Schools urged to teach ‘spatial literacy’

Spatial literacy will play an increasingly important role in today’s information-based economy, and it should be incorporated into K-12 instruction, according to a recent report from the National Research Council (NRC), part of the National Academy of Sciences. The report recommends that schools use geographic information system (GIS) software, among other tools and methods, to help students practice and apply spatial thinking across all areas of the curriculum.

Currently, spatial thinking is "not systematically instructed in the K-12 curriculum, despite its fundamental importance," the report notes, calling this omission "a major blind spot in the American educational system."

The report defines spatial thinking as the ability to understand spatial relationships, the knowledge of how geographic space is represented, and the ability to reason and make key decisions about spatial concepts. These skills are essential to a wide range of tasks and fields, the report says, and yet "there are neither content standards nor valid and reliable assessments dedicated solely to spatial thinking."

Spatial literacy is not a stand-alone subject in the way that physics, biology, and economics are subjects, NRC said. Instead, it’s a way of thinking that cuts across most other disciplines. To foster spatial literacy in students, the academy’s report recommends that schools take an approach similar to the movement to teach writing " across the curriculum"–that is, to integrate it into instruction in all appropriate content areas.

The report urges federal agencies and education leaders to encourage the development of spatial literacy standards and curriculum materials to help educators teach students how to think spatially. It also calls on technology developers and educators to tailor GIS technologies to the needs of students, giving them easy-to-use tools to explore and practice spatial thinking both inside–and outside–the classroom.

George Dailey, K-12 education program manager for ESRI, a maker of GIS technologies, said the NAS report underscores the message his firm has been communicating to schools for the last 14 years.

"Pick any walk of life–those skills are being applied every day," Dailey said. From conservationists developing a plan for habitat preservation, to public health officials studying the spread of avian flu, "all of these [tasks] carry with them a spatial component," he said.

GIS technologies use "smart" maps that can display, query, and analyze geographic databases. A growing number of schools are using them–primarily in science and social studies classes–to support authentic, problem-based instruction, Dailey said, helping students tackle real social and environmental research projects in their communities.

Bishop Dunne Catholic School in Dallas is a leader in using GIS technology to enhance student learning. The school’s GeoTech Research Lab allows students to become the researchers and creators of geographic and environmental solutions in an authentic, problem-based approach to instruction.

For example, Bishop Dunne students have partnered with the Dallas Police Department for several projects. In the early stages of the partnership, students produced maps for neighborhood crime-watch organizations. The maps illustrated where crimes were and what types of crimes were occurring on a monthly basis. Later projects have included producing maps to help determine where the Dallas Police Department should deploy its Robbery Task Force.

NRC’s call for simpler GIS solutions for schools aligns with the services ESRI offers its education customers, Dailey said.


"When we look at the application of GIS technology in K-12 education, we tend to break this down into three components," he said. "Schools need good tools, good data, and good support." ESRI provides extensive curricular and support structures to help educators incorporate GIS technology into their lessons, he said; for example, the company publishes a free newsletter with GIS information, strategies, and best practices for instructors.

At Northwestern University, researchers also are working to develop student-friendly tools and resources to help incorporate GIS technology into schools.

"Five years ago, we recognized the need for student-friendly GIS software," said Daniel Edelson, associate professor of education and computer science. With funding from the National Science Foundation, Edelson’s research team designed My World GIS, a GIS program that makes it easy for students to use large data sets to investigate Earth and environmental science phenomena, much like professional scientists do.

Students reportedly have used My World to investigate topics as diverse as the impact of mine runoff on water quality in the Appalachians, the effect of climate change on glaciers in Greenland, and the impact of the Gold Rush and westward expansion on Native American tribes. In all of these cases, My World has enabled students to view and analyze scientific or historical data in the form of dynamic, customizable maps, its creators say.

Edelson also is director of Northwestern’s Geographic Data in Education Initiative (GEODE). In addition to My World, GEODE has developed several standards-based curricula incorporating geographic information systems, including a high school science textbook titled Investigations of Environmental Science. Using this textbook and GIS software, high school students take on the role of environmental scientists and investigate real-world environmental problems.

Additional resources on GIS and Geographic Inquiry are available at eSchool News Online.


National Research Council

"Learning to Think Spatially: GIS as a Support System in the K-12 Curriculum"


GIS and Geographic Inquiry Resource Center

Bishop Dunne’s GeoTech Research Lab

GEODE Initiative


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