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Teaching GIS to Public Sector Employees

When I took my first (and only) GIS class about 15 years ago, the class was structured around a basic pattern:

1. Give us a list of steps to follow

2. Help with any issues following the instructions

3. Ask for any questions and promptly move on to the next activity

This simple approach worked great for the instructor. They didn’t have to do much creative thinking. The task was well defined and well documented. Anyone could “teach” the class because there wasn’t much teaching, just babysitting as we went through the instructions, but as a participant, the exercise just felt like this:

The only thing I remember from that class was calculating the range of North Korean artillery emplacements (I was in the US Army at the time). I couldn’t do the task again without my instruction sheet and I certainly couldn’t apply the same approach to something similar but slightly different because I wasn’t taught the how in a way that empowered me to adapt and be creative to various situations.

I eventually did learn the “how” in a way that allowed me to cultivate general skills applicable to varying situations, but it took a lot of research, a lot of trial and error, and, ultimately, becoming an instructor myself.

Beginning in 2014, I started teaching GIS to a variety of audiences, including graduate students at several universities and working public-sector professionals. Over that time I’ve discovered some key principles and approaches that have worked well as I try to flip the script when it comes to technical training:

Be intentional with how you create the environment. I use the word “environment” to mean both the physical environment of desks, tables, and chairs, as well as the social/cultural environment of values and norms. Manipulate the physical environment to support the work by arranging furniture and computers so students can work together. Be intentional with the social/cultural environment from the very beginning by being open and inviting of questions, concerns, and feedback from your introduction. Take frequent pauses and demonstrate genuine concern for whether they’re understanding the material, acknowledging what they may already know, but not assuming they know or are getting anything you’re presenting. This is more important than anything else you do for class. Even the best content will fall flat if students don’t feel comfortable with your ability as an instructor to hold the discomfort of their ignorance and lack of experience.

Make a map as quickly as possible. Our’s is a black art to most people, and I’ve seen repeatedly how important it is to show someone new to GIS that it isn’t. We live in a time now where data is plentiful and the software to map it is free or at least inexpensive. Getting them over the initial barrier to seeing themselves as mappers is key to engaging their participation.

Be okay with bad/incomplete maps. What stands in the way of getting points on the map early in a training is our tendency as experts to want them to understand every little detail about spatial analysis and mapmaking from the start. That’s not how we learned and it’s not how they should learn. It’s an iterative process of doing and refining. It’s possible every map they make in your class will look horrible. That’s okay. Just make sure they understand what will make their maps better and allow them the space to grow into that knowledge for themselves.

Present ideas only when they’re needed. Essential to the points above is this point. I’m a big fan of just-in-time learning because I’ve seen what happens when students get flooded with information they can’t easily integrate: they shut down. You can avoid this by being intentional with which concepts you present and their order. Aim for the minimum number of concepts in the simplest sequence to get a meaningful result. You build a house by laying a foundation, then putting up supports for the walls, then putting on a roof, before you start adding drywall, windows, and doors. Notice when you’re giving them too much information without the opportunity to integrate it all together.

Make the experience real(-ish). It’s tempting to make up data to work with and/or exercises with unreal questions to teach concepts. Real data and real questions can be used to teach these concepts, with the added benefits of helping students see how they could use these techniques outside of class. I also feel it activates their motivation to learn when they are able to develop a question or work with a dataset that means something to them.

Curate the experience for concepts and process, not product. Making the experience real doesn’t mean they should spend 90% of their time in class cleaning up the data in order to map it. While there’s a lot of spatial data available, not all data lends itself well to being used in the training environment, and it’s important to remain focused on how well the data supports the learning experience. The more I teach, the more intentional I am about this, pushing back with clients who want to use operational data that is a nightmare to work with in the learning environment because of the work necessary to successfully teach even basic concepts. They can work up to it, but it’s not a place to start with.

Show them what you’re doing before you do it. We always lead off an exercise with a “sneak peak” at the final product. The showman in me used to delight in the big reveal, but too many times, they just didn’t get it. Now I show them what we’re going to build, ask their thoughts on what we’ll need to do in order to create it, and then work through the exercise with them.

Let them make the exercise their own. In almost every exercise, we encourage students to take some aspect of the exercise and customize it. Even just changing a color or text gives them a sense of ownership in the product.

Teach them how to learn. More important to learning the techniques we’re teaching them is teaching them how to find the answers to their own questions. As I remind them, we’re not going to be there over their shoulder telling them how to do some task, so we teach them how to find their own answers, pointing them to GIS Stack Exchange, tutorials, or other documentation. Important to this is demonstrating this when we don’t know the answer to something, modeling a process for learning that every professional needs to grow and be successful.

Teaching isn’t easy and often requires that those of us with skills and experience to share, step out of our own perspective and take on the perspective of a beginner. While it can be challenging, nothing has helped me grow as a GIS professional more than this “starting over.” I come to foundational concepts with a deeper perspective and a better awareness of how they fit into the whole. I recommend the experience of teaching to anyone and welcome any feedback you have on the points I’ve outlined above. I hope they are a help to you on your journey as an instructor.

For more information on our training classes, please checkout our training page with links to our materials. For more on our approach to training, checkout our Training Playbook on Medium.

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