Category Archives: School/College-University

Teaching Spatial Thinking with Abductive Reasoning

By Joseph J. Kerski, University of Denver and Esri.

 

Abductive reasoning (also called abduction, abductive inference or retroduction) is a form of logical inference that goes from an observation to a hypothesis that accounts for the observation. It ideally seeks to find the simplest and most likely explanation. In abductive reasoning, unlike in deductive reasoning, the premises do not guarantee the conclusion. One can understand abductive reasoning as “inference to the best explanation”.  The fields of law, computer science, and artificial intelligence research have renewed interest in the subject of abduction.

 

Abductive reasoning can be effectively taught through spatial thinking and analysis with the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology and methods.  Through the overlaying, swiping, and display of maps and imagery in a GIS, students are encouraged to make observations about the patterns, relationships, and trends, or lack of pattern.  They can then form a hypothesis about why the pattern exists and how it came to be.  They can then test that hypothesis against the data, by running a set of spatial statistical techniques, by testing different models, by symbolizing and classifying the data in different ways, and by examining different regions of the world at different scales, testing whether the relationship holds in all regions and scales, or just some.

All of this is what I find most valuable about teaching with GIS–it is one of those few tools that allow for inquiry, investigation, hypothesis testing, changing the variable(s) analyzed, all in one environment.  In fact, GIS was created to be that very thing—a toolset that would allow problem solving and investigation.  I like to think of GIS as a means of enabling students to investigate the “whys of where”.  These investigations can occur at the local level, where hypotheses could include “Food stores in my community will be geographically dispersed, while antique shops will be more geographically clustered, “ or, “There is a positive correlation between median age and median income in my community.”   But the questions can be in an optimal location style, such as, “Where is the best location for an urban greenway in my community?” These questions can occur at the regional scale, such as “How have the land use patterns changed in the past 25 years, where have they changed, and why?” and at the global scale, such as “What is the pattern of earthquake depth and magnitude in close proximity to plate boundaries?  What is the relationship between birth rate and life expectancy, by country, and what is reason for the patterns that I see?”

As we begin examining the data, I find that it is best if the students give a hypothesis. In one of the examples above, I ask students to state what they hypothesize the pattern of global earthquake magnitude related to the major types of plate boundaries to be, and then do the same thing with global earthquake depth. I also ask them to state why they stated their hypothesis that way. What components of past geographic knowledge are they bringing to bear on their hypothesis, or are they truly “in the dark” about this specific type of spatial relationship without prior knowledge?

With today’s web-based GIS tools, students can visualize and analyze real-world phenomena in 2D and 3D, and increasingly in real time.  They can collect their own data with smartphone apps with their own equipment and then map and analyze that data.  They can communicate their results with web mapping tools such as multimedia story maps and share these maps with others.  I find that students think holistically about problem solving through the use of these tools.  Through these web based GIS investigations, students also must deal with issues such as data quality, data volume, scale, location privacy, crowdsourcing, and the proper use and citation of web images and data.  They must also think about which maps that they should share with the public, which maps they should share with a smaller group such as their own research colleagues or classmates, and which maps they should not share at all.

Consider this example that I have taught with many times from secondary school to university level.  After examining the types of crops grown in the USA, and after conducting research on the type of climate and the amount of precipitation that is required for cotton, students hypothesize about where cotton will be grown.  They then observe the pattern of cotton production on an interactive web map.  They note that their hypothesis was confirmed, at least in part:  Cotton exhibits a southerly pattern:  Thus, latitude does matter.  But although some of these southerly areas receive enough precipitation, others are semiarid.  How can cotton be grown in these semiarid regions?  After further investigation, students discover that irrigation from river diversion makes cotton production possible in southern Arizona and irrigation from deep groundwater extraction makes cotton production possible in west Texas.   Students then begin to ask, “Should cotton be grown in these semiarid areas?  Is this the best use of natural resources?”  At this point, the students, not me, are driving the inquiry. In the best spirit of geographic inquiry, student investigations lead to additional questions, and the investigation continues using the web maps as one of the tools of study.  Thus, the map layers and the GIS tools are means by which the students investigate the issues.  The maps are not used merely to find “where” but help students understand the “whys of where.”  And they help move students forward in their thinking from “what are past and current patterns” on to “what would be the best plan in the future for this community, region, country, or global phenomena.”  Thus they use the tools to envision a better and more sustainable future.

