Ohio's 2010 Academic Content Standards for Social Studies lists Spatial Thinking and Skills as the first topic in the World Geography Course. Spatial thinking has been defined as “knowledge, skills, and habits of mind to use concepts of space, tools of representation like maps and graphs, and processes of reasoning to organize and solve problems” (Downs and De Souza, 2005).
Geography is really about learning to think spatially. Why is this important? As National Geographic's video What Is Geo-literacy?
emphasizes, you can't understand the world, unless you are geoliterate.
According to the Association of American Geographers, spatial thinking involves:
- Identifying regions that share similar characteristics, such as the Corn Belt, Appalachia, an Italian neighborhood, or the Rust Belt.
- Comparing places based on certain characteristics, such as climate, population, mortality rates, or gross national product using maps and graphs.
- Recognizing and describing the transition from one place to another with respect to known conditions. For example, does the elevation change drastically or gradually?
- Understanding the effect that a place can have on another nearby location, for example, foul odors in the neighborhood near a papermaking factory, the use of pesticides at a farm located near a lake, or the escalation of property values near the beach.
- Analyzing the connections between places sharing similar locations and conditions, such as deserts, Pacific Rim, equatorial climates, mountainous terrain, or inner-ring suburbs.
- Recognizing spatial hierarchies, such as river watershed, governmental, or distribution hierarchies.
- Describing the organizational pattern of specific characteristics in an area, such as spacing, clustering, or threading.
- Analyzing the extent to which maps reveal patterns of association, such as coastal regions and vacation resorts or the Great Lakes and the early canal systems.
The following chart illustrates the spatial thinking skills for high school geography. High school students work with more sophisticated geographic tools, like GIS and remote-sensing visualizations, to analyze and interpret the geographic patterns and processes at work in the world.
||Properties and functions of geographic representations (e.g., maps, globes, graphs, diagrams, Internet-based mapping applications, geographic information systems, global positioning systems, remote sensing, and geographic visualizations) affect how they can be used to represent, analyze, and interpret geographic patterns and processes.
Geographic representations and geospatial technologies are used to investigate, analyze, and communicate the results of geographic problem solving.
*From the Ohio Department of Education 2011 Model Curriculum: Social Studies.
Actively involve your students as spatial thinkers through the use of engaging questions like the ones that follow (the last seven questions are from ODE’s 2011 Model Curriculum for Social Studies):
- Why is this town located where it is?
- Why did people choose to settle in this place?
- Why is the mall located near the highway?
- How does where you live influence how you live?
- What is the relationship between location and climate?
- How has human interaction with the environment impacted this place?
- How does the environment influence the movement of people, products, and ideas?
- Why do geographers use a variety of tools to represent the world?
- How are human societies shaped by and how do they help to shape their environments?
- How do movements of people, products, and ideas help redefine regions?
Some Student Misconceptions
Students develop spatial thinking skills over time. Addressing student misconceptions will ensure developmentally appropriate instruction. Here are some common misconceptions to watch for:
The spatial thinking skills in the geography strand should not be taught in isolation, but rather as connected to the content; this way, skills are practiced over time. Content statements from the 2010 Academic Content Standards paired below offer one approach.
For example, let’s choose World Geography Content Statement 2:
WG.2 Geographic representations and geospatial technologies are used to investigate, analyze, and communicate the results of geographic problem solving.
And let’s pair it with World Geography Content Statement 3:
WG.3 Human modifications of the physical environment in one place often lead to changes in other places (e.g., construction of a dam provides downstream flood control, construction of a city by-pass reduces commercial activity in the city center, implementation of dry farming techniques in a region leads to new transportation links and hubs).
These skills can be paired with activities such as the ones below to provide active learning experiences for students:
- Have students analyze the impact of the way something is presented and the way geographical patterns and processes are interpreted.
- Describe how the movements of people, products, and ideas can give new definition to a region.
- Have students use geospatial tools to analyze and solve a political, social, or economic problem.
Here are some resources you could use to teach the content:
Gapminder: Explore the World
Gapminder is used in classrooms around the world to build a fact-based worldview. With this site, data related to world trends can be charted, compared, and analyzed. Students and teachers can use Gapminder World without the Internet by installing the Gapminder Desktop, which updates automatically. Graphs can also be created and saved.
Central Intelligence Agency: The World Factbook
The World Factbook provides information on the history, people, government, economy, geography, communications, transportation, military, and transnational issues for 267 world entities. The site features maps of major world regions, flags of the world, physical and political maps, and a standard time zone world map.
National Geographic Education
The new beta site for National Geographic Education features teacher resources, abundant multimedia, mapping applications, reference and news resources, and educational programs for both teachers and students.