness and Directionality

Many studies have proven that the most difficult concepts for children to understand are the lateral directions of right/left and clockwise/counterclockwise.  Piaget’s theory of egocentric representations to explain the difficulty of learning these concepts.  Piaget explains that children who fail to take a different perspective than their own have egocentric representations (Piaget 1971).  The direction of left and right depend on how a person is standing.  In order to perform the actions correctly, you must make a mental image of the object and perform imaginary manipulations.  Left and right refer to the respective sides of the body, not a certain wall or location in the room.  It’s not uncommon for children to learn the directions forward and backward and up and down before they learn the directions of right/left and clockwise/ counterclockwise. Research has proven that the concepts of left and right directions require high cognitive development, but in order to plan successful lessons, music teachers need to know when to expect this development in their students.  

Cognitive Development

Phyllis Weikart has developed seven stages of motor development from simple to complex.

Dances or hand games in a circle formation that require specific movements for left and right should wait to be taught to second grade because students will need the cognitive ability to continue their sequenced movements while seeing the opposite movements performed by students across the circle.

Presence of  Visual Aids

During my graduate course in quantitative research methods, I researched this topic and proposed a study to test the effect of visual aids on students' lateral spatial awareness in the music classroom.

 Although the research study was not completed, I still keep the posters in my classroom and train my students to refer to them anytime they are having difficulty remembering their lateral directions.

Although I do not have any scientific evidence to support my theory, these posters have been hanging in my classroom for 6 years and I believe they are helpful to many students.

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