Development of Cartographic Understanding

The development of cartographic understanding has been approached from four different theoretical per spectives.

The Nativist Approach

The first one, the nativist, posits that cartographic understanding is innate. Three kinds of argument have been advanced for this perspective. The first one comes from a particular view concerning evolutionary development, according to which much of the structure of human mind is innately specified, evolved through natural selection during the evolutionary history of the species. The second argument in support of this view is based on conclusions from experimental studies, which claim that children develop mapping abilities at a very early age, before receiving any cartographic education, and also, the mapping abilities expressed by people in early stages of human history. The maps, made 5000 years ago, suggest that all people develop an understanding of the geographical space as well as the ability of representing it through available materials. A third argument comes from a 1986 study of the performance of a 4 year old girl, blind from birth, who could encode a tactile map and navigate between objects in a room. The girl demonstrated an understanding of the correspondence between the map and real space, even though she had no experience either with the space or with maps. But, it has been argued that this is just one case, while other studies suggest that blind children show delays in spatial abilities.

Of support to this perspective are similar views that have been expressed about the knowledge of language. Darvine in 1871 was the first one to argue that language is an instinct. Almost 100 years later, in 1965, Noam Chomsky, based on linguistic analyses, argued that human language is a biological object, internal to the human mind/brain, and the knowledge of language is individualistic. Chomsky’s ideas had a great influence on linguistics and cognitive science. Following Chomsky’s views, Steven Pinker argued in 1994 that language is an instinct. Among other scholars, Chomsky’s ideas have been also disputed from George Lakoff, who along with Mark Johnson in 1980 argued that human language is not entirely a genetic innovation, but rather central aspects of language arise through evolution from the neural systems that are present in nonhumans. A central point of Lakoff ’s ideas is that the mind is inherently embodied, and thought is mainly unconscious. In 1987, Lakoff expressed his belief that humans’ abilities to conceptualize the world are grounded in human–environment interaction. So, he claims, reason is not an essence that separates humans from nonhumans, but it is an essence that places all on a continuum.

There have been several counter arguments to the nativist approach to map understanding. One is that the theory cannot explain why there are many adults having difficulty in map reading. Another is that many researches concluded that engagement with maps at an early age does not necessarily mean that children can understand cartographic concepts. On the contrary, there is evidence that map understanding progresses slowly and gradually from easy to difficult tasks. The productive result from this perspective is evidence that children can have some engagement with maps at an early age and can be introduced to cartographic concepts, starting from easy to more difficult ones. Neural studies in the first years of twenty first century give evidence for continuity between mental capacities found in humans, such as attention, memory, and learning, and those of other species of primates, thus giving new potential to the nativist theory.

Piaget’s Theory

The second perspective accepts that cartographic understanding follows the stages of intellectual development. Jean Piaget’s theory on psychology of intelligence and Jean Piaget’s and Barber Inhelder’s theories on child’s conception of space and child’s conception of geometry determined the research on maps and children for almost three decades (from the 1970s and afterward).

Piaget and Inhelder proposed that children’s environmental adaptation develops in a sequence of coherent and qualitatively different stages: the sensorimotor, the preoperational, the concrete operational, and the formal operational. In the sensorimotor stage, children (from about birth to 2 years) do not have any mental function, and only at the end of this stage develop inner representations of the outside environment. At the preoperational stage, children (from 2 to 7 years) cannot focus their thinking on more than one thing. They perceive space from an egocentric point of view and understand only topological spatial relations. At about age 3–4, they can recognize shape as the first topological spatial relation, also open and closed figures, but they cannot differentiate between closed figures (circle, square). They are not able to form a straight line. By about age 5–6, they begin to discriminate straight and curved lines, sizes of lines and angles (Euclidean properties), but, they cannot organize landmarks in an objective spatial whole, rotate a plane 1801, describe changes of position, and reconstruct a route in reverse direction. At this stage, there is nonconservation of overall distance, and only at the end of this stage children start to learn how to measure, qualitatively, without unit iteration. At the concrete operational stage, children (from about 7 to 11 years) can use operations (mental processes) which enable them to classify, arrange objects in series, and understand projective properties of space. However, children of about 7–9 years are unable either to coordinate a system as a whole, or to describe a route. At a mean age of 7.5, they show conservation of distance between two objects, and at a mean age of 8.5 they are capable of one dimensional measurements in an operational form and empirically discover the two dimensional measurement. They also show conservation of area. Children of about 9–11 years can coordinate landmarks and changes of position, they can construct a topographical schema in a coordinate system, and they have a full appreciation of two dimensional and three-dimensional measurements. Finally, at the formal operational stage (above 11–13 years), children are capable of more abstract and logical thinking, they are able to understand Euclidean properties of space, they establish relations between lines and areas, and they understand volumes of objects in relation to the surrounding space.

At each stage, children’s mental abilities are rather stable. The mental structures of knowledge and understanding are developed into new ones because of new experiences and adaptation to new information. In recent years, many psychologists reject the authenticity of Piaget’s theory and mainly the idea of discontinuous stages of development. According to them, many skills seem to develop more gradually and continuously. The distinction of spatial relations in topological, projective, and Euclidean is criticized as not being helpful to an analysis of spatial thinking. The theory is criticized for being focused on the level of the individual, ignoring the important role of the social processes involved in cognitive development. Another point of argument is the implication of Piaget’s theory that adults are accurate in spatial understanding, which seems to be wrong.

