The phrase “spatial thinking” has been receiving increasing attention over the past decade, encouraged in part from the National Research Council’s report Learning to Think Spatially: GIS as a Support System in the K-12 Curriculum. However, in many ways, we in the GIS education community have been immersed in promoting and supporting spatial thinking in education for far longer than that; indeed, for over 20 years. Beginning in the early 1990s, a handful of innovative K-12 teachers, along with a few interested faculty in universities, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies working closely with K-12 educators, as well as the Esri Education Team (which began in 1992), to bring spatial thinking through the use of GIS tools to primary and secondary schools. At the same time, the Esri Higher Education program began. At the university level, spatial thinking has long been nurtured by research and practice from the fields of geography, science education, cognitive psychology, human-computer interaction, and others.
What exactly is spatial thinking? There have been many attempts to define it. My interest in it lies mostly on the geographic side, so, perhaps my definition is better labeled as “geospatial thinking.” This overlaps some with “geoliteracy“, which has also been receiving increasing attention. My working definition of spatial thinking is “Identifying, analyzing, and understanding the location, scale, patterns, and trends of the geographic and temporal relationships among data, phenomena, and issues.”
More important to me than the definition, though is that the diverse communities of scholars and practitioners who care about this topic work together to ensure that it is supported, taught, and put to use in education and in society. What is our goal in terms of spatial thinking? I like how the NRC report puts it: It is to cultivate the spatial thinking “habit of mind.” This habit of mind is the geographic perspective on how the world works, including how systems function, how and why certain relationships exist, and also how we might approach and solve problems. How can we cultivate spatial thinking? That, friends, is the subject of many of the essays that appear in this blog, from pedagogical strategies to specific skills and technologies used. What could be our measure of success? If we can identify key points in the educational curriculum where spatial thinking can enhance what and how we are teaching, and in those points, to put spatial thinking skills into practice, then I think we have succeeded.
What is your definition of spatial thinking? When, where, and how do you think spatial thinking should be put into practice?