Cultivating Graphicacy While Teaching GIS?

There’s a side to working with maps and data that’s easy to overlook when we design our courses, and it falls under the heading of graphicacy.  My own quick definition of graphicacy is making, interpreting and critiquing of information in non-text form, including graphs, tables, figures, charts, AND MAPS.   I can’t remember first learning the word, but this Aldrich and Shepphard article (pdf) was one of the first that explained the concept.

I’ve come to strongly believe that graphicacy is a necessary and essential component of education.  One of the obvious reasons is how much we’re confronted with information in graphical form, such as this world population map from The Economist or the New York Times recent map of tornadoes and other natural disasters.  A good sense of graphicacy means that you are critical and creative with data, know when to question a representation, can envision alternative representations, can interpret the information and articulate its message.

The use of GIS presents numerous opportunities to develop strong graphicacy skills, but it’s definitely not an automatic outcome.  It includes the classification of data, and the cartographic design of layouts, but it goes well beyond that. It’s fundamental to how we expect to communicate with the rest of the world about what a GIS analyses means.  It’s not something that’s a separate topic to be added to a GIS course. It’s an understanding that needs to be cultivated throughout, in every lab and exercise that a student completes, and in every mapped representation that they create and encounter.  It’s the understanding of how maps complement and support learning on many levels.

3 responses to “Cultivating Graphicacy While Teaching GIS?

  1. I agree about the importance of graphicacy, and the need to emphasize it throughout GIS courses. I try to make sure to take time in class to deconstruct a well-designed map or chart and make sure everyone in class understands what it means, but also why it was designed that way or how it could be improved. I think students find it fun and interesting, but it’s not always easy. -Don

  2. It can work to model the type of critique that is possible, and that you expect, and then work with peer-to-peer models. I have colleagues that turn it into an experience like art students do, to display the maps for all to see and model helpful constructive criticism. Also allow for students to re-submit maps for re-evaluation, if that’s appropriate. In these cases, it’s behooves us to have *really* clear expectations laid out from the beginning.

    I’ve found that open, group critique of any published maps is helpful, and once/week if possible. Gets students into the habit of careful viewing.

  3. Great ideas – I use an exercise where I show the class an intentionally bad map (that I created), and have them critique it, as we talk about each map element and what could be done to improve it. I then show them a corrected version. I haven’t tried the peer-to-peer approach but will see if I can incorporate it the next time around. I know what you mean about clear expectations – good point.

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