Teaching Spatial Thinking
Spatial Thinking and Learning | Spatial Thinking in the Geosciences | Teaching Spatial Thinking | Events | Contribute a Resource
Spatial Thinking and Learning
Spatial thinking, like any cognitive skill, can be taught and learned. (See Research on Spatial Thinking for a brief overview of relevant research literature). Moreover, spatial thinking is not a single cognitive skill; rather, it includes such skills as navigation, visualization, mental rotation, perspective taking, penetrative thinking (such as imagining the interior of an object), and disembedding ("seeing" the important spatial information in a noisy dataset, such as a seismic reflection profile). Because spatial thinking is so multi-faceted, as well as fundamental to the geosciences, it deserves particular attention in our curricula.
Spatial Thinking in the Geosciences
Spatial thinking, while not unique to the geosciences, is one of the hallmarks of geoscientific thinking (e.g. Kastens et al., 2009; Manduca and Kastens, 2012). As Kastens et al. (2009) remind us, "Geoscientists use spatial thinking extensively whenever they acquire, represent, manipulate, or reason about objects, processes, or phenomena in space." Read more about spatial thinking in the geosciences.
Teaching Spatial Thinking
The Place of Spatial Thinking in the Curriculum
Because spatial thinking pervades the geosciences, it is best developed through multiple exposures in multiple contexts. To produce graduates who are proficient at spatial thinking, we need to infuse it in our undergraduate curricula. See examples of how faculty are teaching spatial thinking across the geoscience curriculum.
Selected Pedagogical Approaches
- The Spatial Workbook project takes a research-based approach to teaching spatial thinking, combining several strategies that have emerged from cognitive science research: gesture, comparison, and sketching. The Spatial Workbook project is developing curricular materials for mineralogy, structural geology, and sedimentology and stratigraphy that incorporate these strategies into teaching spatially-challenging concepts within the undergraduate geology curriculum.
- The GET Spatial Learning Network project describes several research-based approaches to teaching spatial thinking, including teaching with play dough, click on diagram questions, and 360 degree imagery.
- Another common approach to teaching spatial thinking, strongly supported by research on learning, is teaching with visualizations. For example:
- Barb Tewksbury's teaching map interpretation with Google Earth (Tewksbury, 2013)
- Steve Reynolds' visualizing topography and interactive 3D geologic blocks visualizations (Piburn et al., 2002 )
- Rowan Cockett's Visible Geology, which allows the user to construct and slice his or her own geologic blocks, including surface topography (Cockett, 2014)
The resource collections listed below are contributed by faculty members from across the country.
- Teaching activities with a strong spatial component
- Visualizations of spatial phenomena
- Print and online references
- 2012 Spatial Thinking Journal Club:
From January to May, 2012, the Spatial Thinking Journal Club met once a month to discuss readings from the geoscience and cognitive science literature, exploring the cognitive aspects of spatial thinking and their implications for geoscience education. Read the journal club's summary of findings and recommendations for research on spatial thinking in the geosciences.
Contribute a Resource
The contributions of resources is what makes the On the Cutting Edge collections rich and diverse. Please add your resources to these growing collections.
Contribute a classroom activity, laboratory exercise, or problem set that you use to teach spatial thinking skills via the Teach the Earth contribute form.