UniServe Science News Volume 16 July 2000


Thinking, Learning, Teaching and Geography

Ken Johnson
Australian National University

This article is reprinted, with permission, from Geocal, No. 21, May 2000

If we ever have time to reflect we wonder if our teaching is 'getting across' to the students. How to improve the process is problematic.

We now have many aids for learning and teaching as well as many new tools for our work. But how these are to be built into programmes of learning is not clear. Thinking about the broad nature of our time, the basis for judgement, the problems geography faces and consideration of what learning and thought might be like should help develop the ways we use new developments. This line of thought was prompted by close examination of the Virtual Field Course.

The time: the problem

We live in a time of both stress and fascination. The reshaping of society as nations interact in an increasingly integrated world system is causing upheaval and uncertainty. Contradictions epitomise the time, as in the policies of deregulating economic activity yet increasing direction and regulation of higher education. The burgeoning progress of information systems and communications is partly to blame for change and the consequent stress, but also the systems can be a relief. The contradiction inherent in information systems is that although many tasks are simplified the scope of issues we can deal with has expanded beyond our expectations less than a decade ago. Learning and pedagogy is caught up in a maelstrom in which we struggle to progress.

It is essential to focus on and promote learning in higher education. Budgetary constraints and increasing demands on time limit learning. Students live more independently than they did 20 or so years ago; teachers find their time pressured by the number and range of essential tasks. Meanwhile subject content seems to increase exponentially as issues and ideas change and develop, and methodology becomes more complex.

The needs of geography

A fundamental proposition is that learning in all higher education should develop thinking. Of course learning should involve thinking. Whether learning can develop thought is more enigmatic. One wonders whether thinking can only be subliminal, and not directly addressed and managed. At a practical level is the question whether there is time in a course to address these deeper issues, given the constant expansion of subject content.

Learning in geography faces tasks of great complexity. I think we do not fully understand or appreciate this. Not only is there a need for abstract deductive thought, but also there is the need to learn observation and inductive thought. Other disciplines are more selective and less concerned with observation and induction. And as geographic databases proliferate in spatial and thematic cover, the need to be able to manage systems to glean information is pressing. The thinking involves relating the observation of places to ideas and theories. This brief involves the reality and complexity of place and landscapes. In all walks of life this is extremely valuable learning and knowledge.

Our familiarity with our discipline might be the cause of our failure to appreciate what we have. An explanation might also be in the ordinariness of our subject to us (Meinig, 1979). In this sense the ordinary landscapes of our places on Earth are our subject and consequently to that degree more difficult to disentangle ourselves from in learning who we are and what our place is.

To be a good observer demands skill and experience. Any doubt about this is soon dispelled by a field visit with an expert. What are impressive are not just the issues and facts known but the ways of knowing. It is fascinating to visit a place with an expert; it is challenging and fun to take someone to a place we call our own. In both instances it is the interpretation of the place and the mode of thought that is challenged. To learn these skills and experience raises the question of pedagogy and the time and other resources involved in this form of learning. It also demands critical evaluation of the information systems that complement field work, like the Virtual Field Course ( Observation is essential to understanding place.

The material from field observation ranges from mental imagery to data and notes. Representations, like maps, also support observation. Imagery generated by systems that analyse and represent data graphically is another input to thought, as well as the wide range of ideas and information in books, reports and on the Internet.

But information and knowledge heavily depend upon thought about mental imagery. As well, thought involves diverse sets of mental imagery. On its own the imagery is just that: imagery; complex, potentially informative but certainly not information. Understanding how information and knowledge are created and communicated is crucial to be able to organise learning. But thought seems to just 'happen'. Reflection on thought reveals the outcomes, not the process. These observations pose a great dilemma for learning and pedagogy: how to involve thought and to develop our processes of thinking. We are limited to thinking 'It seems to be like this' or 'If it is like this'. Perhaps our limited understanding of learning excuses the concentration on content. The problem with this view is that technology is pushing our ideas about learning and thought.

Ideas about learning

One advantage of the development of information systems is the stimulus given to the study of human intelligence and consequently thought and learning. At best we seem to be more aware of our knowledge and its limitations in this area; at least we have expanded how we think about the nature of learning. I believe there has been a renaissance of thought about human intelligence and here simply list the areas that are very interesting and stimulating.

At the core are ideas about the nature of intelligence, particularly related to learning. Gardner's work on multiple intelligences posits that intelligence is differently expressed, and identifies seven types (Gardner, 1983). For geography, is the form of spatial intelligence essential, and what about the other six forms?

The work on mental imagery is crucial for geography. The last decade or so has seen the reinstatement of imagery after decades where propositions and stepwise conceptualisations ruled. The fundamental question is whether thought is in the form of imagery, or is in some simpler symbolic form. Rollins (1989) makes the most interesting contribution in the field. And if imagery is a form in which thought happens, what about language? Lee's article on language and learning is very stimulating (Lee, 1997). The idea of patternment in language introduces a concept familiar to geographers.

