Category Archives: spatial thinking

Using spatial analysis to find Waldo

I like the way that this guy thought systematically about finding Waldo, a classic spatial skill of disembedding or finding hidden figures!  Since he suggests that there is a specific section of the whole page where Waldo is more likely to be found than elsewhere, we shall test this hypothesis in our advanced GIS class next semester, with a few spatial statistical tests. Just to confirm that his horizontal rectangular swatch does indeed capture the most frequent placements of Waldo.

Thanks for publishing such important stories, Slate.

new article linking spatial thinking with multiple school topics

Temple University’s Nora Newcombe is well-versed at writing about spatial thinking in a way that makes the topic accessible to lay audiences. New to me: a piece called Seeing Relationships (pdf) in the Spring 2013 American Educator. Now she can share the results of the large meta-analysis recently completed, that documents our mind’s capacity to become more skilled at spatial tasks.  She’s still firmly grounded in her own disciplinary perspective, cognitive psychology, but here she ventures into examples involving geographic space and geospatial technologies, not only mental rotation in abstract space. This piece includes call-outs to the Geospatial Semester program at James Madison University and Stanford’s Orbis project.

Nora’s oft-cited, oft-shared 2010 American Educator piece, Picture This, is still available too.

model for professional development at UVM

In the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Vermont, faculty are involved with a year-long initiative to learn more about maps and mapping. I had a chance to be part of their August 2013 workshop and share ideas about teaching and learning supported with geospatial technologies. Members of the department of geography are leading this effort, and though they’re disciplinary experts in this field, they themselves are learning from the new perspectives and novel projects being designed and developed.  A way to spread opportunities for spatial analysis and geographical inquiry.

spatial, social engineering at the dinner table

It’s all about location, location, location.  Thinking in space here, as you choose a seat at a restaurant dinner table.


via Nag on the Lake

Spatial Thinking at Marymount College

Next week I’ll be visiting Marymount College, speaking about the roles of spatial thinking and geography for reasoning and communication.   I will also have the opportunity to visit a number of classes and share ideas with students directly. I look forward to understanding what they know and want to know.  My class visits will range from courses on Aging in America, to Digital 3D Modeling, to Applied Intercultural Psychology.   What, they think spatial thinking is relevant to all of these?  They’re right!

next generation of digital “knowledge network” maps

This year we’re supporting several faculty projects that involve mapping “knowledge” – collections of ideas, groups of people, collections of objects. They have both geographic and non-geographic attributes.  Eventually the faculty, and their students, will use spatial thinking to extract meaning from the representations: what are the relationships among the components, based on distance, connections, sequences.

To begin, we’re playing with NodeXL, but are likely to branch out to more customized tools later.

I like Flash-based interfaces, like this one that lets you explore the Abstraction movement of art history, from MoMA.  Sites like these have matured. Instead of just including the graphical network itself, it’s now a multi-media experience, with other text, images, audio, etc., to expand and illustrate.  I really like these.

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.