GIS connections to 21st Century skills

Last week, I explained how well GIS fits in with 6 tech practices becoming increasingly important in primary and secondary education.  This week, I would like to make the case that GIS connects well with 21st Century skills, as defined by the Partnership for 21st Century skills, but also by many states.  Let’s take Colorado as an example, where these 5 skills were identified by educators, policymakers, and citizens as key for the 21st Century:

Interpolating a surface from points using a GIS

Interpolating a surface from soil test points using a GIS.

1)  Critical thinking and reasoning.
2)  Information Literacy.
3)  Collaboration.
4)  Self direction.
5)  Invention.

The effective use of GIS in teaching and learning can support each of these skills. Under critical thinking and reasoning are listed “evaluating”, “inferring”, “drawing conclusions”, “problem solving”, and “using logic”.  All work using GIS involves these actions.  In fact, GIS was created to solve problems, from local to global, from land use to population to natural hazards to transportation and much more.  Under “information literacy” there are also numerous connections, such as evaluating information, accessing appropriate tools, and distinguishing among fact, point of view, and opinion.  Working with GIS involves the use of numerous types, sources, scales, and themes of spatial data, with tools, and with techniques.  Each decision about which to use and how to use it requires careful consideration.  Under collaboration are statements about communication and teamwork. Maps have always been good communication tools, but now that audio, video, photographs, text, and animations can be seamlessly integrated with ArcGIS Online and Storymaps, the GIS platform has truly become a communications platform.

Under self-direction are statements about “understanding and controlling cognitive processes.”  Working through GIS-based projects requires a logical workflow that usually involves asking questions, framing the problem, gathering data, analyzing data, drawing conclusions, acting on the information, and asking further questions as part of the scientific inquiry process.  Finally, invention is all about applying new ways to solve problems.  The GIS environment is a dynamic one, with new tools to learn and new techniques to master.  The technology itself is rapidly evolving, but more importantly, the notion of using spatial thinking as a basis for approaching a problem in the first place is novel for many students.

The documents associated with the skills state that “Reading, writing, and communicating are inherently demonstrated in each of the skills.”  This also aptly describes the work that occurs independently and collaboratively when using GIS in education and beyond.  As the documents also state, “today’s students need a repertoire of knowledge and skills that are more diverse, complex, and integrated than any previous generation.”  GIS entails the use of knowledge about Earth systems, about technology, about communications, about data, and much more.   We need a complex set of tools to grapple with the complex issues that society faces, and students who use GIS are well on their way to be excellent decision makers of tomorrow.

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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