Much of the work in graphics dictates presentation practice, with little regard to thought about and with the imagery. Classic statements are by Robinson (1953) and Raisz (1962), while the whole visualisation field of computer graphics is about how to represent (search the Internet to review this field). Another group considers the perception of graphics, e.g. Cleveland (1985). Bertin (1981) and Monmonier (1991) show how complex the perception of graphical representation can be and some of the pitfalls in even the best devised representations. Tufte (1983; 1990; 1997) is concerned about representation but also identifies six principles of communication of information (1990). His leadership in the field is recognised at Yale through his consultancy role in computer science. Bertin (1981) is alone in writing specifically about graphics and the creation of information.

Technology and learning

Technology also challenges the presentation of courses or programmes for learning, opening up many new issues and perspectives as well as creating many opportunities. The challenge is to maximise the gains and minimise the losses. The nature of the challenge depends on the role of technology. If learning is about the technology the task is simple: course design should promote an understanding of the technology. If the goal is to work with technology in a subject the systems have to serve the subject matter of the course, and in particular its philosophy and methodology.

Finally, learning through information systems can develop a deep scholarship of the presentation of learning. Learning and skills like those of programme production for the media are involved in the preparation of these courses. The fundamental issues faced in the organisation and order of a course of learning without technology are the same; it is just that with technology the issues are more pervasive and pertinent. Matters of content, forms of presentation and timing are fundamental.

Criteria for judgement

It is essential, therefore, to review and evaluate presentations for learning. Judgement of the outcomes of learning in individual courses and programmes of teaching in higher education is problematic. The answers to three fundamental and interrelated questions are important:

  • How elective is the learning? This is the fundamental criterion. It raises the issue of the experience gained, related to the effort put in. For example, a poorly organised and presented programme probably will limit learning; a deep, well-organised and well-presented programme could open an unlimited learning experience, carrying on beyond the course.
  • How equitable is the learning? Whereas there is strong evidence of inequitable access to university this is not in question at a course or programme level. At issue is the limit pedagogy might create for learning in a course generally presented in a particular way. Feynman's physics course is a celebrated example of a revision of pedagogy. He thought it should improve access to learning but concluded that it did not change the results that students gained overall (Feynman et al., 1965).
  • How efficient is the learning? The concern here is about the costs of preparation and learning related to the returns from learning.
  • Conclusions

    If I am right about the time we live in, there is a great need for the dedication and commitment of scholarship and research into the nature of learning. Through this we will have a window on the nature of intelligence. The type of dedication and commitment is for time and resources to be made available to this end, not squeezed into an already full timetable of commitments. It demands that a wide range of positions be available to this critical process of learning. In turn this learning has to be ploughed back into pedagogy for more learning. This is the typical cycle of action research, a classic mode of work where the research is a fundamental part of the milieu.

    As subjects we have courses (especially the exploratory and developmental ones) and tools of learning to use as vehicles. It seems necessary to share the learning of the scholarship with the learners, or those who are deeply involved in learning. There is a great need to structure and link reviews into the learning programme, especially where it is explicit or can be made so. This means the evaluation and judgement is not 'at an end' but deeply embedded in the whole process of scholarship: learning; teaching; and research.

    One thing seems clear: the virtual of information systems can support the real but is not a surrogate for it. Used well it is another window into learning and pedagogy. The virtual is only an expanding of influence, not a changing one in our search for and development of knowledge through learning.


    Bertin, J. (1981) Graphics and graphic information processing. Berlin: De Gruyter.

    Cleveland, W. (1985) The elements of graphing data. Belmont CA: Wadsworth Publishing.

    Feynman, R., Leighton, R. and Sands, M. (1965) The Feynman lectures on physics. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley.

    Gardner, H. (1983) Frames of mind: the theory of multiple intelligences. London: Paladin.

    Lee, P. (1997) Language in thinking and learning. Hazard Educational Review, 67(3).

    Meinig, D. (1979) The interpretation of ordinary landscapes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Monmonier, M. (1991) How to lie with maps. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Raisz, E. (1962) Principles of cartography. New York: McGraw Hill.

    Robinson, A. (1953) Elements of cartography. Chichester: Wiley.

    Rollins, M. (1989) Mental imagery: on the limits of cognitive science. New Haven: Yale University Press.

    Tufte, E. (1983) The visual display of quantitative information. Cheshire CT: Graphics Press.

    Tufte, E. (1990) Envisioning information. Cheshire CT: Graphics Press.

    Tufte, E. (1997) Visual explanations. Cheshire CT: Graphics Press.

    Ken Johnson
    Department of Geography
    Australian National University

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