Category Archives: spatial thinking

a few more thoughts on our Spatial Thinking across the Curriculum conference

During that first day of our Spatial Thinking conference, we had some discussions about *what* spatial content should (could? would?) be covered in these efforts.  As we considered that need, Lynn Liben reminded us to be systematic in our decision-making, to have goals that were generative and aimed at the meta-cognitive level. Her meta-cognitive criterion resonated strongly with me.  This is about habits of mind, and we feel the implications for this way of thinking go far beyond any individual task.  Given the need to work collaboratively and effectively through partnerships, she envisioned a possible new profession of “spatial curriculum specialist,” someone who would work work with educators to “identify and respond to learner needs for specific content.”  [Editor's note: how well does a typical GIS Specialist fill this role?  How many have a broad enough perspective to couch their instructional expertise within a spatial thinking framework? What would help them be more confident and competent in that area?]

Mike Goodchild began with some of his regular stories: 1) the unnecessary complexity of ArcToolbox, a collection that is poorly and unevenly constructed and organized, and in no way intuitive for someone using a spatial thinking “filter” to anticipate or find the tools (contributing to perpetual user frustration); and 2) the unsuitability of US counties as areas for unit analysis, based largely on their variability in size and inconsistent geographies over time.

But Mike’s most powerful message was his singling out spatial dependence and spatial heterogeneity as the two linchpins for the power of space, setting up an intellectual imperative for why spatial thinking must not be ignored or trivialized.  He set up the argument by drawing comparisons with science and statistics.  Science is only possible when generalizations can (eventually) be made, and (parametric) statistics is only possible when one can assume data independence.  If one fails to understand those two ideas, then any resulting scientific and statistical analyses will necessarily be flawed.

However, heterogeneity and dependence, two significant truths of our spatial world, are in conflict with generalization and independence, by definition.  Thus, if one fails to understand and account for those two ideas, then any resulting spatial analyses will necessarily be flawed.

An underlying, ulterior motive for this Conference was to evaluate whether a compelling and competitive proposal can be made to the National Science Foundation to support spatial thinking educational efforts, and Mike was building up the research rationale.

Kim Kastens, my geoscience/spatial hero, encouraged us to consider two fronts of attack: specialization and alliances.  By specialization, she suggested that spatial thinking is too broad and ambiguous for *all* schools to consider it interesting.  Build up a few with very strong reputations, have them able to “pull” students to this area of specialized content, and see what happens after that.  We wondered whether Southern California might become this kind of Mecca, with Redlands, UCSB, and USC all within a sunny day’s drive of one another, and all with initiatives in this area.

Kim also urged the group to consider a spatial thinking / critical thinking alliance.  Specifically, the critical thinking audience has invested heavily in generating a “valid” assessment instrument, and we should follow their lead in this area.

And, Kim was the first to talk out-loud at this meeting about a MOOC on spatial thinking.  What a concept!

David DiBiase introduced the notion of “micro-insertions” as a strategy for promoting spatial thinking.  As examples of how to act small but think big, he highlighted examples of the numerous places where maps, or geographically-enhanced charts, or spatial analyses, would be natural fits into two of the most widely used psychology and economics textbooks in the United States, reaching tens of thousands of students each semester.  Easy, straight-forward, non-confrontational ideas in theory, with a potentially very large audience, though uncertain that implementation would have the easy button on its side.

My thoughts on Dave’s ideas are from the assessment perspective. All of Dave’s ideas are “geography” as connections.  Yes, we can make all of these changes. To convince the authors and publishers, we have to say why. How can we tell if it would make any difference to the learning of economics?  If students and faculty saw these maps, instead of graphs and tables,  how would it affect the learning?  Affective – because people would enjoy looking at the maps longer?  Would they learn the content differently?

Though it would have made the meeting even more contentious than it was, we could have benefited from a few true skeptics in the room. Or not just skeptics, but clueless newcomers.  We weren’t just preaching to the choir, but we’ve been all members of the choir for so long that we don’t even know how to tell people why we’re singing any longer.  It’s just the sound that comes out when we open our mouths.  Spatial thinking “makes a difference;” making new content “greatly deepens” our understanding.  Really? Why? How? Show me, don’t just tell me.

Intellectual imperatives can’t be faith-based alone, or rely on anecdotes exclusively, as much as we all love a good story.

Next: final thoughts on the STACC conference.

