Ohio's 2010 Academic Content Standards for Social Studies K8 lists Spatial Thinking and Skills as the first topic under Geography. 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 spatial thinking skills for kindergarten through grade 4 in Ohio. The focus for elementary grades is on using the language of geography, relative location, and basic map skills.
||Terms related to direction and distance, as well as symbols and landmarks, can be used to talk about the relative location of familiar places.
Models and maps represent places.
||Maps can be used to locate and identify places.
||Maps and their symbols can be interpreted to answer questions about the location of places.
||Physical and political maps have distinctive characteristics and purposes. Places can be located on a map by using the title, key, alphanumeric grid, and cardinal directions.
||A map scale and cardinal and intermediate directions can be used to describe the relative location of physical and human characteristics of Ohio and the United States.
*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 Content Statement 4.9:
4.9 A map scale and cardinal and intermediate directions can be used to describe the relative location of physical and human characteristics of Ohio and the United States.
And let’s pair it with Content Statement 4.14:
4.14 Ohio’s location and its transportation systems continue to influence the movement of people, products and ideas in the United States.
These skills can be paired with activities such as the ones below to provide active learning experiences for students:
- Work with students to make a map of a familiar place, like their home, bedroom, or classroom, and give the map an appropriate title. Have them include a key with correct symbols for their maps. Describe the relative location of a place or object that is familiar to the students.
- Have students write directions from their home to school or from the classroom to the school office. Discuss the relationship between one object and another, like the school and a neighborhood landmark.
- Describe the location of Ohio relative to other states.
- Allow students to play a game like Battleship to practice using grids.
Here are some resources you could use to teach the content:
Discover Ohio's Geography
Use this interactive map to locate physical and human features.
Geographic Regions of Ohio
Illustrates major physical features of Ohio including the Appalachian Plateau, Glaciated Allegheny Plateaus, Central Lowlands, and Huron-Erie Lake Plains.
Ohio and Erie Canal in Coshocton Photograph
A photograph of Coshocton. It shows the Ohio and Erie Canal and the Waldhoning River in the background. The Ohio and Erie Canal was built to connect Lake Erie at Cleveland with the Ohio River at Portsmouth to provide transportation and promote the state's economic development.
Forests of Ohio (ORC #14725)
Locate forest and geological regions on a map of Ohio.
Ohio Railroad Map
Shows railroads and electric railways operating in Ohio in 1903. Also identified are towns, county seats, canals, coal lands, tunnels, telegraph companies, express companies, state and county institutions and hospitals, industrial schools, and universities.
The Ohio Canal System
Click on 25 different Ohio locations to learn how the canal system impacted settlement and the economy of various communities in the Buckeye State.
“Lesson 5: Teaching Directions, Maps, and Coordinates,”
“Where in the World? Using a Geographic Perspective to Identify Destinations for a Class Trip,”
National Geographic Xpeditions.
“Introducing Spatial Thinking Skills Across the Curriculum,”
Association of American Geographers. Includes a sample lesson on comparing the Erie and Pennsylvania Canals.
Downs, Roger, and De Souza, Anthony, Learning to Think Spatially: GIS as a Support System in the K12 Curriculum, National Research Council and National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2005.