Consensus Report

Learning to Think Spatially: GIS As A Support System in the K-12 Curriculum (2006)


Each report is produced by a committee of experts selected by the Academy to address a particular statement of task and is subject to a rigorous, independent peer review; while the reports represent views of the committee, they also are endorsed by the Academy. Learn more on our expert consensus reports.

Spatial thinking is a cognitive skill that can be used in everyday life, the workplace, and science to structure problems, find answers, and express solutions using the properties of space. It can be learned and taught formally to students using appropriately designed tools, technologies, and curricula. This report explains the nature and functions of spatial thinking and shows how spatial thinking can be supported across the K-12 curriculum through the development of appropriate support systems. A geographic information system (GIS) is an example of a support system that, with recommended redesigns, can foster spatial thinking across the curriculum. The report calls for a national initiative to integrate spatial thinking into existing standards-based instruction across the school curriculum such as in mathematics, history, and science classes; it does not require the development of a new, separate course focusing solely on spatial thinking. The goal of this initiative is to create a generation of students who learn to think spatially in an informed way.

Key Messages

  • Geographic information science has significant but as yet unrealized potential for supporting spatial thinking across a range of subjects in the K-12 curriculum.
  • No matter how well designed support tools for spatial thinking might be, they will not be effective without societal recognition of the importance of spatial thinking and without an educational commitment to teaching spatial thinking to all students in all grades.
  • Spatial thinking can be supported and facilitated by the development of a coherent suite of supporting tools, ranging from low to high technology in nature, that can (1) address a range of types of problems, (2) use a range of types and amounts of data, and (3) require different levels of skill and experience.
  • Spatial thinking is not an add-on to an already crowded school curriculum, but rather a missing link across that curriculum. Integration and infusion of spatial thinking can help to achieve existing curricular objectives. Spatial thinking is another lever to enable students to achieve a deeper and more insightful understanding of subjects across the curriculum.
  • Standards for spatial thinking should be general guidelines for what students need to know about concepts of space, tools of representation, and processes of reasoning in order to be able to solve problems. These general guidelines must be integrated into the particular content knowledge expectations for various subject matter disciplines.
  • Support systems for spatial thinking must meet three requirements to be successful: they must (1) allow for the spatialization of data, (2) facilitate the visualization of working and final results, and (3) perform a range of functions (transformations, operations, and analyses).
  • The committee identified three mechanisms that led to the development of GIS software: the academic model, the commercial model, and the collaborative model. These three models offer distinct options for the redesign of GIS software for the K-12 context. All three mechanisms appear to have merit, as well as potential pitfalls. The choice among them, therefore, should be made by the appropriate funding agencies.
  • The committee views spatial thinking as a basic and essential skill that can be learned, that can be taught formally to all students, and that can be supported by appropriately designed tools, technologies, and curricula. With appropriate instruction and commensurate levels of low- and high-tech support, spatial thinking can become an invaluable lifelong habit of mind.
  • While GIS can make a significant impact on teaching and learning about spatial thinking, it must be situated in a context wherein there is a systematic, standards-based approach to teaching spatial thinking, along with a suite of supporting tools available to do so. Taken alone, GIS is not the answer to the problem of teaching spatial thinking in American schools; however, it can play a significant role in an answer.