Spatial Thinking

“A map is a graphic representation or scale model of spatial concepts. It is a means for conveying geographic information.”  Whether a person lives in Peru or in Germany, a map is a universal medium. No matter the language spoken or culture practiced, a map is relatively easy to comprehend. In today’s world, geography is considered a dying major in most colleges. The world’s schools need to educate their students in geography and cartography so that spatial thinking is still ongoing.

Before the printing press even existed, maps were conceived and drawn. Map making, an art called cartography, began when the Babylonians drew them on clay tablets around 2300 B.C. Later, Greek philosophers learned more about the “spherical earth” and perfected the science of creating maps. Maps were used for religious purposes during the medieval era, and later were carved into wood blocks during the Renaissance. In the early 16th century, when Columbus and other explorers sailed to the New World, whole- world maps began to appear. Maps became increasingly more accurate as technology developed, especially during World War I when aerial photography was a possibility. The map is an ancient way to interpret geography and today, they are still an important way to navigate and understand the world.

Every type of information can be graphed in some way. Bar graphs, pie charts and line graphs are just some of the basic few. Graphing and visualizing data is thought to be a new practice but this is not the case. Mapping data was the first type of visualizing. Kirk Goldsberry, who wrote the article, The Importance of Spatial Thinking Now, says, “As I look out on the world of data visualization, I see a lot of reinventing of the wheel precisely because so many young, talented visualizers lack geographical training. Those interested in a 21st century career in visualization can definitely learn a lot from 20th century geographers.” Spatial thinking in this day and age is extremely important seeing that visual learning is on the rise.

Visual learning is defined by the Association of College and Research Libraries as “a set of abilities that enables an individual to effectively find, interpret, evaluate, use, and create images and visual media. Visual literacy skills equip a learner to understand and analyze the contextual, cultural, ethical, aesthetic, intellectual, and technical components involved in the production and use of visual materials. A visually literate individual is both a critical consumer of visual media and a competent contributor to a body of shared knowledge and culture.” The ACRL explains in their article, ACRL Visual Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education, that the people in today’s society are predominantly visual learners. The technology available makes creating or finding visuals easy and accessible. Goldsberry states that, “data visualization is an emerging, important discipline, and spatial thinking—geography—is a fundamental skill for good data visualization.”  As stated before, mapping has been around “since dinosaurs roamed the earth.” Yet their importance is underrated.

Google Maps and global positioning systems are just two out of many applications that show maps and navigation. Goldsberry believes that having these applications is taking away from real learning. He says, “There are too few classes that enable learners to improve their spatial reasoning abilities, with maps and visualizations being of course the most central artifacts to such improvements. The problem is simple: not enough people know how to make maps or handle spatial data sets.” Maps will always have use in some way, shape or form which is why it is crucial that they are studied.

The knowledge of our whereabouts and surroundings is imperative when it comes to graphing data. Data shown on maps is an effective way to learn for visual learners. Take for example a map on “The map illustrates all 9,866,539 buildings in the Netherlands and are shaded according to year of construction.” Depending on what one is learning or interested in finding out, this map might prove useful to them. A traveler who appreciates old architecture and history could look at this visual to see where the oldest buildings are located. They would find that Amsterdam and Haarlem have what they are looking for since they are shaded red which represents buildings constructed before and during the 1800s. Also, having an aerial view of the cities and its buildings is what helps city planning. The map may aid architects as they are looking for places to build and expand or to tear things down. Maps show information that would otherwise be confusing and taxing to read in a document.

As shown in another map on NASA’s website, the global earth is sectioned off based on the atmosphere, biosphere, land surface, solid Earth, and ocean. The Earth can be more fully understood when these excavations and experiments are performed and graphed. Knowing our Earth leads to knowledge of how to take care of it. A healthy Earth leads to a healthy and longer lasting population. Communicating this information through visuals and maps helps puzzling and unclear information make sense. NASA is the perfect example for brilliant spatial thinkers, which is just what this world needs.

Because geography is no longer taught in most colleges, the art of cartography and the study of geography is endangered. If one had the skills of spatial thinking and the education for it under their belt, it would benefit the population as a whole. “Quantitative spatial analytics offer vital insights into the world’s most important domains including public health, the environment, the global economy, and warfare.” Goldsberry also states that the focus of spatial thinking is on data, which is a mistake. “The best visualizations never celebrate the data; instead they make us learn about worldly phenomena and forget about the data. After all, who looks at the Mona Lisa to think about the paints?” Data is important, but by itself it is nothing. Data wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for those who research it. The world’s schools need to educate their students in geography and cartography so that spatial thinking is not considered a dying practice. If it weren’t for those who make maps, how would we even begin to understand the place in which we live?

To read the article, press here

To see the map of the Netherlands, press here

To see the map on NASA’s website, press here



“ACRL Visual Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education.” Association of College &      Research Libraries. American Library Association, 1996. Web. 9 Nov. 2013.

“Best of the Visualisation Web… September 2013.” Visualising Data. Visualising Data, 2009.  Web. 9 Nov. 2013. <;.

“Mapping Our World.” NASA Global Climate Change. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2013. Web. 10 Nov. 2013. <;.

Aber, James. “Brief History of Maps and Cartography.”  J.S. Aber, 2008. Web.9 November 2013.

Goldsberry, Kirk. “The Importance of Spatial Thinking Now.” Harvard Business Review, 30 September, 2013. Web. 9 November 2013.

Spaan, Bert. “Buildings in the Netherlands by Year of Construction.” Buildings in the Netherlands by Year of Construction. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Nov. 2013. <;.





About Noel Biever

My name is Noel Elaine Biever, and I'm from Lebanon, Pennsylvania. I hate living in the small town and I am ready to branch out. I love to travel. I've been to 11 countries in Europe and I can' t wait to go on another adventure. I hope to one day live and work in Europe, raise a big family, and speak a lot of languages fluently. Singing and acting are two things I absolutely love to do, as well as playing the guitar. I am a big fan of movies, and I am addicted to the $5 movie bin at Walmart. Saturday Night Live and The Big Bang Theory are two of my favorite shows, and I abolutely adore HGTV. I love the little things in life and I believe that everything happens for a reason. So that's me in a paragraph. Thanks for stoppin by:)

Posted on November 13, 2013, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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