Consider another example below from a GIS-based investigation:  Say after observing the map of ecoregions and population density that I created online, that the student’s hypothesis is that the savanna regime division is generally characterized by higher population densities in the region of East Africa.  Then, students investigate such questions as:  “Does the savanna suffer from biodiversity loss to a greater degree than less populous ecoregions?  What are other factors that can help explain the pattern of population density in this area? Is it topography, water availability, proximity to roads, agricultural production, or some other reason?  If I zoom in to a larger scale, does the population density remain higher in the savanna than other ecoregions at that larger scale?  Why or why not?  What are the long term implications for the ecoregions in this area?  How do these patterns compare to those in other regions, including the region in which I live?  How can I use what I have learned to make wiser decisions about land use and ecoregions in the future?”

How have you used hypothesis testing and abductive reasoning in your own teaching or your own research?

kerski

 

What’s going on? Secondary school teachers’ response to the geography national curriculum

By Mary Biddulph (University of Nottingham), Senior Vice-President of the Geographical Association.

This contribution to the GEES blog concerns the teaching and learning of geography in schools. It is based on a conference session hosted by HERG at the 2015 RGS Annual Conference entitled: ‘The impacts of recent policy changes to the school geography curriculum: policy, processes and subject knowledge’. To put this session into context, curriculum change is now well-underway in schools in England: since 2014 a new national curriculum has been introduced in primary and secondary schools and currently secondary school geography departments are now considering which of the reformed GCSE and A levels specifications to teach from 2016.

Curriculum change inevitably generates debate, and the recent changes have certainly caused the geography education community to ask the question: What kind of geography(ies) should be taught to young people? The ‘what’ of geographical learning came under scrutiny following the publication of the 2010 White Paper, ‘The Importance of Teaching’. In the White Paper the then coalition government proclaimed that a return to rigour in leaning could only be achieved via a return to the “core of essential knowledge” of subjects. The White Paper made no attempt to define these terms, but political rhetoric at the time left the geography subject community concerned that we were on the cusp of a return to a content heavy, gazetteer-type curriculum which would be dense with facts but strangely short on conceptual discipline. The Department for Education and education Ministers appeared to exert considerable political influence over the curriculum changes, and when finally published the 2014 national curriculum was a significant departure from the concept-led framework of its predecessor. Emphasising locational knowledge, regional study, traditional human and physical themes and making no explicit mention of geographical enquiry, the 2014 curriculum could be said to stress the ‘what’ of geography: what teachers need to teach, with rather less emphasis on what sense we expect children to make of this.

Conversations with geography teachers reveal that despite curriculum prescription, teachers remain committed to creating curriculum experiences for pupils that are engaging, interesting and enjoyable to learn.  Teachers I have talked to in recent months see geography’s role in the broader educational endeavour as a moral one as well as an intellectual one. They are clear that learning geography provides structures (using geographical concepts) that allow students carefully and critically to examine important local, national and international themes. Themes such as European migration, climate change, national and international poverty and social inequalities are, they feel, central to teaching geography. They believe that they have a responsibility to raise important cultural, social, ethical and ecological questions with students and that school geography has a role to play in helping young people think about and engage with the world around them.

Some teachers express misgivings about the new level of prescription in part because many have received no subject-specific professional development in the last 5 years. They acknowledge that they feel less than confident to teach ‘new’ content such as soils, Russia, glaciation and geological timescales and in addition, some are frustrated that making way for new content is at the expense of topics and themes they feel are important and that their students enjoy. An further concern is that accommodating the new content may yet produce a shift in pedagogical approaches, away from more open-ended enquiry-led and discussion based learning to what is sometimes anachronistically labelled ‘chalk and talk’ (enabled these days by powerpoint!). Some teachers fear that an over-emphasis on content could jeopardise more critical pedagogies.

The curriculum changes described above are of some significance for colleagues in higher education. For most students entering higher education, the foundations of their geographical learning and their enthusiasm for the subject are laid down by their school experiences. However, if we accept that the role of school education is not just to serve as a preparation ground for a university degree, there is a deeper significance for higher education. It could be argued that providing all young people with an intellectual framework to help them make sense of super-complex world issues is the hall mark of an effective education – at any level. For geography to fulfil its educational potential, this implies the need for a closer relationship between school and university geography so that the ever-changing ‘what and the how’ of the discipline can serve to support more meaningful and better informed curriculum change in schools.

