In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section GIS, Geospatial Technology, and Spatial Thinking in Geography Education

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Schools Settings
  • Middle and Secondary Schools Settings
  • Pre-Service Teachers, In-Service Teachers, and Professional Development
  • Higher Education
  • Research: Instruments and Assessment
  • Fieldwork and Location-Enabled Mobile Devices

Geography GIS, Geospatial Technology, and Spatial Thinking in Geography Education
Diana Sinton
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0276


Geospatial technologies, including the use of geographic information systems (GIS) and web-based maps, are slowly being integrated into geography education. By 2023, these practices had become common in higher education but continued to be less so in secondary education and were still rare in primary education. For decades, proponents of the technologies have made compelling arguments for the potential benefits of the applications, pointing to outcomes such as improvements in applying spatial analytical solutions problems, or to increased engagement with the subject. The first phases of technology adoption, however, were fraught with frustration and abandoned efforts, largely the result of poor alignment between instructional logistics, available standards-based curricula, and teacher’s reluctant wariness. Since the early 2010s, many of these obstacles have been reduced or even removed, particularly thanks to the availability of online mapping technologies. At the university level, a geography department or program without some type of GIS opportunity is uncommon, and larger institutions have students and faculty from dozens of different instructional units outside of geography regularly using the technologies in their research and educational workflows. However, in school-level geography, the word “despite” has been persistent in published observations and conclusions. Despite the easier access to mapping platforms, despite the availability of lessons and data designed for direct alignment with educational standards, despite increased school administrator support, and despite numerous professional development opportunities, there is still significantly less uptake than would have been expected by now. Arguably, the most substantial efforts have aimed to ameliorate the how of usage without adequate or convincing attention on the why. That is, despite the small but steady number of research-based conclusions that GIS usage can often have diverse and positive benefits on learning outcomes, those reasons are not always sufficient or adequate motivations for a teacher, a district, a state, or a country to begin the practices. The long-term linking of “GIS” and “spatial thinking” has been a complicated one. Spatial “skills”—such as the ability to mentally rotate an abstract three-dimensional object—are key indicators for success in engineering, architecture, and dentistry, but perhaps not so essential for those focusing on human geography; plus, improving the speed and accuracy at such skills is not an automatic outcome achieved via GIS. Important attention is now being paid to better understand the types and scales of spatial thinking that GIS may evoke, and how and why such GIS experiences may impact geography education.

General Overviews

Many geography educators have found it enticing to bring geographic information systems (GIS) and related mapping technologies into the classroom, especially in the years since researchers from multiple disciplines began to document the potential benefits. Sinton and Kerski 2020 traces the path of GIS education and training from its foundations to its modern evolution, and Kerski 2022 compiles a thorough collection of examples and scenarios illustrating the pedagogical practices that Web GIS now affords. Buzo-Sánchez, et al. 2022 and Muñiz Solari, et al. 2015 illustrate how geography instructors who already have GIS expertise can envision powerful learning outcomes and how GIS provides students skills for modern society. National Research Council 2006 suggested linkages between classroom usage of GIS and spatial thinking and was pivotal for raising awareness of the potential educational connections and inspiring research activity. Sinton 2016 explains how isolating spatial concepts such as scale, distance, and location may allow for more targeted use of GIS as an instructional tool. Experiences that provide for critical reflections on GIS usage offer beneficial perspectives, as indicated in Fargher 2017, and are well-suited to developing spatial citizens, as documented in de Miguel González, et al. 2019. Jo and Hong 2018 aims to establish evidence-based connections between GIS learning and spatial thinking outcomes as an active field of research, and Schulze 2021 provides a comprehensive status update. With an example from the United States, Osborne, et al. 2020 documents the widespread inconsistent levels of GIS awareness and usage across a whole state’s educational system. Walshe 2018 highlights the key push-and-pull factors for GIS usage in schools, including some less familiar ones. See also the separate Oxford Bibliographies article “Geography Education (K-12).”

  • Buzo-Sánchez, Isaac, Carmen Mínguez, and Maria Luisa De Lázaro-Torres. “Expert Perspectives on GIS Use in Spanish Geographic Education.” International Journal of Digital Earth 15.1 (2022): 1204–1218.

    DOI: 10.1080/17538947.2022.2096131

    Geography instructors with GIS expertise, at both a secondary school level and the university level, were led through a Delphi process to rank statements about GIS teaching: what, why, and how. Differences in the groups’ results were consistent with their respective educational audiences and settings. Overall, there was significant agreement about the value of GIS in geography education: GIS supports complex analysis, spatial thinking, and real-world learning.

  • de Miguel González, Rafael, Karl Donert, and Kostis Koutsopoulos, eds. Geospatial Technologies in Geography Education. Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2019.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-17783-6

    This edited collection of research summaries, curricular observations, and case studies highlights curricular design, programs suited for informal learning environments, and educational activities that advance spatial citizenship and civic engagement. The chapters represent a broad swath of activities across Europe.

