Desutter, D., & Stieff, M. (2017). Teaching students to think spatially through embodied actions: Design principles for learning environments in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications,2(1). Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1186/s41235-016-0039-y.


Success in STEM technologies is dependent upon the ability to think and reason spatially. Teachers and curriculum designers must be able to find a way to effectively teach spatial thinking to learners. But some aspects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics are out of reach without further advancements to help students understand abstract concepts. The idea of embodied cognition, where cognition is influenced by one’s body in space and time can help the STEM field by providing research-backed methods to teaching these challenging fields, resulting in more successful students in STEM as a whole.

Key Points: 

The embodied mind: This is the ever-growing thought that one’s cognition does not only influence the body, but that the body in space influenced cognition over all of human evolution and continues to develop the mind on an individual basis today.

Embodiment of spatial thought: It has been proven time and time again that without prompting, spatial ideas are often explained using gesture and body based metaphors. Conceptual understanding of space is created through a body-based system; therefore knowledge in spatial thinking can be grounded through bodily action.

Using embodiment to promote spatial thinking: Embodiment can promote spatial thinking, and the way to do so is to use purposeful body movements and positions during a learning activity in order to facilitate that learning objective. Embodied actions represent a brain-based activity, acted out by the body.

Constraining the breadth of embodiment: There are some challenges to studying the importance of embodiment in learning design. One being the use of gestures, and the uncertainty of the reasoning behind repeat gestures. Theorists also argue that embodiment may actually be on a developmental continuum, making it a difficult teaching tool. Finally, there is no one single way of spatial thinking, thus making it difficult for use in designing learning programs and interfaces.

Design principles: 

  • Embodied learning environments should first map spatial objects or articles in relation to the body
  • Embodied learning environments should use actions based in movement to stimulate high-fidelity iterations that have no other effective way of being taught by the educator, or understood by the learners
  • Embodied learning environments should use other tools like visualizations or simulations to promote learning through embodied action in technological devices.

Example work:

DeSutter and Stieff devised a pilot program to practice the ability of learning designers to design a program with all three embodied design principles outlined in the article present. The researchers created a software program to help chemistry students in order to investigate whether an embodied interface could help students understand such complicated topics as in organic chemistry. The researchers found that they were able to successfully include all design principles in the interface, and that the use of high-fidelity embodied learning programs influenced immediate problem solving in students.

Discussion Questions

  1. How could teaching STEM concepts through embodied cognition be applied to a K-5 curriculum? What about application in a preschool curriculum to teach basic mathematical and science concepts?
  2. What should be next steps for the field of education, in order for embodied cognition and its influence on spatial thinking to become accepted on a widespread basis in curriculum & instruction?
  3. What are some personal examples from your education history, that you think you would have benefited, or learned more completely if the use of embodied cognition was made available in your instruction?

Additional Resources:

  • Shapiro, L., & Stolz, S. A. (2018). Embodied cognition and its significance for education. Theory and Research in Education,17(1), 19-39. doi:10.1177/1477878518822149
  • Osgood-Campbell, E. (2015). Investigating the Educational Implications of Embodied Cognition: A Model Interdisciplinary Inquiry in Mind, Brain, and Education Curricula. Mind, Brain, and Education,9(1), 3-9. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/mbe.12063.


  • DeSutter, D. & Stieff, M. (2014). Taking a New Perspective on Spatial Representations in STEM. In Joseph L. Polman, Eleni A. Kyza, D. Kevin O’Neill, Iris Tabak, William R. Penuel, A. Susan Jurow, Kevin O’Connor, Tiffany Lee, and Laura D’Amico (Eds.). Learning and Becoming in Practice: The International Conference of the Learning Sciences (ICLS) 2014. Volume 3. Colorado, CO: International Society of the Learning Sciences, pp. 1599-1600.





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