Finding the Spatial In Order To Teach It

Spatial Concept Terms in U.S. Science Teaching Standards

In March, 2011 eight researchers from the fields of geography, psychology, earth science, mathematics, cognitive psychology and math education met at a UC Santa Barbara Center for Spatial Studies workshop to take preliminary steps towards developing a set of spatial literacy benchmarks for college freshmen; that is the set of spatial concepts, spatial principles and spatial reasoning skills they might reasonably be expected to have understanding of and/or proficiency with.

We examined content areas B, C and D of the 1996 K-12 National Science Education Standards (Physical, Life and Earth/Space Sciences respectively) and rated each of those 149 standards as being more or less spatial on a 0-100 scale, tagged the terms that informed those judgments and made notes as to our reasoning. Each participant rated one-third or more of the standards, so that each standard was evaluated by between 4 and 6 participants.Separately, one participant extracted spatial terms from the 1994 National Geography Standards for grades 9-12.

One early result is displayed in the figure below, which illustrates the relative prominence of spatial concepts (at least lexical markers for them) differentially in three science domains and geography. Further explanation appears below.

spatial terms in NSES science teaching standards

First, each tagged term was assigned a weight calculated by multiplying the average rated spatiality of the standard by the percentage of raters who tagged it. On the right side of the upper (red) portion of the figure, all terms appearing in 3 or more standards are sized according to that weight value. The larger terms are those with the highest scores considering (a) the agreement amongst raters, and (b) their presence in standards rated most spatial. We can say broadly that these are the most highly spatial terms in the standards.

Then, because most terms appear only a few times, we created a secondary weight value by multiplying the number of standards a term appears in by its average spatial rating. The sets of terms on the left side are sized according to that score; we can say these are the lexical concepts that dominate the three content areas of NSES standards.

The variation between science domains is interesting, as is the absence of certain highly spatial concept terms. Many of these are found in the geography standards (e.g. region, area, pattern, place) but some are missing in all or surprisingly downplayed (e.g. network, cluster).

The next phase of this work will make use of these lexicons to locate teaching resources in the National Science Digital Library (NSDL) useful for teaching spatial concepts, principles and skills across all disciplines. The results illustrated in the figure suggest some followup research questions, which are being investigated separately. We are interested to develop some theoretical bases for adding or highlighting spatial instruction in both college and K-12 curricula.

Karl Grossner and Don Janelle
Center for Spatial Studies [spatial@ucsb]

University of California, Santa Barbara