Skip navigation
All Places > Education > Blog > 2013 > May
At the last Esri International User Conference, my Esri education colleague Laura Bowden and I conducted a spatial thinking workshop.  Laura said something in the workshop that I have been musing about ever since: "Be spatially critical." This phrase is laden with meaning and examining it in this blog may shed light on why this community believes so firmly in the value of research and practice in GIS in education.

Be Spatially Critical !

Effectively using GIS in teaching and learning hinges upon critical thinking and spatial thinking.  For example, some critical thinking questions relate to the context of a problem:  What background research do I need to examine and what content do I need to immerse myself in to be knowledgeable about the issue?  What are the costs and benefits of the issue I am analyzing?  Who are the stakeholders affected by the issue?  What are the historical, current, and future implications surrounding the issue?

At the 1987 conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform, Scriven and Paul stated that critical thinking means to "conceptualize, apply, analyze, synthesize and/or evaluate information gathered from, or generalized by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning or communication, as a guide to belief or action [or argument]."  GIS can be used to foster such actions, and in practice, this is where critical and spatial thinking meet: What data do I need to gather and analyze to assess the issue completely and accurately?  How can I represent that issue within a GIS environment using raster and vector data sets, multimedia, graphs and charts, and by other means and tools?  Can I trust my data sources?  At what scale do I need to examine my chosen issue?  What data will support that scale of analysis?  What symbology, classification, and presentation techniques should I choose to effectively communicate my results?

Other questions are specific to an instructional environment:  As an instructor, how can I best teach to encourage students to be spatially critical?  As a student, what content knowledge, skills, and geographic perspectives do I need to cultivate in order to develop my ability to become spatially critical?

In sum, the phrase "Be Spatially Critical" includes elements of critical thinking and spatial thinking, both of which my colleagues and I frequently write about in this blog.  Laura Bowden and I plan to conduct a spatial thinking workshop at the 2013 Esri User Conference as well, and we look forward to reading your comments here and interacting with you during the workshop!
The phrase "spatial thinking" has been receiving increasing attention over the past decade, encouraged in part from the National Research Council's report Learning to Think Spatially:  GIS as a Support System in the K-12 Curriculum.   However, in many ways, we in the GIS education community have been immersed in promoting and supporting spatial thinking in education for far longer than that; indeed, for over 20 years.  Beginning in the early 1990s, a handful of innovative K-12 teachers, along with a few interested faculty in universities, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies working closely with K-12 educators, as well as the Esri Education Team (which began in 1992), to bring spatial thinking through the use of GIS tools to primary and secondary schools.  At the same time, the Esri Higher Education program began.  At the university level, spatial thinking has long been nurtured by research and practice from the fields of geography, science education, cognitive psychology, human-computer interaction, and others.

Spatial Thinking: Perspective, Skills, and Content.

What exactly is spatial thinking?  There have been many attempts to define it.   My interest in it lies mostly on the geographic side, so, perhaps my definition is better labeled as "geospatial thinking."  This overlaps some with "geoliteracy", which has also been receiving increasing attention.  My working definition of spatial thinking is "Identifying, analyzing, and understanding the location, scale, patterns, and trends of the geographic and temporal relationships among data, phenomena, and issues."

More important to me than the definition, though is that the diverse communities of scholars and practitioners who care about this topic work together to ensure that it is supported, taught, and put to use in education and in society.  What is our goal in terms of spatial thinking?  I like how the NRC report puts it:  It is to cultivate the spatial thinking "habit of mind."  This habit of mind is the geographic perspective on how the world works, including how systems function, how and why certain relationships exist, and also how we might approach and solve problems.  How can we cultivate spatial thinking?  That, friends, is the subject of many of the essays that appear in this blog, from pedagogical strategies to specific skills and technologies used.  What could be our measure of success?  If we can identify key points in the educational curriculum where spatial thinking can enhance what and how we are teaching, and in those points, to put spatial thinking skills into practice, then I think we have succeeded.

What is your definition of spatial thinking?   When, where, and how do you think spatial thinking should be put into practice?
I recently participated in the European Association of Geographers conference in Belgium.  There, I had the pleasure of interacting with energetic and knowledgeable young professionals promoting the European Geography Association for Students and Young Geographers, the EGEA.

Some members of the European Geography Association, with Karl Donert above left, President of the European Association of Geographers.

It is an honor for Esri to partner with and support this organization, along with our colleagues at the University of Utrecht and elsewhere.  The goal of EGEA's network is to exchange knowledge and information for geography students and young geographers. To achieve this goal, EGEA organises congresses, student exchanges, hosts foreign students, and publishes a newsletter. As all of us in the field of geotechnology are well aware, networking is critical for success.  But what is also critical is empowering students and young professionals as they begin their careers in this field.  How can we as the geography and GIS professsional community best do that?

Associations such as the EGEA can help grow an effective geo-workforce of tomorrow through development of skills, confidence, and, in short, cultivating lifelong learning and career growth.  Also playing a key role are resources such as the new GeoPivot and the Geomentor program.  But I also think effective nurturing starts at earlier ages, reflected in the efforts that we and others are making in such programs as 4H, the National Girls Collaborative Project, and other after school programs, and through working directly with primary and secondary students and educators.  We have numerous complicated issues to solve in the 21st Century, and most of these issues have a geographic component that can be understood through the use of geotechnologies.  These young people with whom we are working are skilled, committed, and eager to make a positive difference in our world.

Are you involved in any of these efforts to help build the next generation of geo-minded professionals?   What other efforts do you think our community needs to make?

Filter Blog

By date: By tag: