Maps and Spatial Thinking Skills in the Classroom

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Authored by

  • Sarah W. Bednarz
    Texas A&M University
    College Station, TX,

“Geography is the art of the mappable.”

Peter Haggett


“So important is the use of maps in geographic work that... it seems fair to suggest to the geographer if the problem cannot be studied fundamentally by maps, ...then it is questionable whether or not it is within the field of geography.”

Richard Hartshorne


“The map speaks across the barriers of language.”

Carl Sauer

These quotes from three notable geographers make it clear: The map is an essential tool and component of geography. The map is defined as a graphic representation of a portion of Earth that is usually drawn to scale on a flat surface. It is the central way geographers organize and analyze information. Maps are also a powerful means of displaying and communicating geographic information. This essay examines maps and the roles they and other graphics play in human geography, particularly in supporting spatial thinking. It also includes specific strategies that will sustain student development as spatial thinkers and give concrete ways to hone student appreciation for geography as “the art of the mappable.”

Increased Interest in Maps

Over time, maps have become an important part of society at large. To paraphrase a common expression, maps are not just for geography anymore. Maps are more widely available than ever before. The new technology of geographic information systems (GIS) has expanded the ease and ability by which maps are produced. We find maps in newspapers, television weather forecasts, automobile navigation devices, the internet, and handheld PDAs. Mapping systems are being used to track repair technicians, to share information about environmental issues, to sell houses, to manage 911 services, and for homeland security. Animated maps and other visualizations have become a key tool in studying a range of scientific phenomena. Because of the widespread use of maps today, learning how to read, interpret, and produce them has become a new essential skill.

Geographers, psychologists, and cognitive scientists are becoming interested in the kind of thinking, termed spatial thinking, that underlies map reading and interpretation as well as forms of analysis in geography, other social and physical sciences, and mathematics. Spatial thinking is defined as the knowledge, skills, and habits of mind to use concepts of space, tools of representation like maps and graphs, and processes of reasoning to organize and solve problems (Downs and de Souza 2005).

Three contexts for spatial thinking

Spatial thinking occurs in different contexts. On a daily basis we think spatially when we navigate between home and school or when we arrange papers and books in a backpack. We might think of this as thinking in physical space.

Studying human geography provides examples of a second type of spatial thinking. Learning about the shapes and structures of urban areas, the diffusion of cultures and agriculture, or the organization of the world economy, that is, learning human geography, is learning about physical space. Maps certainly are essential to researching these topics.

Using space as a metaphor or analogy, thinking with space, is a powerful strategy in problem solving, learning, and communicating and is the third context. There are many examples in human geography of taking nonspatial information and putting it into a spatial context to display, summarize, and stimulate analysis. Illustrating the taxonomic relationships of language subfamilies through the analogy of a tree is an example of thinking with space. The physical proximity of the languages on the tree branches provides a memorable way to observe relationships. Graphics such as concept maps, population pyramids, and climate graphs also take nonspatial data and “spatialize” it into a form that facilitates thinking with space.

Developing Geographic Skills

Learning to think geographically is learning to think spatially – to consider objects in terms of their location in space, to question why objects are located where they are, and to visualize relationships between and among these objects. One of the key differences between expert and novice geographers is the ability to think spatially. The Geography for Life: National Geography Standards 1994 identified five key geographic skills. They are:

  1. Asking geographic questions
  2. Acquiring geographic information
  3. Organizing geographic information
  4. Analyzing geographic information
  5. Answering geographic questions

For fledgling geographers, the most difficult of these skills is the first. Asking geographic questions requires both an understanding of the key perspectives of geography and the knowledge and skills related to spatial thinking. It takes time, guidance, and practice to develop the ability to ask questions related to the “where” and the “how and why there” of a problem. It also takes repeated experiences in thinking spatially to become fluent with spatial concepts, to think in terms of patterns of objects in space (where), and to consider the processes that produce these patterns (how and why there). Maps are an essential tool to organize and display geographic information. Patterns and relationships among objects can become apparent on a map in a way that supports spatial thinking and problem solving. Thus learning to think geographically often leads students to a new appreciation for maps and the information they provide.

An important part of the AP® Human Geography course involves using maps to learn significant content, to “think through maps,” as Liben explains it. (Liben 2001, 76). However, human geography students must be critical consumers of maps and other spatial representations. “Maps cannot be seen as separate from the contexts in which they are produced and used” (Morgan and Lambert 2004, 109).

