Spatial Thinking in Education: From Learning by Domains to Learning Across Dimensions

2 weeks ago
Esri Frequent Contributor
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Education traditionally has been organized by domains.  Languages, math, science, history, geography.  In some ways, as the 19th Century came to a close, it made sense to organize in this way, to make sure that in schools and in universities that we were teaching all of what we as a society considered “core essentials” or “subject domains”.  But as the 21st Century enters its middle years, the boundaries around these neat little boxes have become too much like brick walls that cannot be scaled.  Today, only a few themes have expanded across these subject domains.  For an additional way of learning this content, see this video

Joseph Kerski and Josef Strobl, authors.Joseph Kerski and Josef Strobl, authors.

Dr Joseph Kerski and Dr Josef Strobl, authors.

Why should we care about this?  In personal life and society, decisions and actions always come 'in context'.  Whether in government, nonprofit organizations, private industry, or academia, context for decisions comes from a variety of domains.  Learning for modern life and building practical and professional competences requires the integration of knowledge across multiple subject domains.   There is a societal need for students entering the workforce to have the capability to think across, through, and between domains.


We therefore strongly recommend that the education community needs to move away from learning that is separated into domains towards learning across dimensions.  Dimensions include considering different angles, perspectives, and characteristics of any particular topic or issue.

Learning across dimensions helps connect students and the subjects they study with “real life” – to personal and societal decision and action spaces; that is, putting topics into personal and societal contexts.  For example, consider water quality and quantity:  Students need to understand its physical properties:  Where it comes from, its properties and chemistry, how it has shaped the landscape, how it is tied to natural hazards, agriculture, and settlement, but also its social properties and connections:  Why is it such a precious resource?  Why is it a UN SDG?  Why and how does it affects human health?  How is it tied to climate and political stability or instability?  Why is water a global resource and issue and how does it impact my local community and me personally?


We recommend that when teaching across dimensions that space (and time) are common threads that unite domains which should be considered dimensions of a theme, but not separate fields.  As we hope to have demonstrated with the water example just mentioned, space and time are fundamental to inter-connecting the relevant phenomena and issues, and are key to solving 21st Century problems.  The geographic perspective is tied to spatio-temporal analysis:  Whatever happens, happens somewhere.  Or, helping learners understand:  What’s where, why is it there, and why should we care?


The context for solving problems—including biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, urban sprawl, transportation, public safety, is anchored in space and place.  From our earliest days as children, humans are spatial beings, tied to spaces but who receive meaning from and give meaning to their local environment—their “place.”  Spatial awareness and thinking thus need to be taught (1) rigorously and (2) often across all subject domains to facilitate 'connecting by location', to put subjects into relevant and applicable contexts.  Dimensional thinking is holistic, including consideration of the interconnected nature of the biosphere, lithosphere, atmosphere, cryosphere, and anthroposphere.  Dimensional thinking also considers cycles, such as the carbon cycle and the hydrologic cycle.  Anchored in systems thinking, it fosters critical thinking and problem solving.


In short: context is the environment for decisions and actions. There is no environment ‘around’ a place without an explicit position, however.

Space and place have a natural home in geography.  Geography is also a subject domain, and it sometimes has the same unfortunate tendency to create its own little boxes just like other domains. But rather than advocating for “this subject” or “that subject” to be taught—we recommend that the geographic perspective provides a framework to contextualize all other subject domains—to support the re-focusing from domains towards dimensions.

Spatial thinking is not only a learning outcome from any geo-related subject domain, but a competence that is critically important to leverage domain knowledge. And, to manage decisions and actions in all aspects of life, both in schools and universities, and beyond, when students enter the workforce.  Spatial thinking therefore needs to be developed across disciplines to put their views in context. How to do so?  In business, spatial thinking can be effectively taught in mapping supply and value chains, sourcing, target marketing, and logistics.  In mathematics, spatial thinking can be effectively taught by creating expressions that result in bi-variate maps, or measuring distances, areas, or volumes on 2D and 3D maps.  In data and computer science, spatial thinking can be taught by using Jupyter Notebooks and engaging with APIs in a geographic platform.  And these are only a few examples—hundreds more exist.

Today, digital transformation and online geotechnology platforms allow information integration and access using the spatial context from the local to global scales.  For example, interactive maps and satellite imagery are used with spatial and statistical tools to solve problems with cloud based Geographic Information Systems (GIS).  These tools immerse students in a wide variety of data types, problems, issues, and scales.


Only when moving from compartmentalized to contextualized mindsets we will be able to understand and address complex 21st Century problems that increasingly affect our everyday lives:  Climate, natural resources, sustainability and resiliency, inequalities resulting in gradients resulting in migration and conflicts, deforestation, energy, water, and much more.   Thus, we argue to move from domains to dimensions, from compartments to context, from isolation (of views) to integration.

As an educator, what can you do to get started on this journey to spatialize all teaching and learning along different dimensions?  One way is to explore and begin teaching with the interactive and increasingly real-time maps and layers using the ArcGIS Living Atlas of the World.  Explore real-time data such as earthquakes, wildfire, or weather.  Compare satellite imagery along coasts, glaciers, or farmland today versus a few years or a few decades ago and examine the change over time.  Ask yourself:  What is changing?  Why is it changing?  How should it change in the future? 


Collect data in the field in your own community about an issue you care about with Survey123 or iNaturalist or another tool, map it in ArcGIS Online, and analyze it.   Create a story map or a dashboard about a topic or issue and share your results with others. 

Even more importantly than the use of lessons, data, and tools, connect with your colleagues across disciplinary boundaries, build curricula, syllabi, and programs, and share with others your challenges and successes.  We are here to listen to you and to aid you in your journey.  

All of this won’t happen overnight, but the societal challenges we face are too important to ignore.   The need is there.  Let’s get to work!

We look forward to your comments below.   --Josef and Joseph


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.