I’m a geographer by training, specifically a geographic information scientist. For about 20 yrs I’ve been teaching people how to make maps (via GIS and other digital mapping techniques). Though now I mostly teach undergraduate and graduate students, I’ve also had the pleasure of running almost 100 different professional development workshops for fellow faculty, academic staff, librarians, the general public, and the occasional group of children.
The faculty that I’ve worked with – especially during my years with the National Institute for Technology & Liberal Education (NITLE, 2003 – 2007), and then as the Director of Spatial Curriculum & Research at the University of Redlands (2007 – 2011) – represent a very wide range of disciplines, from probably almost 20 different academic departments. What they all have in common is that they are NOT geographers, and virtually all of them would say they are unfamiliar with a geographic way of looking at the world. So especially during the first few years I was very curious as to why they were all so keen to learn how to use GIS. Though several knew enough to say “spatial analysis,” the overwhelming response was “visualization.” They wanted to see the patterns of their data, and overlay them with a myriad of other layers of information.
At some point, someone also said to me, maybe back in 2004 or so, that they found “spatial thinking” to be very powerful. I wasn’t even sure what those words meant together, and I was a geographer. So began my lengthy quest to understand “spatial thinking” better. I started reading the research done by psychologists who specialized in “spatial cognition,” and talking with them at conferences. I sought to understand what and how their assessment of mentally rotating 3-dimensional objects, in abstract or table space, had anything to do with my use of geographical data in landscape-level space. By the time the National Research Council published the Learning to Think Spatially report (National Academies Press, 2006), I’d discovered my tribe. It’s filled with people from all different backgrounds (geography, geosciences, STEM, psychology, engineering, architecture, art, design, dentistry, etc.) with a passion for how spatial informs our world. Together with a few friends, I wrote The People’s Guide to Spatial Thinking (NCGE, 2013), as an attempt to communicate these ideas as broadly as possible.
One dimension of this (no pun intended) that intrigues me is how frequently the term “visual” is used in situations where, to me, it’s clearly a “spatial” situation. And this is what I’ll be exploring more during a talk I’ll be giving next week at a Gordon Research Conference on Visualization in Science and Education, which Bates is hosting.
In the absence of visual impairment, our sense of sight is how we perceive the majority of information from the external world. So when someone says to me, “I’m a visual learner,” I can’t help but wonder what exactly they mean by that. If they show me a sketch they’ve just made of how their Cousin Earl fits into the family tree, or a set of Ikea instructions, or a graph of recent economic data, or a bracket diagram of basketball teams at the end of a season, or a map of how Ebola infections spread over time, it’s actually the SPATIAL arrangement of information through which meaning is extracted, not just the fact that you’re using your eyesight to access the image or representation. Visual thinking, in that you need to write down someone’s name or phone number, and look at it, to give yourself any chance of remembering it, versus just having them say it out loud to you once? Yes. Visual trumps aural. But sketching a little diagram on the back of an envelope, to explain something? Spatial, enabled by vision.
Spatial thinking is an ability to visualize and interpret location, position, distance, directions, relationships, change, and movement through space. STEM learners constantly need to extract meaning through, and communicate with, these internal and external representations, and the spatial thinking necessary to do that well is chronically under-recognized, under-valued, and under-taught.