A Working Definition of Spatial Thinking

05-23-2013 10:30 PM
Esri Notable Contributor
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The phrase "spatial thinking" has been receiving increasing attention over the past 15 years, 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.

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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 spatial thinking 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?

About the Author
I believe that spatial thinking can transform education and society through the application of Geographic Information Systems for instruction, research, administration, and policy. I hold 3 degrees in Geography, have served at NOAA, the US Census Bureau, and USGS as a cartographer and geographer, and teach a variety of F2F (Face to Face) (including T3G) and online courses. I have authored a variety of books and textbooks about the environment, STEM, GIS, and education. These include "Interpreting Our World", "Essentials of the Environment", "Tribal GIS", "The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data", "International Perspectives on Teaching and Learning with GIS In Secondary Education", "Spatial Mathematics" and others. I write for 2 blogs, 2 monthly podcasts, and a variety of journals, and have created over 5,000 videos on the Our Earth YouTube channel. Yet, as time passes, the more I realize my own limitations and that this is a lifelong learning endeavor and thus I actively seek mentors and collaborators.