A Good Map Teaches You To Ask A Better Question

During a workshop I attended at the Esri User Conference this past summer, my colleague Charlie Frye stated that “a good map teaches you to ask a better question.”   I love this statement.  It fits well with the mission of the GIS education community, don’t you think?  Isn’t one of our main goals in teaching and learning with GIS to use maps and data to investigate our communities, our regions, our countries, and our world?  A question is the first step in an investigation.  It is the first step in the geographic inquiry process.  Whether the question is “What is the relationship between birth rate and life expectancy around the globe?” or “How did the construction of the breakwater change the rate of coastal erosion along this stretch of beach?” or “Why were communities along the path of Superstorm Sandy affected differently?”, these questions form the foundation of our investigations.  Good questions inevitably get refined and modified along the way and usually lead to other questions.  They may not be fully answered, and oftentimes have no single correct answer.   This may be puzzling at first to students but emulates real-world decision-making.

In this activity, students determine the optimal route for a tourist bus through Manhattan given specified points of interest and the location of the tour bus garage.

As important as good questions are, it is sometimes amazing how little time we spend in our educational system helping students practice asking good questions.  Perhaps it is because in this age of standardized testing, we are so focused on good answers.  Yet many educators are indeed helping students ask questions, and not just any questions, but thoughtful questions that can lead to increased understanding, skill building, and critical thinking.

Teaching with GIS and teaching about GIS foster good questioning.  One of the core functions of a GIS is to allow for real-world issues to be examined, questioned, and probed with real data.  Maps in a GIS environment allow for the many spatial and temporal dimensions of our world to be examined, at multiple scales.  Not only are the questions able to be grappled with using rich sets of maps and data, but they are tied to real-world events past and present.  They are interesting, but they are also important and relevant for our future, including such issues as sustainable agriculture, natural hazard management, smart city planning, and much more.   Maps inside a GIS environment help students of all ages to ask better questions in part because during the inquiry, they allow for the scale and symbology to be changed, for additional layers to be added, and for powerful queries and statistics to be run on the data.  The “what if” questions can be explored, such as:  What  if I changed the scale?  What if I added this variable?  What if I ran a different query?  What if I examined a different area with the same variables?  What if I classified the data differently?  ArcGIS provides a platform for asking and analyzing questions.

What questions do you have about our world?  How can GIS help you grapple with those questions, find answers, or ask additional questions?

- Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

Joseph Kerski

About Joseph Kerski

Joseph Kerski is a geographer who believes that spatial analysis through digital mapping can transform education and society through better decision-making using the geographic perspective. He serves on the Esri education team and is active in GIS communication and outreach, creates GIS-based curriculum, conducts research in the effectiveness of GIS in education, teaches online and face-to-face courses on spatial thinking and analysis, and fosters partnerships to support GIS in formal and informal education at all levels, internationally. He is the co-author of Spatial Mathematics, The Essentials of the Environment, The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data, and other books. Follow him on Twitter @josephkerski
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  1. giovannij says:

    I’m not yet there but, in time I too hope to become instructor . I can often remember the one question so many times asked in school by other students,how will I ever use what I learning in the real world ?? Ahh, Now comes GIS, Hooray !!! My banner in my class room will read “increased understanding, skill building, and critical thinking”. All aspects of real world living.
    Than You