Just as texts are written by individuals with varying points of view and can be read and interpreted in different ways, maps are not pure representations of reality but rather social productions subject to critical analysis. When examining a map, the careful consumer should consider the conditions under which it was produced, whether it may be portraying a particular point of view, and what messages it may be conveying about power and perspective. It is important to develop a healthy, critical awareness and skepticism about maps as well as other graphics and images. As the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991) explained, maps and images both represent and reproduce space.

Take, for example, the well-known 2004 election map showing red (Republican) and blue (Democratic) states. The map has taken on iconic status and reinforces the erroneous view that President George W. Bush’s victory was a landslide. The population-based cartogram constructed by Michael Gastner and colleagues at the University of Michigan offers a more accurate representation of the vote. This example should encourage young human geographers to speculate about other misleading maps and graphics and the role they may play in legitimating or disputing specific ideologies, beliefs, and practices.

10 suggestions for developing skills as a geographer

Thinking through maps and in, about, and with space are all productive habits of mind for AP Human Geography students. Here are 10 suggestions to help students develop as geographers and spatial thinkers. They are organized under the three contexts for spatial thinking.

Thinking in Space

  1. Be aware of your location in space and the role space plays in daily life. When you walk or ride, take note of landmarks and the routes you take. Consider ways you regularly use spatial concepts such as when you pack a bag of groceries, arrange items efficiently in your locker, or maneuver around a traffic jam.
  2. Think about how other people perceive and use space. Do your friends measure distance in time, metrics, or both? Do they give directions in terms of street names or landmarks?
  3. Examine the ways athletes conceptualize and use space while playing virtual and real games, such as hockey, basketball, football, and the many games played on Xbox or PlayStation.

Thinking About Space

  1. Use maps as a key resource. Train yourself to look for patterns on maps, noting clusters, associations, outliers, and anomalies in the distributions of objects. Look for changes over space and time as you seek relationships among spatial patterns.
  2. Collect a wide variety of maps and graphics from newspapers, news magazines, the internet, and other sources and critique them. Are they clear? Are they accurate? Are they biased?
  3. Read the maps in your AP Human Geography textbook carefully. Get as much information as possible from them. Examine them critically. Use sketch maps and diagrams to illustrate practice free-response questions. Such representations can help you to organize your thinking, to illustrate key points you wish to make, to spark your reasoning processes, and to add rigor and structure to your answer.
  4. Make a special point of using terms associated with space in your geographic discussions. Thinking in terms of points, lines, areas, associations, diffusion, spatial hierarchies, regions, buffers, boundaries, distance decay, nearest neighbor effects, and so on can help to reinforce the development of your spatial-thinking skills.

Thinking with Space

  1. Set nonspatial ideas into spatial contexts. For example, use concept maps as a tool to think; place similar things close and dissimilar things far away. Consider the connections between objects or ideas, and use lines to show relationships. An example of spatial thinking about a nonspatial item is a scholarly paper analyzing Supreme Court decisions in terms of core and peripheral cases.
  2. Draw diagrams, graphs, and sketches to both communicate and think. Many examples of thinking with space appear at


Downs, Roger, and Anthony de Souza. 2005. Learning to Think Spatially: GIS as a Support System in the K–12 Curriculum. Committee on the Support for Thinking Spatially: The Incorporation of Geographic Information Science Across the K–12 Curriculum, Committee on Geography. Washington D.C.: National Research Council and National Academies Press.

Gastner, Michael, Shalizi, Cosma, and Newman, Mark. 2004. Maps and Cartograms of the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election Results. University of Michigan.

Geography Education Standards Project. 1994. Geography for Life: National Geography Standards 1994. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society.

Haggett, Peter. 1990. The Geographer’s Art. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Hartshorne, Richard. 1939. The Nature of Geography. Lancaster, PA: Association of American Geographers.

Lefebvre, Henri. 1991. The Production of Space. Oxford: Basil Publishing.

Liben, Lynn S. 2001. “Thinking Through Maps.” In Spatial Schemas and Abstract Thought. Ed. Meredith Gattis. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Morgan, John, and David Lambert. 2004. Geography: Teaching School Subjects 11–19. London: Routledge.

Sauer, Carl O. 1956. “The Education of a Geographer.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 46: 287–299.