Piaget’s theory had a great influence on the research on children’s mapping abilities. The Piagetian approach to cartographic understanding accepts cognition as the basic factor in the development of mapping competence. Children actively construct their knowledge about maps. This construction of knowledge is a continual interaction between children and related experience. This is a fundamental issue which determined both theoretical and experimental work on this topic. Children’s perceptual abilities, at each stage, were a guide for the introduction of cartographic concepts gradually and according to the degree of difficulty involved. Piaget’s experimental work using graphic representations and spatial models greatly helped predict how children conceptualize space through maps. The results of many experimental studies on what children dealing with maps can understand do agree with Piaget’s theory, while other experimental studies suggest that children can do more with maps than what Piaget’s theory suggests. In 1989, Lyn Liben and Roger Downs based on the Piagetian approach – although critically – proposed a developmental approach to children’s understanding of maps. Based on many experiments in the 1990s, they concluded that map understanding is a complex procedure that develops gradually depending on the cognitive level and experience of the individual, and it has to be approached both from a developmental and a cartographic perspective. They also argue that children show competence in a few mapping activities at an early age, but cartographic competence improves slowly in tasks concerning more advanced spatial thinking.

Vygotsky’s Theory

The third perspective considers the social factor as playing a central role in cartographic understanding. Among the psychologists that criticize the individualism of Piaget’s theory is Lev Vygotsky. His theory on learning and cognitive development, as expressed in his work on thought and language and mind in society, has offered the theoretical basis in studies on cartographic understanding in recent years. The relation between the biological roots of behavior and the human activities in the social environment is a critical issue in every theory of development. Vygotsky used a key point in his approach of this relation, mainly, the functional system of learning, which differentiates the concepts of learning as defined in other theories. According to him, there are two kinds of concepts: the spontaneous results of everyday experience and the scientific results of systematic school learning. The first ones are concrete and unsystematic, while the second are systematic and hierarchically structured. There is a gap between spontaneous concepts (children’s own learning) and scientific concepts (taught by teachers), which is wide in very young children and is gradually bridged after systematic learning. Scientific concepts are easier to learn, and it is better for children to formalize concepts in school with the help of skilled learners before experiencing them unsystematically. So, according to Vygotsky, school must play a central role in cognitive development.

Investigations in 1989 and 1991 demonstrated that guided participation may be important in the development of spatial thinking. In experiments in 1991, children were able to plan routes on a map more effectively when collaborating with adults. In experimental studies in 1998, children of 12–13 years of age working in groups showed a slightly better understanding of cartographic concepts than the ones working individually. In 2000, it was admitted that Vygotskian views have been prominent in research on spatial competence and also in a study in 2003, it was said that collaborative teaching in solving cartographic problems needs further development. But it has also been argued that Vygotsky’s theory overemphasizes the role of the social environment in the development of mind.

The Cognitive Perspective

The fourth theoretical perspective to cartographic understanding is based on theories of cognition that developed the last decade of the twentieth century and is growing at an exponential rate. In the context of developmental cognitive neuroscience, studies from various disciplines give evidence about brain processes and resulting mental functions. The use of electrophysiological recording systems to record the human brain opened new horizons toward understanding cognitive development. These brain scanning techniques opened up the possibility to view the brain in action and localize the regions of the brain activated during different activities. Several regions appear to be devoted to spatial thinking, and it is concluded that these regions develop in very early childhood, contrary to what was believed. Based on these findings, suggestions have been expressed for starting cartographic literacy in kindergarten.

In the context of the cognitive perspective, there is another approach to cartographic understanding based on the theory of information processing. Information processing approaches (which first appeared in the 1960s) use models of the human cognitive system based on computer operations, where the hardware is the perceptual and cognitive human system (eyes and brain), and the algorithms are the mental activities by means of which information is processed (perceived, encoded, stored, and used for problem solving). The major goal of this psychological approach is to describe the nature of thought, how the human mind represents and handles information, and how knowledge is processed and organized. The developmental changes are proposed to be gradual and continuous. What children know is not that important. Instead, of importance is how cognitive processes change with age and experience. Children are seen as being active in interactions with the environment, because they perceive objects and events and then remember and draw inferences from them.

The cartographic perspective on the information processing theory is a new approach. The earlier cognitive models related to cartographic concepts appeared around 1985. Since then, knowledge structures of maprelated information have been proposed, and in several studies models of cognitive structures have been used in experiments related to children’s activities with maps. The strength of the approach is that it offers insight into children’s thinking as to how they handle information while using maps. On the other hand, it approaches understanding from the individual point of view, ignoring the social parameters involved in this process.

Recent Views

The aforementioned theoretical approaches to cartographic understanding differ mainly as to the point they consider as dominant in the development of spatial thinking. This consideration determines not only each theoretical position but also the experimental work on which it is established. As to what approach has to be followed in future research, the prevailing view is that there is no single scientific approach as to how children learn with maps. In order to face the educational map material from a critical point of view and maps as means that produce knowledge, the approach has to be holistic, taking into account the fact that children are individuals who perceive the geographical space and its representations through their senses, and at the same time, they are members of a society, inevitably influenced by their social environment as well as by the educational procedures. Such an approach to spatial development has been proposed by Nora Newcombe in 2000. She advocates that her approach: encompasses nativism by considering early infancy as the starting point for spatial development but denying that the competencies of infants are so fundamental to spatial development as nativists argue, is interactionist without being Piagetian, and it encompasses interactions of the child with the skilled adults but denying their dominant role in development. In 1995, McEahren had proposed a similar holistic approach to map understanding. He considers maps as spatial representations and contends that the concept of representation is fundamental to all approaches that can be taken to cartography. In his detailed analysis, he approaches maps at multiple levels: lexical, semiotic, cognitive, and social.