  • Fargher, Mary. “Using Geographic Information (GI).” In Debates in Geography Education. 2d ed. Edited by Mark Jones and David Lambert, 198–210. London: Routledge, 2017.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315562452

    Proponents of the use of GIS in teaching and learning tend to be positivists, promoting it as a powerful and problem-solving platform with direct routes to positive spatial and geographical learning outcomes. That perspective has its roots in GI science and has been common in the US education system. This paper suggests that a broader, more critical and socially oriented approach to GIS in education may be a better fit with academic communities that have a strong association with human geography.

  • Jo, Injeong, and Jung Eun Hong, eds. Special Issue: Geospatial Teaching and Learning. International Journal of Geospatial and Environmental Research 5.3 (2018).

    Together, the six articles in this special issue cover a wide range of knowledge about geospatial thinking, technologies, and geography education, with study participants spanning elementary school to university. Topics covered include the use of paper maps vs. digital globes (i.e., Google Earth) and the potential for remotely sensed imagery (both from Google Earth and images taken by astronauts) as support for obtaining and applying knowledge about spatial concepts.

  • Kerski, Joseph. “Online, Engaged Instruction in Geography and GIS Using IoT Feeds, Web Mapping Services, and Field Tools within a Spatial Thinking Framework.” Geography Teacher 19.3 (2022): 93–101.

    DOI: 10.1080/19338341.2022.2070520

    This comprehensive article provides an enumerated set of examples for the roles and rationales to which GIS is contributing in academic settings. The lens of Web GIS provides a curated set of best practices and scenarios that would be useful at both secondary school levels and in higher education.

  • Muñiz Solari, Oscar, Ali Demirci, and Joop Schee, eds. Geospatial Technologies and Geography Education in a Changing World. Advances in Geographical and Environmental Sciences. Tokyo: Springer, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-4-431-55519-3_3

    The premise of this book is to illustrate the essential roles that geospatial technologies have in modern learning and society. Its seventeen chapters, authored by a global set of scholars well-versed in these topics, are grouped into sections on (1) theoretical backgrounds, (2) implementations of geospatial technologies in formal and informal learning environments, (3) teacher training and professional development, (4) evaluation and assessment, and (5) trends and recommendations.

  • National Research Council. Learning to Think Spatially. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2006.

    The book that launched 1,000 studies, this report was authored by the Committee on Support for Thinking Spatially: The Incorporation of Geographic Information Science Across the K-12 Curriculum, a group including a wide mix of geographers, geoscientists, psychologists, and learning scientists. Its production represents a key starting point for research into how and why GIS could have potential as a transformative learning experience.

  • Osborne, Zachary M., Saskia L. van de Gevel, Montana A. Eck, and Margaret Sugg. “An Assessment of Geospatial Technology Integration in K–12 Education.” Journal of Geography 119.1 (2020): 12–21.

    DOI: 10.1080/00221341.2019.1640271

    This article summarizes surveyed results about the conditions and levels of integration of GIS and other geospatial technologies into North Carolina (USA) public schools. Significant variability exists across state-level geography education requirements in the United States, but the overall conclusions documenting perceived barriers and limited technology usage are typical.

  • Schulze, Uwe. “‘GIS Works!’—But Why, How, and for Whom? Findings from a Systematic Review.” Transactions in GIS 25 (2021): 768–804.

    DOI: 10.1111/tgis.12704

    This important and long overdue effort to systematically review the disparate set of published research literature on the effects of GIS learning on diverse outcomes in school and university settings is an important contribution to the landscape of GIS and educational research. How it reveals the knowns and unknowns will allow for more strategic execution of future research.

  • Sinton, Diana Stuart. “Spatial Thinking and GIS.” In Proceedings of the Workshop on Teaching Spatial Thinking from Interdisciplinary Perspectives (TSTIP 2015) at COSIT 2015 in Santa Fe, NM. Edited by H. Burte, T. Kauppinen, and M. Hegarty, 29–35. Aachen, Germany: CEUR Workshop Proceedings, 2016.

    This publication, presented during a specialists’ workshop with contributions from geography, computer science, and cognitive psychology, highlights the spatial concepts such as location and scale that are essential foundations. A learning activity using multiple tools during an instructional sequence for GIS-based understanding of representing and analyzing topography is included.

  • Sinton, Diana Stuart, and Joseph J. Kerski. “GIS&T Education and Training.” In The Geographic Information Science & Technology Body of Knowledge (1st Quarter 2020 Edition). Edited by John P. Wilson. 2020.

    DOI: 10.22224/gistbok/2020.1.4

    This topic in the online Geographic Information Science & Technologies Body of Knowledge (GIS&T Body of Knowledge) illustrates the ways in which GIS education and training have evolved in alignment with technology and computing. Topics include the development of instructional resources, learning approaches from schools to work settings, and the future phases that Web GIS has enabled.

  • Walshe, Nicola. “Geographical Information Systems for School Geography.” Geography 103.1 (2018): 46–49.

    DOI: 10.1080/00167487.2018.12094035

    This succinct article highlights the most pervasive and common rationales for GIS teaching and learning in geography education as well as the most problematic hindrances to adoption or usage. Importantly, it recognizes that there are additional avoidance or resistance factors that need to be addressed, including having teachers believe that there is inherent geographical learning that will take place via GIS beyond its distracting technology flashiness.

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