I keep thinking about this article in the New York Times this week, with geographically-informed advice for Amazon to choose a second venue for its expansion. Such an obvious use of geography and information and systems. Couldn’t they have ended the piece with some reference to any of those things? Nah, better to have it just be obvious that this is the right way to make this type of decision?
Category Archives: spatial thinking
For many months I’ve had a magazine clipping on my desk, an obituary of Vernon Mountcastle. The late Dr. Mountcastle is best known for his 1957 publication that contains the words “topographic” and “cats” in its title: “Modality and Topographic Properties of Single Neurons of Cat’s Somatic Sensory Cortex.” What did these poor cats help Vernon figure out? That the brain cells (i.e., neurons) that react to a particular stimulus (i.e., a touch) are themselves aligned in a vertical pattern (rather than randomly located, or arranged horizontally). We now know this as the columnar organization of our cerebral cortex.
Like when Watson and Cricks (after work of many others) were inspired to envision a twisting double-helix. Spatial thinking contributes substantially to all knowledge, in one way or another.
Every so often, things cross my computer screen that remind me of how fascinated I continue to be with spatial thinking. It started with my friend’s Facebook sharing of how needlework helped her with calculus, just like this article says. Next thing you know, I’ve tumbled down the Internet rabbit hole and learned that castle staircase designs were not random, nor were other elements of medieval defense. Maybe it’s not as obvious now that we’re all driving motorized vehicles but road-side-driving-preference also has historical rationales. What do these all have in common? Spatial thinking, of course.
Here’s a new mobile app game that simulates virtual navigation: Sea Hero Quest. It’s been developed by researchers interested in spatial navigation, including Hugo Spiers. I got a chance to meet Hugo during a workshop on education for spatial thinking last year.
They aim to test this on patients with dementia and assess its effectiveness as a diagnostic tool. They’ve had 600,000 downloads so far, especially young teenagers, and want to sample the population across age groups. I’m looking forward to giving it a go. Anything to help ward off dementia, and for the sake of research too.
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.
It’s that time of year again, July in San Diego with a whole lot of other people, all talking about GIS. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. This year I’ll be in two sessions, the first on our ROGTAL project, Research on Geospatial Technologies and Learning, a group effort in which I’m honored to be a member. You’ll hear about our proposed research agenda and recommendations for this field. Saturday afternoon, in the 3:15-4:30pm session titled Meeting Education Mandates, La Costa Room.
Then on Sunday morning (early!, before the Plenary! Set your alarms and bring your coffee!) I’ll be leading a session on Cultivating Spatial Thinking & Problem Solving with SpatiaLABS. 8:30am, Leucadia Room. Don’t know about Esri’s SpatiaLABS yet? This is your chance to get all the insider information on this FREE resource, get a sneak preview at a new search-and-sort website, get your questions answered by the series editor, and find out how you too could become a (paid) contributor! Don’t snooze, come schmooze instead.
What I like about this notion of the Golden Era of Visual Storytelling is that it’s seen in the here and now as being special, and it suggests that we might even consider this period an extraordinary one, even from a future perspective. That its value and worth are widely enough recognized that the energy can go into refinement and production, rather than basic awareness building.
Surely the tremendous growth and maturation of infographics reflects this too. I think infographics are some where on this Gartner Hype Cycle, maybe on the slope of enlightenment? Or have they yet to reach that stage, and maybe are still stuck in the disillusionment trough?
Visual story telling is an element of visual reasoning and visual literacy, which is grounded in spatial reasoning and spatial literacy. An idea that will one day reach its own plateau of productivity, I know. I tried pointing out the spatial thinking behind the visual thinking identified in the ASIDE blog, but no responses yet.