World in Spatial Terms

While it is important to take a bit of time out each year to focus on Geography Awareness, there are 51 other weeks in the year where teachers must attempt to impart an understanding of Geography. An uphill battle to be sure. In the United States there is a set of Geography Standards which came out of the America 2000 – The National Education Goals. In 1994 the National Geography Standards were published made up of six elements (or themes) and eighteen standards. Over the course of the week we are going to handle one element per day of the standards. Today we are going to kick off with “Element 1: The World in Spatial Terms” which includes three standards:

1) How to Use Maps and Other Geographic Representations, Tools, and Technologies to Acquire, Process, and Report Information From a Spatial Perspective

2) How to Use Mental Maps to Organize Information About People, Places, and Environments in a Spatial Context

3) How to Analyze the Spatial Organization of People, Places, and Environments on Earth’s Surface

These three standards are the broadest and lay the groundwork for the other five elements.
I will begin at the beginning with my interpretation/reduction of Standard One which is to learn how to use spatial tools to share information. This is epitomized by work from Dibiase (1990) and MacEachren and Kraak. Dibiase offered up a 2D chart of spatial information which captures the progression from visual thinking to visual communication. This gradient provides a way to use maps and other spatial visualization methods to explore data and to present information. MacEachren and Kraak added an additional dimension which brings human interaction into the equation. As digital cartography, GIS, virtual globes, and other geovisualization tools become truly ubiquitous we can expect Standard One to be easier to teach in concept and practice through hands on examples.

Next up is Standard Two which, in my mind, is somewhat problematic. The goal here is to use spatial awareness to conceptually link information. However, while you can teach people to read a map to some extent, there will always be those individuals who are simply not spatial thinkers. Creating topological relationships of memories and thoughts is for the most part a subconscious action making it difficult to train those who are not prone to spatial thinking. For those that are, the world is of course a more enjoyable place ;-). Mental maps are the way we navigate, the way we connect to places and people, and allow us to make connections between objects.

To round out the first day is Standard Three, or as I like to call it, the standard of GIS. Spatial organization is the way that we understand the location of objects, even locations on our mental maps, in order to contextualize the world around us. As you might imagine spatial organization is what leads us to capture our data in databases and begin to analyze that data to learn about relationships like distance, linkage, and diffusion. These patterns, whether captured using a GIS or simply recognized by the human eye, allow us to make connections that aid us in day-to-day life and research alike.

There are several resources that I have consulted for this series, but I will just mention the National Geographic Society’s XPeditions which offers more descriptive overviews of the National Geography Standards and the National Council for Geographic Education Tutorial on Geography for Life which provides additional information about the standards.