1. Spatial thinking is a complex and challenging process. Support systems can help to manage this complexity by

  • storing and handling multiple and often large data sets;

  • routinizing repetitious and laborious elemental parts of the process (akin to the development of macros in word processing programs);

  • keeping track of the results of chained sequences of operations;

  • providing in-process feedback and assistance; and

  • providing a means for the display and communication of results, working and final, for oneself and for others.

  1. Spatial thinking is a powerful process. Support systems can help to ensure the appropriate use of this power by

  • making its roles clear;

  • making its practice accessible to a wide range of users;

  • making its instruction and application successful in a wide range of contexts;

  • drawing on the experiences of as broad a range of disciplines as possible and on the expertise of members of those disciplines (the idea of best practices);

  • providing multiple, alternative formats for representing data and results;

  • providing access to key activities (in terms of transformations, operations, and analyses); and

  • recognizing the roles of incompleteness and error in data, uncertainty in analysis, and therefore ambiguity in results.

Given the different forms that spatial thinking can take and the diverse range of contexts within which it can be applied, there is no single system that can be a universal support for spatial thinking. Chapters 8 and 9 analyze one exemplar system, GIS, in terms of its design and implementation in the K–12 context, and Chapter 10 presents recommendations for improving its design and implementation.

However, it is the committee’s belief that a mix of support systems must be brought to bear on the teaching of spatial thinking. Although GIS is evaluated in detail as one such system, the committee recognizes that the fundamental challenge is first and foremost to appreciate the practical power and educational importance of spatial thinking. The problem that we face in American schools today is not one of inadequate tools as such but the need to appreciate and understand the process of spatial thinking. We can only teach people to do what we recognize, understand, and value.


Spatial thinking is built on a constructive amalgam of an understanding of space, representation, and reasoning (see Chapters 1 and 2). These three elements shape the specific characteristics of a support system for spatial thinking that must have the capacity to do the following:

1. Spatialize data sets by providing spatial data structures and coding systems (see Chapter 2) for spatial and nonspatial data.

Data sets that are spatial in form (e.g., containing positional data expressed in terms of latitude and longitude coordinates) must be registered and projected into a geographic space (e.g., on a map projection using the State Plane Coordinate System [SPCS]). With numerous ways of expressing spatial data, a support system must be able to integrate heterogeneous data sets by registering and projecting them onto a common framework for analysis and display.

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