Final thoughts on the STACC Conference

Basically, here’s where I think some of the tensions emerged during and after the December 2012 Spatial Thinking Across the College Curriculum gathering.

Tension #1: Thinking about spatial thinking – within higher education –  is actually a livelihood for some people. It’s not a curiosity or a hypothetical situation, it’s actually a mainstay. A central tendency. A constant.  The whole enchilada. The full monty.  Whatever your metaphor, folks (like me) who spend 8-10 hrs/day at this aren’t always the most effective ones to slowly and patiently consider the options. We want to move forward ambitiously with plans, especially when we work at an institution that drinks the koolaid.

While, for a bulk of the people at most institutions, these ideas really are just a curiosity and a hypothetical. The ideas take place in a vacuum, whilst away at a lovely conference, and they won’t likely be grappling with the thorns of actual implementation.

Tension #2:  Reaching consensus about exactly *what* we’re talking about always seems insurmountable, so we agree that proceeding in the absence of common definitions isn’t a problem, but in the end, it always is.  The psychologists need measurable assessment of definable tasks in replicable situations in manageable spaces with willing volunteers. The geographers delight in the fact that their knowledge and skills can be grouped under the umbrella of spatial thinking, but their practices don’t align with the unfamiliar tasks being researched by the psychologists.  The typical usage of GIS in educational settings supports some practices of spatial thinking, when we define it to include reasoning about and through patterns, distances, scales, associations, spatial dependencies, etc., but – in reality – infrequently overlaps with the primary areas that spatial cognition psychologists actually study (mental rotation, disembedding, spatial perception, etc.).

Basically, we still haven’t reconciled that these spatial relations, as called by Reg Golledge, are still the most interesting practices for geographers, and the least likely ones to become measurable tasks that are studied by psychologists.

Do I think that there’s a possibility for spatial thinking to play a significant role across a college campus?  You bet I do. But we can’t be intimidated by the task of  creating working definitions, and applying them.  Spatial thinking includes the mental rotation that is happening in physics and studio art classes. It includes the drafting of sheet music and seating charts that is happening in music classrooms and catering offices. When applied in geographic space, it can become the competent and confident knowledge of why there is plastic garbage accruing in the North Pacific Ocean and why Atlanta annually gets more rain than Seattle and why Jerusalem is such a complicated city.

So I think this is the crux of the matter: we can’t agree on the scale and extent of the knowledge, skills, and practices of “spatial thinking” and, therefore, how one would pursue its agenda in higher ed.  Geospatial is distinctive from spatial, and while most or all of geography involves spatial thinking, no card carrying engineer or architect would identify the spatial nature of their practices being aligned with the practices of a geographer.  Really, people, distance is distance.

Stay tuned for the published official report on the conference.

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