Thursday, November 10, 2011

Playing with profiling

Images: Granite Island, Victor Harbor, South Australia.

Related sites to the Spatialworlds project
Spatialworlds website
21st Century Geography Google Group
Australian Geography Teachers' Association website
'Towards a National Geography Curriculum' project website
Geography Teachers' Association of South Australia website
Email contact

Where am I??
Melbourne, Australia: S: 37º 47' E: 144º 58'

Profiling the ‘GIS friendly teacher’

In previous postings I have explored the factors which are impeding the use of GIS in the classroom. Many of the factors such as data availability, software cost, network capacity and curriculum materials have been overcome in recent years. Basically I have surmised that the one remaining factor which is holding back the introduction of spatial technologies such as GIS in schools is ‘teacher factor’. In no way do I wish to be negative towards our teaching colleagues but when one considers the ease at which students pick up GIS, the only remaining impediment in many cases is the capacity and inclination of teachers to learn, feel comfortable with and integrate spatial technology into their teaching. One of the recommendations from my Churchill Fellowship report in 2007 was the suggestion that we need to build a profile for the 'GIS friendly teacher' so as to be able to identify the teachers most likely to take on the seemingly ominous learning curve to learn and integrate spatial technology into their teaching. I consider that such a profile is an important planning component as we develop face-face professional learning and professional on-line resources for teachers to support the introduction of GIS as one of the key skills of the Australian Curriculum: Geography.

It must be stated that the data acquisition, data retrieval, file management demands, often unforgiving procedures (no undo icon) and the multiplicity of functionality of the GIS software and processes makes it a unique type of technology and a demanding and risky business for teachers considering using GIS in the classroom setting.

In this posting I hope to flesh this out a bit more. Please note that these are only my observations of GIS friendly teachers after years working with and encouraging teachers to engage with spatial technology in their classroom – not based in research at all. I am sure such teacher profiling is a much needed structured study by some doctoral student somewhere in the world. A quantitative profiling study of GIS early adopters certainly would be useful to inform our work in this area in the future.

So what, according to my anecdotal and qualitative data, is the profile of the teacher most likely to be innovative and committed to use spatial technology in their classroom? Let’s for just a while forget about all the technical reasons that are put forward to explain the slow uptake of GIS in the classroom and let’s look at the very human personality traits of teachers which we must work with to make GIS in the classroom happen.

A GIS friendly teacher is:

• confident in their geographical thinking and understanding of geographical concepts
• one who needs to explore new ways for students to learn and grow
• committed to develop as a professional and learn ‘state of the art’ technology for learning in their area of study
• prepared to spend time on a regular basis to learn GIS over an extended time period
• prepared to develop a rudimentary understanding of the functional skills of GIS – either by following ‘how to do’ resources or attending professional learning activities on GIS
• able to spend time with students to develop core GIS skills and understandings so as to provide a foundation for using the technology
• prepared to be seen as not knowing the answer
• not afraid to be seen as making a mistake – a risk taker in the eyes of students and not the font of all knowledge
• comfortable with group work and a peer support ethos in their classroom
• prepared to reward student initiative and innovation – not always saying what is next – students have a degree of empowerment, often acted out as negotiating the curriculum processes
• comfortable to encourage students to find the solution/s and way forward when ‘stuck’ – not relying on the teacher to know the answer
• willing to let go of the talk and chalk approach and let students find out for themselves
• committed to learning through doing - using GIS as experiential learning
• aware of GIS applications in the real world, knows the relevance of GIS to society and can translate industry applications of GIS to classroom practice
• prepared to justify and even demand the use of ICT facilities in their school
• able to integrate the use of GIS into many areas of the curriculum they deliver – not an add-on but an integrative tool in their classroom
• prepared to engage the community and local area with the use of GIS in their classroom – they see a real world practical application of the technology for their students and classroom
• one who sees themselves as the facilitator of the learning process using GIS, to guide student reflection and analysis when using GIS
• prepared to be flexible, willing to change processes and direction in-tune with the capacity of the software i.e. being prepared to change and adapt when the software is not performing adequately or new potential of the software is discovered
• not constrained or compliant with system demands in terms of curriculum coverage or testing imperatives – an individual prepared to be a risk taker
• prepared to change pedagogy and approaches and move out of their comfort zone. Some would say that the use of a technology such as GIS is pedagogical change ‘through the back door.”
• one who sees the use of GIS as non-negotiable if we are teaching 21st Century geography.

In short, the GIS friendly teacher is one who is committed to classroom and pedagogical change, able to see the real world relevance of the software to their learning area and students, prepared to learn to use the software beyond the cursory and willing to take a risk in the classroom.

As a posting my comments are generalisations and are in no way saying that to teach with GIS a teacher must be all of the above or even most of the above. Again, from my observations I do say that there are some commonalities between teachers who have been the early adopters with the use of spatial technology. Teacher uptake is certainly not based on age, socio-economic status of the student group, educational qualifications of the teacher, wealth of the school or other factors which are often identified as reasons for the embracing of various educational practices. I think it really comes down to the personality profile of the teacher and their comfort in particular pedagogical approaches using this unique software. The risk-taking innovative teacher prepared to change their pedagogy seems to be the profile. In fact, such a profile could be the case for any teacher prepared to move out of their comfort zone and embrace change. With GIS this change capacity is even further accentuated by the demands of the unique software and the implications for pedagogy the use of GIS demands.

Addressing this impediment is a tough one for those saying that GIS is a skill and tool that must be integrated into a 21st Century Geography curriculum. Awareness of the profile of the ‘GIS friendly teacher’ is important when we design programs to help all teachers be prepared to embark on the GIS learning curve and use GIS in their classroom. We need to design ‘smart’ professional learning and resources to support the ‘GIS friendly’ and ‘non-GIS friendly’ profiled teachers. We need to use the ‘GIS friendly’ early adopter teachers in this work to bring others along on the journey. For those who have made the journey and are using GIS in their classroom, there is no looking back. These teachers often say to me that they “could not imagine teaching geography without using spatial technology.”

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