Causal diagrams enriched with spatial scales can strengthen student understanding of relationships in geography education

Cox, M., Elen, J., & Steegen, A. (2020). Fostering students geographic systems thinking by enriching causal diagrams with scale. Results of an intervention study. International Research In Geographical & Environmental Education, 29, 112 - 128.

One aim of geography education is to provide context to the challenges that people face around the world. These global issues include climate change, hunger, and poverty. However, these issues are not linear, with simple cause and effect pathways. Instead, there is a complex system of relationships across space and time that contribute to these problems on all scales. For example, human activities like deforestation can affect the environment at local, regional, and/or global scales which affects the social and natural systems at all levels. Previous research in geography education has shown that students have trouble making connections between the different components that constitute global-scale issues. Notably, there is a lack of consideration regarding the spatial scale of these components and how they interact. This study reviewed whether providing a causal diagram enriched with spatial scales while teaching geographical systems thinking helped students better understand and articulate global human issues.

The researchers studied 32 students in a 12th grade geography class, which they divided into two groups of 16 students each. One group was the control, and the other was the experimental group. There were two parts to the study; the first part of the study included four lessons about global food production. Both groups had one 50-minute geography lesson per week throughout the study, and it was taught by one of the researchers. The lesson plans were based on the four-component instructional design model, which trains students on systems thinking by building complexity over each lesson. The first lesson was a case study on the causes and consequences of Europeans eating summer vegetables grown in Senegal during the winter. Researchers provided a causal diagram to the students (a different type for the control and experimental group), and they learned how to read it. The second lesson was about the multi-dimensional relationships between Belgian animal farming and growing soy in Brazil. The students filled in a causal diagram on this topic. The third lesson looked at the connections between palm oil harvest in Indonesia and products that are consumed around the world that have palm oil in them. Students took the different variables that were provided on paper to make a causal diagram on their own. In the last lesson, student groups summarized the information from the three previous lessons in a synthesis model. Students were then asked to review the final synthesis schema from the perspective of different stakeholders to come up with solutions for global food production issues. The control and experimental groups both received the same learning content and completed similar activities during lessons throughout the study, but the experimental group were exposed to causal diagrams enriched with an explicit focus on examples of spatial relationships.

For the second part of the study during which data was collected, the geography class teacher selected three students from the control group and three students from the experimental group to participate in one-hour interviews. In the interview, the student was given background information to develop a causal diagram and asked to think aloud during the process. The task was related to food production, like the lessons, and focused on the relationships of cocoa harvest in Côte d'Ivoire and the global chocolate market. The students received resources on the topic such as maps and texts. They were also given different variables to consider for the causal diagram. After students made a causal diagram and explained it, the researcher asked specific questions about the spatial foundations of the relationships. They asked, in this order: “does everything happen at the same location;” “which variables would you link to multiple places/locations;” “at which scale would you put these variables;” and, “can you clarify this in the constructed diagram.” These interviews were videotaped, transcribed, and coded based on the cognitive activities that happened. The coded results were analyzed for students' spatial awareness and input into a table to compare the control group and experimental group findings.

The results showed that none of the students in the control group included spatial information in their diagrams, whereas all three of the students in the experimental group did. The experimental group students more often and more clearly included spatial details in their verbal explanations of the causal diagrams they created. However, students from both groups included spatial information at some level in their verbal reasoning and justification for the task. Researchers concluded from the study that the students exposed to the enriched causal diagrams during the lessons were more likely to include spatial tools and reasoning during the interview activity in the second part of the study. They also found that although students from both groups expressed some spatial thinking, the experimental group did so at a much higher rate.

There are limitations to this study. A small sample size of students was selected for this study, which inhibits the generalizability of the findings. The study was primarily focused on an individual's systems thinking, but previous research has proven group discussions contribute to developing complex thinking. Therefore a group study similar to this one could shed more light into systems thinking in students. The interviews were conducted with the assumption that the students could fully verbalize their reasoning while developing the causal diagrams during the activity, which may not have been the case for each student.

Because the students in the experimental group explicitly demonstrated awareness and understanding of how relationships occur across space and scale, the researchers suggested that causal diagrams enriched with spatial scale during instruction are effective and should be utilized by educators. Further, they proved that this technique helps students learn geographical systems thinking and process information in an interdisciplinary manner. Educators should think about ways to include enriched causal diagrams with spatial scales in their curriculum to teach complex human issues so that students can actively apply geographic systems thinking while processing information.

The Bottom Line

<p>One aim of geography education is to provide context to global challenges like climate change and hunger. However, these issues are a complex system of relationships across space and time. The researchers studied 32 geography students and tested if an enriched causal diagram with spatial scales while teaching geographical systems thinking helped students better process global human issues. The control group and experimental group received four lessons on global food production, though the experimental group was exposed to enriched causal diagrams, and then three students from each group participated in task-based interviews. The results showed students from the experimental group more often and more clearly included spatial details in their explanations of the causal diagrams they made. The researchers found that causal diagrams enriched with spatial scales during instruction are effective and should be included in curriculum to teach complex human issues.</p>

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