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Dr. Johannes Heuzeroth

Special prize of the year 2022

Kausalität und Sprache im Geographieunterricht – Einflussfaktoren und Förderstrategien für das Entwickeln geographischer Kausalstrukturen im Rahmen des systemischen Denkens

Institute of Geography Education, RWTH Aachen University

© Claudia FahlbuschDr. Johannes Heuzeroth (Sonderpreis): "Kausalität und Sprache im Geographieunterricht – Einflussfaktoren und Förderstrategien für das Entwickeln geographischer Kausalstrukturen im Rahmen des systemischen Denkens", Institut für Geographiedidaktik, Universität zu Köln
Copyright: Johannes Heuzeroth

Description of the work:

Imagine you are taking a stroll in the city. As you are moving on the sidewalk, you soon discover green spaces and areas near trees being littered by waste. Loosely lying around are bottles or single-use cups from your favourite coffee shop around the corner. What come to your mind is: That cannot be true! It pollutes the environment, or kills animals, besides it is all recyclables that could be used again. You start musing: How could littering of public spaces be prevented? How to make fellow people toss their waste into the bin? There you are dealing with a complex problem, at least in your thoughts. Problem-solving means here to overcome the discrepancy or, respectively, to remove the obstacle between the present state (e.g. littering green spaces) and a target (e.g. less waste).
During the entire process of imagination and reflection you were thinking causally. You established connections, identified relationships. You observed effects (e.g. waste on green spaces) and you were looking for the respective causes (e.g. consumer behaviour, people’s environmental awareness). Those cause-effect-relationships and the resulting network of relations form a system. You were thus also thinking systemically. You created relationships between single system elements, e.g., waste and nature, and reflected how they might be changed. This is one of the fundamental goals of geography lessons: thinking (and acting) within complex human-environment systems, departing from complex, space-related problems.
This is of particular relevance on a personal level because the ability to think within complex causal relationships and systems enables people to effectively change systems with regard to an environmentally appropriate and sustainable development (e.g. organizing a waste collection campaign). Knowledge about causal relationships thus allows for sustainability-oriented, geographically effective acting. The conducted research is relevant from a social point of view because it focuses on the understanding of causal relationships and systems and the ability to assess and evaluate economical, ecological, social, and political consequences of spatial interventions. For instance, it could mean appealing for a reduction of single-use packaging in the course of political participation. This is regarded fundamental for the purpose of a sustainable development and finding solutions to crucial social problems, like human-caused climate change.
What makes this study particularly innovative is its attempt to determine principles of space-related, systemic causal relationships (cause / effect and their technical relation) scientifically, which poses a fundamental contribution and starting point for further research. Innovative is furthermore the finding that the construction of causal relationships consists of a complex problem-solving process featuring a contentual, a linguistic and a strategic dimension. It is for the first time that this process has been empirically analysed by means of support strategies stemming from linguistics and learning theory.
The research is interdisciplinary in its attempt to determine a linguistic “translation” for geographical causal relationships. That means, technical verbal expressions (causal markers) were categorized on word and sentence level in order to develop targeted linguistic support instruments. Beyond that, the influence of language and multilinguality (use of linguistic resources in several languages) on the development of causal relationships was empirically tested. The initial premise was that linguistic skills may hinder technical learning and thinking. The result: (Multi-) Linguistic support measures significantly increase the contentual and linguistic correctness of causal relationship as well as the topical and task-related matching regarding the given problem, but they did not increase the complexity of systemic connections in the students’ thinking.
The effectiveness of metacognition shows a different picture. Metacognition describes knowledge of one’s own knowledge and can be divided in knowing actual content, knowing one’s own mind as well as already existing strategies and the awareness on how to apply them. The result: A strong increase in the number, the correctness, and the degree of interconnectedness (complexity) of the causal relationships developed by the students. This makes this work unique, since there had hardly been any research in this field related to the subject geography. What is more, practically applicable support measures were developed and empirically tested in the course of this work.
Résumé: The central significance of language skills for technical learning could be underlined. For supporting students with their thinking process and the verbalization of complex causal relationships, metacognitive promotional measures are vital. Thus, the one-way cup may eventually end up in the bin or is not even needed at all, and their problem solved.