GSA goes Metacognitive

Kim Kastens
Author Profile
published Dec 23, 2010

Looking around the website of the Geological Society of America, I found myself on the page announcing the Society's upcoming 125th anniversary celebration. In bold print, the Society congratulates itself for: "ADVANCES IN GEOSCIENCES: Our science, our societal impact, and our unique thought processes."

GSA 125th anniversary logo

I did a double take: indeed that did say "....and our unique thought processes...." I personally find geoscientists' thought processes to be fascinating, as you can surely tell by reading my blog posts. But I have considered this rather a niche interest, and was amazed and gratified to find this topic featured so prominently in GSA's anniversary plans.

There are no more clues on GSA's website, so I don't know exactly what the event organizers have in mind. I can imagine that they are thinking of such things as geology's status as a historical rather than experimental science (e.g. Cleland, 2002; Frodemann, 1995), the use of converging lines of evidence and the necessity for ambiguity in categorization (Ault, 1998), the use of multiple working hypotheses (e.g. Chamberlin, 1890; Dott, 2006), the prominence of systems thinking, spatial thinking (e.g. Kastens & Ishikawa, 2006), and temporal thinking, and the shared experience of direct observation of nature.

I'm a bit wary of the word "unique" in GSA's anniversary announcement. To my way of thinking, geoscientists' thought processes build on modes of cognition that are present throughout humanity, and are prominent in some other sciences. For example, temporal thinking is central to archeology, spatial thinking is central to geography, and systems thinking is central to ecology; none are "unique" to geosciences. However, a case can be made that geoscientists' combination of thought processes is unique, evolved to match the unique nature of that which we study.

I had assumed that the Society's interest in geologists' thought processes was a relatively new development, perhaps part of the growing awareness of discipline-based educational research. When I went to check this assumption, Google Books gave me access to the page about "Anniversary Meetings" in a book called "the Geological Society of America: Life History of a Learned Society," by Edwin Butt Eckel. The accounts of the 25th anniversary and 50th anniversary showed no signs of metacognition. But for the 75th anniversary, in 1963, GSA commissioned a book on the philosophy of geology: The Fabric of Geology, edited by Claude C. Albritton (table of contents). For the 100th anniversary, the Decade of North American Geology series included one volume on "Geologists and Ideas" by Ellen T. Drake and William M. Jordan. I haven't yet tracked down a copy of either book yet, but a passage from Science magazine's review of the Drake & Jordon volume stresses the value to both scientists and students of reflecting on how geoscientists reason:

"The chapter 'Wrong for the right reasons: G. G. Simpson and continental drift' by Leo F. Laporte should be required reading for all scientists and students. The history of the geological sciences is replete with examples of great men who, at times, were totally wrong and who, because of the power of personalities, temporarily diverted the flow of ideas away from the correct answers. The fact that an intellect as keen and perceptive as Simpson's, using enormous amounts of data, could marshal such powerful arguments against the concept of continental drift should be sobering to all. Progress in science involves considerable stumbling." (from Robert E. Wallace, 1986, Book Review of Geologists & Ideas, Science, Vol. 232, pp. 1278-1279)

So if geoscientists have been reflecting on geoscientists' thinking for decades, is there nothing new in this domain at all? To my eye, three new trends have emerged strongly since GSA's 100th anniversary. The first is that the methods of qualitative and quantitative education research have been directed towards earth science practitioners and learners, whereas the previous rounds of self-examination grew out of history and philosophy of science. The second is that considerable attention has been focused on how novice earth science learners think about the earth, whereas earlier attention focused on professional geoscientists. And the third would be the purposeful development of a culture of sharing of insights about how earth science students think, an aspect of pedagogical content knowledge, through organizations such as DLESE and Teach the Earth.


Ault, C. R., Jr., 1998, Criteria of excellence for geological inquiry: The necessity of ambiguity: Journal of Research in Science Teaching, v. 35, no. 2, p. 189-212.

Chamberlin, T. C., 1890, The method of multiple working hypotheses: Science, v. 15, p. 92-96.

Cleland, C. E., 2002, Methodological and epistemic differences between historical science and experimental science: Philosophy of Science, v. 69, p. 474-496.

Dott, R. H., Jr, 2006, Rock Stars: Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin (1843-1928), GSA Today, p. 30-31.

Frodeman, R., 1995, Geological reasoning: Geology as an interpretive and historical science: Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 107, p. 960-968.

Kastens, K. A., and Ishikawa, T., 2006, Spatial Thinking in the Geosciences and Cognitive Sciences, in Manduca, C., and Mogk, D., eds., Earth and Mind: How Geoscientists Think and Learn about the Complex Earth, Geological Society of America Special Paper 413, p. 53-76.




GSA goes Metacognitive --Discussion  

Hi Kim, Thanks for alerting us to the special focus on geoscience thinking that will be featured at the forthcoming GSA meeting. I think it's really important for a discipline to periodically be reflective and introspective about who we are, what our priorities are, what contributions can be made. In preparation for the Earth and Mind volume, I read with fascintation the text you cite, Fabric of Geology. It has contributions from some of the legendary figures of 20th Century geology: J. Hoover Mackin, V. McKelvey, Luna Leopold, Jim Gilluly.... and these essays provide many interesting insights into how geoscience has been pursued by the masters of geoscience in the last century. This is also what Cathy Manduca and I hoped to achieve in the invited essays in Earth and Mind (GSA Special Paper 413). The first section addresses Learning From Earth with contributions from Gary Ernst, Sue Kieffer, Don Anderson and Don Turcotte that reveal their thought processes as they have studied Earth through lifetimes of achievement; the second section provides commentary from the learning sciences about Learning About Geoscience Thinking with contributions from Kim Kastens and Toru Ishicawa, Jeff Dodick and Nir Orion, Bruce Herbert, JHeff Dodick and Shlomo Argamon, and David Rapp and David Uttal; the third section provides insights about Helping Students Learn with essays from Danny Edelson et al., Michael Tabor and Kristin Quadracci, Steve Reynbolds et al., and Dave Bice. In this volume, we hoped to open a geoscience-wide exploration of what master geoscientists think and do in pursuit of their craft; how these questions and approaches to studying Earth can be understood in terms of learning and cognitive theory; and how these insights can be translated into effective instructional practice.

It seems to me that the GSA initiative to reflect on "our science, our societal impact, and our [unique] thought processes is time well spent by GSA members and indeed all geoscientists.

[I agree with Kim that geoscience thought processes may not be unique (we share similar opportunties and challenges with astronomy, physiology, ecology in having to work in complex, open and dynamic systems), but we surely have perspectives that complement and supplement Science as done in other disciplines.]

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