Intrepid Explorers: sharing experiences and learning from field research

By Kate Baker, Briony Turner , Faith Taylor (King’s College London, UK)

Last week, Intrepid Explorers participated in the 2015 Annual Conference of the Royal Geographical Society, contributing to a session sponsored by the Higher Education Research Group, exploring the ‘University in the Anthropocene: Higher Education and Community Engagement in Environmental Management’ chaired by Rebecca Farnum, King’s College London. The session focused on how learning can be transformed by having multi-tiered education and encouraging knowledge exchange between the University and its community. Tim O’Riordan, University of East Anglia, the key note speaker for the session, described these projects as helping to give students a passport for life equipping them with transferable skills beyond the realms of academia. This holistic view of higher education is something that Intrepid Explorers believes in strongly. As a student led educational activity of the Department of Geography, King’s College London (KCL), we believe that by sharing experiences and learning from field research, it is possible to inspire current and future generations to support and advance science.

Intrepid Explorers started in 2012 when PhD students realised that academics and students, within the KCL Department of Geography, travel all over the world to conduct field research but on return disseminate only academic results, with little spoken about the experiences and stories behind the field research. Intrepid Explorers is a platform set up by, and run by, students to create and facilitate a space for the researchers and guests of the department to communicate life as a field researcher in a manner that is accessible to all. Initially set up as a weekly seminar series, it proved to be successful in engaging students and staff from all research groups, along with the general public. The seminar series has now been running for three years and is embedded within the research activities of the department. In 2015, Intrepid Explorers expanded from a lunchtime seminar series, to a student led platform organizing a range of educational activities including documentary film screenings, evening talks and microadventures. The department recognises the contribution these activities make both internally and externally, providing formal recognition as well as financial support for the activities.

Intrepid Explorers creates a space for conversations between researchers, from different groups, and universities. Collaborations and interdisciplinary projects have stemmed from Intrepid Explorers’ seminars and activities. One example, is a discussion that started after an Intrepid Explorers talk which resulted in a collaboration between the Fire research group at KCL and Zoological Society London (ZSL) – which led to a NERC funded PhD project. The PhD student, Jake Simpson also made use of an opportunity to use drones for research, circulated to research staff and students by Intrepid Explorers.

Aside from research, Intrepid Explorers has engaged with the student community, enabling them to gain the necessary skills, through workshops and microadventures (or simply the confidence!), to venture out on fieldwork. This has resulted in a record number of students in the KCL Department of Geography applying for the Royal Geographical Society’s Geological Fieldwork Grants (GFG).

Engagement with the wider community is becoming increasingly important in universities and is something that Intrepid Explorers supports and promotes through running public outreach events. These events are usually attended by ~150 people and include A-level school groups, learned societies, interested individuals and academics from across London and beyond. Educational material related to these events has been used in six schools as case studies for A-level and GCSE Exams and events have even been repeated. A Head of Geography from Wimbledon High School repeated a replica of one event, which included the documentary ‘Chasing Ice’ with a framing talk by Prof. Mike Hulme.

Participating in the workshop on the ‘University in the Anthropocene’ was extremely useful for Intrepid Explorers. It was valuable and stimulating to hear about other projects that link Universities and the wider community including ‘Bright Futures’ presented by Cherish Watton and the ‘Integrating International Volunteerism’ with Oriel Kenny and Susan Robinson from Leeds Becket University. In addition, Marisa Goulden gave a thought provoking talk on transformative learning in Universities which included consideration of the relationship between field based research and its impact upon the health and wellbeing, particularly the emotional response, of academic staff and students. This is something that the team at Intrepid Explorers has long been interested in, particularly due to inspirational past talks by Lloyd Figgins, Wim Nijssen and Dr Frances Cleaver that have incorporated preparation of, and maintenance of, mental health and wellbeing in the field, so potential for future collaboration!

Finally, the Intrepid Explorers conveners were encouraged by the interest demonstrated by a number of participants during the workshop in starting Intrepid Explorers in their respective universities. We’ve developed a wealth of knowledge from our experiences and are happy to share the branding and guides we have developed so that other universities can hit the ground running! Just get in touch intrepidexplorerskcl@gmail.com.

Many thanks to the chair and convenor, Rebecca Farnum, for an excellent session and to the Higher Education Research Group for sponsorship!