Spatial Thinking across the College Curriculum, first round of thoughts

Earlier this week I was part of a 2-day conference on Spatial Thinking across the College Curriculum, in Santa Barbara.  There were about 46 of us, a broad mix of largely comprised of geographers and psychologists, with a few scattered from other disciplines (landscape architecture, anthropology, physics, chemistry, computer science, history).

In organizing this event, we’d laid out a series of questions that we thought we might be able to tackle.

  • What are best current practices in spatial education at the college level?
  • What is the role of technologies, such as geographic information systems and virtual environment technologies, in developing spatial thinking skills?
  • Can we identify a set of general spatial skills that are relevant to spatial thinking across several disciplines?
  • Are spatial skills best trained in the context of a discipline or in a domain of general knowledge? For example, if a student is taught to imagine cross sections in the context of a geology course, does this skill transfer to imagining sections in engineering or biology?
  • What are the connections between “spatial thinking” courses and curricula organized for disciplines? For example, do all geography or geometry courses naturally or automatically support spatial thinking processes?
  • What are learning outcomes for spatial thinking curricula, and what form should assessment take?
  • What are the administrative challenges and opportunities for implementing spatial thinking courses and programs at the college level?

But, in the end, our conversation was a bit too far ranging to discuss many of these with specificity.

For most people the meeting’s topic could only be imagined in the hypothetical. Their own institutions have little or no interest in these topics, and their own interests, be they spatial cognition or geography education, are just that – their own interests.

Others of us live and breathe this topic every day. We’ve thought through many of these questions before, and may even already have prototypical implementations of curricula in place.  So it was difficult to launch into new areas of conversation without having to catch others up, to back fill, or to explain first. And it wasn’t just explaining methods or techniques.  At times we were starting at square one, seeming to question the validity of the premise itself – that spatial learning and thinking is significant enough that it merits a much more substantial place within our formal educational environments.

Roger Downs led off the discussion on Day 1, challenging the group to develop a Case Statement. A case statement has a rationale and justification for the campaign; focuses on problems to be fixed or solved, identifies a proposed solution; and anticipates the major questions. Why us?  Why now? among others.

The goal he proposed we consider was that every student should graduate with a working understanding (understand = know + do) of the theory and practice of spatial thinking.

Rationale #1: Spatial thinking is an essential underpinning to life in the physical and virtual world.

Rationale #2: Geospatial tools and technologies are integral to everyday life, business, research and government.  Really, they’re inescapable.

Rationale #3: Students must be informed, wise, and ethical in their use of a wide range of spatial tools.

Roger also laid out challenges, among which included the “deceptive obviousness” of spatial thinking.  An unresolved question remains that if this is all really so important, why have we not paid attention to it before?  What has happened in the world because we have NOT been thinking as spatially as we all could have been?  (I’m still collecting these anecdotes for publication in my forthcoming book.)

Really, these were some of the most cogent and powerful points of the whole conference.  I’ll share my reflections on some of the other highlights soon.

spatial thinking in movies

As they say, blending architecture and film. When I saw an issue it included diagrams and analysis of people’s movements too.  The Interiors Journal.  An outlet for directors and cinematographers, thinking in space.

spatial AND geographic – moving the space shuttle Endeavor

While listening to this story on the radio this morning, I was struck by how much spatial and geographic planning was involved in this effort.  A great example of how such thinking is part of some people’s everyday jobs.

NPR story on moving the space shuttle Endeavor from LAX to its new home at the California Science Center, a 12 mile journey. 

Connecting spatial thinking and clever thinking – big ideas need space

It’s hard to be creative without some space to explore your ideas, literally or at least figuratively.  Metaphorically too. Why is it so hard to make this happen in our lives, consistently and in a celebrated manner?

H/t to GreatMap, one of my favorite blogs, ever.

How would you define spatial literacy?

I’m always curious about course descriptions whose titles have “spatial literacy” in them, including this one called Introduction to Spatial Literacy and Online Mapping, offered by the Reference and user Services Association, part of the American Library Association.  I’m not sure what their descriptions of “geographic literacy” are, but it seems to be GIS and mapping-focused.

I’ve worked hard on a working definition of spatial literacy that isn’t only geographically-focused.  Spatial literacy is the competent and confident use of maps, mapping, and spatial thinking to address ideas, situations, and problems within daily life, society, and the world around us.

Why is this definition robust enough for me? Because “maps” don’t have to be geographical ones. Concept mapping is hugely spatial, or generating any arrangement of information.

and what’s spatial thinking?

Spatial thinking is the ability to visualize and interpret location, distance, direction, relationships, change, and movement over space. 

