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.

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One response to “a few more thoughts on our Spatial Thinking across the Curriculum conference

  1. Eric Cromwell

    Very interesting discussion. I think you are correct about David having a specific geography focus, but then again he does work for ESRI. I think once the Next Gen Science Stanards are published we will have te scaffolding we need to build a solid framework for spatial literacy.

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