Bright Futures

By Cherish Watton (History student, Cambridge)

From the 1st to the 4th September 2015, the Royal Geographical Society ran their annual international conference programme, this year entitled ‘Geographies of the Anthropocence’. As part of this, I had the great pleasure of presenting on the Bright Futures a programme, a 2½-day residential held at Holt Hall Environmental and Outdoor Learning Centre in Norfolk. The programme, aimed at high school and college students, focuses on energy education and real-life consultancy opportunities offered by Sheringham Shoal Offshore Wind Farm. This case study was one of five presentations on university engagement with issues of community and sustainability in a session sponsored by the Higher Educational Research and chaired by Rebecca Farnum, PhD researcher at King’s College London

The session focused on thought-provoking discussions around how individuals personally react to issues surrounding international research, volunteering and climate change. This was highlighted particularly by Marisa Goulden (University of East Anglia) in her paper on transformational learning and supporting students to be agents of change. Marisa’s presentation raised the issue that university staff and students alike are encouraged to emotionally detach themselves whilst undertaking and studying what is frequently depressing work. It is largely expected by academia that individuals ‘keep calm and carry on’, but this is easier said then done and needs greater consideration. Marisa highlighted the benefits of supporting individuals to enable them to come to terms with their experiences, and utilise these productively, yet sensitively, to bring about a change in values.

The discussion called to my mind a particular moment on the Bright Futures programme where personal responses to climate change are particularly evident amongst the high school participants. Using the “Best Foot Forward” carbon footprinting cards, they are asked a series of questions regarding their lifestyles (on transport, consumption, and the like). Each response is given a score and students tally up their numbers to get a total that links to the number of ‘Earths’ that would be required if everyone lived as they do. Most Norfolk high school and college students learn they use the equivalent of 2 or 3 Earths. At this point, we see visible signs of consternation, regret, confusion, and reflection, as students’ impact on the Earth is brought home in a pertinent way. After being given time for reflection, we encourage students to look at what small actions they could take to improve matters, starting with their individual lifestyles and then considering actions within their homes and schools. Recognising and acting on this reality is one of the first activities on the programme, inspiring change from personal responsibility and conviction. As Marisa emphasised, we can not shy away from discomfort: sometimes this is what is needed in order to change. It should, however, be carefully facilitated.

The session also raised questions about scaling up. How do the successful case studies in one or two departments begin to transform the entirety of the university system? A presentation from Kate Baker (King’s College London) on the Intrepid Explorers model demonstrated the significant impact of a student-run group in sharing learning and experiences from field research over a variety of disciplines. Oriel Kenny and Su Robinson (Leeds Beckett University) highlighted the diverse opportunities offered to university students to participate in volunteering as part of their university experience, particularly in the Politics and Applied Global Ethics programme that requires volunteering as part of its degree. The key message from presenters, as introduced by keynote Professor Tim O’Riordan (University of East Anglia), was the need for collaboration above all. The projects presented are united by their multi-disciplinary approach to bringing together groups and individuals. Bright Futures’ multi-tiered mentoring makes use of the connections between high school students from both Norfolk and Norway, university students from the University of East Anglia, Marshall Scholar postgraduate and PhD students, and local businesses and charities. Mentoring takes place at every level, enabling everybody to learn with, and from, each other in a supportive and inspiring environment.

All of these programmes develop the universal skills and confidences needed to tackle sustainability – teamwork, communication, leadership and collaboration. At the heart of these experiences is the aim of, and need for, equipping the next generation to adapt and be creative. This is central to the Bright Futures programme, whether it is via team building activities in the shape of cheerleading rock, paper, scissors or young people presenting on the impacts of climate change and how they want to reduce energy usage back in their schools. Young people are eager to seize these opportunities. It is the responsibility of the university and ourselves to provide and link up opportunities in the emerging green economy so young people feel equipped to deal with the challenges of tomorrow. In the words of a recent participant: “I think that this is a valuable experience that should be offered to more pupils; when we become adults sustainability will be our problem, and it’s important that we have the chance to understand it more now.”

To read a dialogue between Rebecca Farnum and Cherish Watton on the thinking behind Bright Futures, please visit https://beyond2015.acu.ac.uk/submissions/view?id=123

To view the Prezi presentation given in the session, please go to https://prezi.com/flmwmjsgvicq/bright-futures-presentation-september-2015/

 

For more information about the Bright Futures programme, visit their website at http://brightfuturesnorfolk.wordpress.com/

Cherish Watton

 

Cherish Watton is currently in her second year studying History at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge. Before studying, Cherish set up in a business, working as an eco-consultant and social entrepreneur for Cherish Watton Enterprises in Norfolk. Her work has focused on running environmental residentials, evaluating programmes and developing opportunities for young people to seize the potential of the Green Economy based upon their interests, passions and experiences with environmental issues at school and college. Cherish also founded and runs http://www.womenslandarmy.co.uk, a website on the work of the British Women’s Land Army during World War One and Two. Cherish is developing the website so it becomes the national online hub for information on the Land Girls and Lumber Jills – sharing original documents, magazines, photos and videos.