Human Geography & Spatial Thinking: Pathways to Understanding Complex Systems

Sarah Bednarz, Texas A&M University


I am a human geographer with research interests in the ways people learn to think spatially using geospatial technologies. As a recovering classroom teacher, I have worked for more than 20 years to improve the quality of geography, geosciences, and environmental education in elementary, middle, and high schools, working with educators and other stakeholders to develop content standards, curriculum support materials, and research-based strategies to improve student learning. As one of the primary authors of the National Geography Standards (1994), I developed the sections on geographic skills. I have been involved with several large educational projects including Mission Geography, a NASA-funded project to develop curriculum materials linking the National Geography Standards with NASA's missions and results. Recently I completed a GK-12 NSF program Advancing Geospatial Skills in Science and Social Science which linked geospatially skilled graduate fellows with science and social science teachers, grades 6-12, in a collaborative, three year cycle to enhance teacher and student knowledge and skills in spatial thinking.

Systems in Human Geography

All of these projects and my teaching and research have caused me to grapple with how to communicate, explain, and teach about complex systems. In my Introduction to Human Geography course, I focus on the interconnected nature of various human and environmental systems. It is convenient to think of complex interlocking relationships as systems. I take the approach of explicitly teaching what systems are in the first unit, defining them as collections of things that influence one another and appear to form a whole. I emphasize the usefulness of this approach—conceptualizing a collection of things as a system reveals its essential elements, how the elements interact, and how the system as a whole relates to other systems, both human and physical. Systems occur at a range of geographic scales and help organize and model associations. We discuss system boundaries, driving and resisting forces, equilibrium, and threshold (what people today commonly refer to as tipping point), and use these concepts throughout the course to examine a range of human systems. Offering students this "tool" assists in their ability to understand complex and ill-defined problems and situations.

Spatial Thinking & Complex Systems

Spatial thinking, the focus of my recent research, comprises the knowledge, skills, and habits of mind to use concepts of space, tools of representation, and reasoning processes to structure, solve, and to express solutions to problems. Spatial thinking underlies a significant amount of geosciences learning such as the use of maps, graphs, images, diagrams, models, and visualizations. In addition, it supports the description, explanation, and discussion of the functions, structures, relationships, and operations of a wide variety of spatio-temporal processes. Thus the ability to think spatially is a prerequisite for using and understanding the geospatial technologies commonly used in the geosciences, other disciplines, and everyday life. And spatial thinking is complex.

The National Science Foundation funded Advancing Geospatial Skills in Science and Social Science (AGSSS) at Texas A&M University from 2005 to 2009. AGSSS was a first step to explore the utility of applying spatial-thinking research from psychology, cognitive science, and geography to improve science and geography curricula and instruction in spatial analysis and problem solving. AGSSS connected geospatially skilled graduate students, termed Fellows, with science and geography/social studies teachers, grades 6-12. Program goals focused on three questions:

  1. What is the nature of spatial thinking in classroom settings?
  2. What practical, classroom-based strategies can be used develop spatial thinking? and
  3. What is the role of spatial thinking in the implementation of geospatial technologies?

To achieve these goals, Fellows and collaborating faculty worked directly with the teacher-partners to examine existing curricula for opportunities to feature spatial thinking; to introduce geospatial technologies, particularly GIS, remote sensing, and GPS, into classes; and to create new learning opportunities that develop students' spatial thinking, both with and without technologies.

For example, students in the middle school science classes traditionally conducted environmental science field work in a park near the school. AGSSS Fellows, working with the teachers, enhanced the data collection and observation aspects of this activity to incorporate remotely sensed images and maps as well as use GPS units which students employed to precisely locate the features they observed. After students conducted the field work, they returned to the computer lab to import their geo-tagged data into digital maps and remotely-sensed images of the park. Spatializing the field work allowed students to practice spatial-visualization skills such as transforming their perspective and visualizing the spatial arrangement of, and relationships among, the data collected revealing more about the dynamic relationship between biomes and human impacts on the environment.

Overall, more highly spatialized curricula provided the approximately 1,200 students engaged in the program with opportunities to change their attitudes, perceptions, and improve their spatial thinking skills. The impact of AGSSS on students and teachers was assessed in several ways. First, Fellows spent many hours in the classroom observing both teachers and their students. Fellows' reports indicate that as teachers began to understand the nature and importance of spatial thinking, they modified their teaching practice. For example, after teachers, Fellows, and university faculty realized that some students could not understand the tasks they were asked to perform or to express their findings because they lacked adequate spatial vocabulary, teachers increased their use of explicitly spatial language and the AGSSS team developed a vocabulary flip book to address this problem.

In addition to Fellows' observations, teachers reported on the effect of intentionally introducing spatial thinking into their curricula noticing positive impacts on their students that included, but were not limited to, greater use of appropriate terminology to describe spatial or geographical patterns, increased understanding of Earth-sun relations and seasons, better awareness of the similarities and differences among world regions, and a stronger appreciation of the importance location plays on environmental conditions. In sum, explicit instruction in spatial thinking is another strategy that can be employed to help students learn about the structure and operations of complex systems.

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