This volume gathers insights about what is known and aspirations for what we wish to know about the ways in which human beings think and learn about Earth. Our approach is intentionally interdisciplinary, merging insights from geoscience, geoscience education, psychology, anthropology, and philosophy.
Our goals in planning the Synthesis of Research on Thinking and Learning in the Geosciences spanned the range from the solidly practical to the deeply intellectual. At the practical end of the continuum, many of the most difficult problems facing society in the twenty-first century concern interactions between humanity and the planet, including global warming, freshwater supply, energy supply, and natural hazards such as hurricanes and earthquakes. Our ability as a society to deal effectively with these problems depends on raising a next generation of citizens, scientists, and decision makers who can think more insightfully about Earth and environment than did their parents or grandparents. Research on thinking and learning can help geoscience educators and curriculum developers achieve more impact, by working with, rather than at cross-purposes to, the strengths and limitations of the human mind.
At the more intellectual end of our motivational continuum, we noted that geoscience learning poses challenges that are not often addressed by basic research in cognitive sciences, nor by other domains of learning sciences. These challenges arise from the inherent nature of the subject of study: an object larger than the human senses can encompass at one time, older than any time span with which humans have direct experience, which is not susceptible to experimental manipulation, whose crust at any given point has experienced superimposed chemical, physical, and biological events, where flows of matter and energy intertwine at a bewildering level of complexity. As we planned the project, we anticipated that grappling with these questions, by a collaboration of geoscientists and cognitive scientists, could reveal new insights into the strengths and limitations of human thought.
Our intended audience includes: (1) geoscience educators, who can apply insights from our study in their teaching practice; (2) geoscience education researchers, who will find a framework in which to interpret their findings and plan future research; and (3) researchers in learning science and cognitive science, who may find geoscience examples that illuminate broader themes, ranging from spatial cognition to epistemology to evolutionary psychology.
Geoscientists have engaged in purposeful reflection on the nature of our science for over a century, at least since the insightful writings of Gilbert (1886, as described by Baker and Pyne, 1978) and Chamberlin (1897) on the use of multiple working hypotheses to draw inferences about causality amid an abundance of observations. On the occasion of its 75th anniversary, the Geological Society of America brought together a series of essays examining the nature of geologic thought, under the title The Fabric of Geology (Albritton, 1963).
The modern effort to synthesize and catalyze geoscience education research goes back about a decade. In 2000 and 2001, the topic was explored during several theme sessions at geoscience professional society meetings. Beginning in 2001, a National Research Council study group of psychologists, geographers, and geoscientists collaborated on a review of the nature of spatial thinking, including its role in science and science education (National Research Council, 2006). Then, in July 2002, the National Science Foundation and the Johnson Foundation (Wingspread Conference series) sponsored a pivotal workshop called “Bringing Research on Learning to the Geosciences.” Twenty geoscience educators, cognitive scientists, and education researchers from other scientific disciplines met for 3 days to develop an understanding of the current state of research on learning in the geosciences, to identify research questions of high interest to both geoscience faculty and learning scientists, and to develop a plan for fostering application of research on learning to geoscience education (Manduca et al., 2004).
Since the Wingspread symposium, sessions at professional societies have provided an ongoing venue for discussions of research on learning in the geosciences, and professional development workshops have increasingly drawn on learning science research (http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/index.html). A Pardee Symposium (plenary session) at the 2002 Geological Society of America Annual Meeting brought together perspectives from geoscience researchers, geoscience educators, and cognitive scientists, and resulted in an edited book of contributed papers entitled: Earth and Mind: How Geoscientists Think and Learn about the Earth (Manduca and Mogk, 2006). In 2005, the Journal of Geoscience Education published a special issue on conceptions and conceptual change in student thinking about Earth (Libarkin, 2005), followed in 2009 by a special issue on research on thinking and learning in the geosciences. A 2011 Geological Society of America Special Paper (Feig and Stokes) showcased research using qualitative methods. Most recently, geoscience education research is being reviewed in the context of other science and engineering education research domains in a National Research Council study on Discipline-Based Education Research (2012).
We began the Synthesis process by selecting four focus themes, drawing on the Wingspread report, other documents, discussions with colleagues, and personal interest. We then invited one geoscientist and one cognitive scientist to work with us on each theme and wrote a proposal to the Synthesis track of the National Science Foundation's program for Research on Learning and Education.
The work of the full Synthesis Group began in earnest with a 2 day scoping meeting, where we narrowed the questions we wished to address and agreed upon a plan. For the next 5 months, subgroups met weekly by phone conference in a “virtual journal club” to discuss selected papers from the research literature (http://serc.carleton.edu/research_on_learning/synthesis/journal_club.html). The topic and discussion-leader role rotated week by week among the four themes, with additional colleagues invited to join the virtual journal club for specific discussions. To the best of our knowledge, the virtual journal club was a novel innovation; it worked well, and we commend this approach to other groups undertaking ambitious research syntheses.
