Symbolics, Syntactics, and Semantics: Teaching a Language of Maps

Reference work entry


Maps are attempts to communicate, but is mapping a language? Like verbal texts, maps carry several kinds of messages at the same time. Many map symbols represent facts about specific places. At the same time, their positions on the map can reveal distances, directions, patterns, feature associations, and other spatial relationships. Unfortunately, human brains seldom remember shapes and sizes accurately. A workshop “game” helps us understand why – the human visual system processes incoming images through multiple, parallel pathways, only some of which typically lead to conscious awareness. Decades of research by cartographers have given us a number of useful “rules of thumb” about symbol selection, size, visual hierarchy, color sequences, type design and placement, and so forth. More recent research by psychologists and neuroscientists (aided by new brain-scanning technology) has put some of those principles on more solid theoretical grounds. Together, these two lines of research lead to the disturbing conclusion that some popular educational approaches are unlikely to be successful. Educators should approach the teaching of the “vocabulary” and “grammar” of maps by observing what happens in effective foreign-language lessons. Students should be encouraged to practice the basic skills with well-designed maps about topics worth knowing. These activities help students acquire a stock of mental maps of causally important information, which their brains can use to help interpret the spatial patterns, feature associations, analogic positions, and other spatial relationships that they might perceive on new maps. It’s like learning how to learn!


Map Communication model Spatial reasoning Spatial pattern Spatial association Spatial analogy 


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Michigan Geographic AllianceCentral Michigan UniversityMount PleasantUSA
  2. 2.New York Center for Geographic LearningNew YorkUSA

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