Location is absolute and relative, discrete and continuous, metric and abstract. It can be fixed – like our perception of where a monument is located – or floating – like where a cloud lies in the sky at a given moment. It can be geographic – where the line of forest meets a field – or spatially conceptual – where a stack of blocks sits on a computer screen.

spatial vs. geography, in so many words

The differences between “spatial” and “geography” are interesting to me, and not trivial, usually. I’ve definitely noticed the expansion of the use of the word “spatial” overall. When it was part of my dissertation title in 1996, I know it wasn’t nearly as wide-spread as it is now. Here’s a graph that the Spatial Information Management blog created for spatial vs. geographic terms in books, an Ngram. Interesting, for sure. I recreated it for American English (1800-2008) and British English (1800-2008).  Not sure why just “English” has a downturn starting at the year 2000.

Capitalizing the words makes a big difference (here’s British English for Spatial and Geography), so does that mean that titles are involved?  I also like the spikes for the early 20th century American English, when academic Geography in the US was at its peak too.

One project (for my next pocket of spare time, hah) is to scan the titles and abstracts of journal articles from many disciplines over the last 150+ years and see when this “spatial turn” really began, in an academic sense.

Considering Spatial Citizenship

I’ve just completed Day 1 of a SPACIT meeting, the semi-annual gathering of partners working on this Comenius funded project. Very interesting ideas coupled with very ambitious plans! Combining GIS&T, geography, philosophy, politics, the act of “participating” – or engagement, pedagogy and teacher professional development, communication, and other technology, especially via geomedia. Here’s a recent paper, GI and Spatial Citizenship (pdf) authored by 3 of the lead partners, Inga Gryl, Thomas Jekel, and Karl Donert.

I’m contributing on behalf of NCGE, and I have much to learn from these discussions. And did I mention we’ve gathered in Salzburg, Austria, at the university where the GI Forum and AGIT is about to happen?  Geo everywhere.

using Google Maps for non-geographic representations

I just finished teaching our annual Short Spring Spatial workshops, and as usual, I had a blast updating my list of “web mapping” applications and projects. One of the categories of “maps” that continue to fascinate me are those that leverage the Google Maps API for innovative and non-conventional “spatial” thinking.  What I value here is the clever outcome that these developers don’t need to spend time/money creating a “new” platform for navigation, when the Google navigational functionality (expressed via their iconic pan and zoom icons) is all we need.

Previously I’ve known about Google’s Art Project, where you can explore the (indoor) collections of many museums around the world (click Museum View and Floor Plan to put yourself indoors) .  They’ve definitely expanded their museum coverage since last year.  I do find it curious that they’ve bothered to keep the compass functionality (which you can suppress). Perhaps someone might really want to consider whether there are patterns to the type of artwork on southern walls across different museums?  Many art museums don’t go out of their way to have large windows because they’re limiting the amount of sunlight that fades paintings.  We could systematically go through these museums and evaluate this? Maybe a project for someone’s rainy day (but not mine…).

Unfortunately, another very creative Google project using their Maps API, one that allowed you to explore fractals, is now untethered and not kept up. It was a lovely one.  And didn’t have the compass built in!

This year I have found a number of medically-oriented sites, all new to me.  These include the Zygote Body (only works with my Chrome browser), the Genome Projector, the Virtual Microscope, Brain Connectivity, and the KESM Brain Atlas (tiny mice brains).  Most of these are obviously targeted towards a particular audience for specific educational objectives, but I particularly love playing with the Zygote Body site! Clever use of overlay that’s both “horizontal” and “vertical” through the layers.  My biology-studying children found it fascinating too.  No north in these sites!

One of these days I need to teach myself how to use the API so I can have some fun. My first project will be to create Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell, Seven Terraces of Purgatory, and Nine Spheres of Paradise.  Seriously.  It’ll be a great spatial humanities project on my next rainy day.

h/t to GoogleMapsMania for many of these.

Don’t know your way around town? Drive less, wander more.

Should we be surprised that kids who get driven everywhere don’t know where they are?  And by the time they’re drivers themselves, their Google goggles will tell them when to turn left and where the post office is.  Or maybe a little voice in their ear, from their implanted device.  Sigh.

I like the way my teenage son has learned his way around town from his cross country and track team running.  So it’s not from wandering on his own, but often we’ll be out somewhere and he’ll recognize where we are (and know how many miles it is from there back to the high school).

h/t to Geography Education.