Next, we closeted ourselves for a week of reflection, discussion, and writing in an isolated natural setting, a research and education forest in the Hudson Highlands of New York State (http://www.blackrockforest.org/). The designated pairs of geoscientist + cognitive scientist worked together to outline and begin to draft the thematic papers at the core of the current volume, while Kastens and Manduca began the bookend papers on expertise and knowledge integration. Although we drew on mountains of published literature, we came to realize that the personal and professional experiences of Synthesis geoscientists, when interrogated by a colleague from another field, represent a meaningful form of evidence that we should allow in the volume. During the writing retreat, we traded manuscripts back and forth for two rounds of internal review. Midway through the week, four “discussants” came to join us in the forest. The discussants each read two of the embryonic manuscripts, listened to additional ideas, and offered suggestions and ideas on how to improve the work.
Following the Black Rock Forest retreat, the writing pairs continued to work on their manuscripts, collaborating by phone and e-mail. While these papers were in progress, we published an overview paper showcasing a few powerful ideas from each theme (Kastens et al., 2009) and presented preliminary findings at Geological Society of America and American Geophysical Union meetings. We also launched a blog, Earth and Mind: The Blog (serc.carleton.edu/earthandmind), as a forum in which to try out some of our ideas in progress.
Upon completion, each of the six main papers in the volume was sent for peer review, with one of the other Synthesis members overseeing peer review for the Kastens and Manduca (this volume, Chapter 31) and Manduca and Kastens (this volume, Chapter 1) papers. As the four thematic papers were completed, we then sought commentaries on each paper, soliciting a wide range of perspectives from geoscientists, geo science educators, learning scientists, and cognitive scientists. The commentaries were editor-reviewed. To tie the theme papers and commentaries together, and to bridge across gaps that still remained unaddressed, we then created a concept map for each of our four topics, which is included in the introduction to that section.
All told, more than sixty individuals contributed to the Synthesis project, as group members, journal club participants, discussants, reviewers, or commentators (Table 1). We tried to cast a wide net, to entrain a range of opinions, experiences, and perspectives that would be reflective of the breadth and depth of the fascinating field that is geoscience thinking and learning.
STRUCTURE OF THE VOLUME
The volume opens with a paper by the co-editors about the nature of expertise in geosciences. We make the case that there is a suite of common perspectives, approaches, and values that characterize geoscientists, regardless of which portion of the Earth system they happen to focus on. We postulate that these perspectives, approaches, and values are an inherent outgrowth of the nature of our object of study, the Earth system, in all of its size, age, complexity, and heterogeneity. As the profession of geoscience education struggles to prioritize what to teach, these perspectives, approaches, and values can weave a cohering thread among geosubdisciplines.
We then move onto the thematic section of the volume, taking up in turn temporal thinking, spatial thinking, systems thinking, and field-based thinking and learning. Each thematic section begins with an editor's introduction and concept map, in which we preview the following papers and attempt to situate them with respect to each other and other aspects of geothinking and learning. The main thematic paper follows. The approaches taken by the thematic authors vary, but all include insights from both geosciences and cognitive sciences, suggestions for geoscience education, and suggestions for future research. Each thematic paper is followed by five or six short commentaries. Each commentary provides a reaction, an amplification, an implication, a snippet of additional data, an additional example or counterexample, an application to instruction, or an idea for future research, triggered by the ideas presented in the main paper.
The concept maps in the introduction to each thematic section are intended to provide readers with a satellite view of an entire continent of research on thinking and learning, with the individual papers then ground-truthing selected regions. Our hope is that for beginning researchers, the concept maps can help in understanding where one's own first small research projects fit into the big picture of geoscientific thinking. For those in a position to shape the research agenda, the concept maps may help in prioritizing regions of the domain that are underexplored. Like all representations, the concept maps are simplifications, and we encourage readers to sketch in additional connections and nodes to showcase connections that are important in their own thinking.
At this point in the volume, the reader may be feeling overwhelmed by the number and complexity of details, ideas, data sets, field areas, processes, systems, and ways of thinking that comprise geoscience thinking and learning. Fortunately, geoscientists excel at discerning patterns and creating integrative narratives that weave together disparate forms of information. We close the volume by reviewing five instructional strategies that can support knowledge integration in geoscience education: integrating around a locale of significance to students, integrating around a societally important problem, integrating around a suite of “big ideas,” integrating using visual representations, and integrating using physical and computer models.
Our deepest thanks go out to the participants in the Synthesis of Research on Thinking and Learning in the Geosciences project, including co-authors, journal club participants, discussants, reviewers, and commentators (Table 1), especially Cinzia Cervato, who took on extra editing responsibilities. Thanks also go to staff at the Black Rock Forest for hosting our writing retreat, to the College Board Advanced Placement Environmental Science Redesign team for the idea of concept mapping an intellectual domain, and to the innumerable colleagues over the years who have shared ideas about thinking and learning in the geosciences. This work was funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation through the Synthesis track of the Research and Evaluation on Education in Science and Engineering program, grants DRL07-22268 (Kastens) and DRL07-22388 (Manduca).