Plate Tectonics with LfU and GIS

Using additional literature from the field of science education, what are several conceptual challenges students might have today with understanding Earth Science that LfU might support?

Learning for Use (LfU) is a theory of learning based on four tenants (Edelson, 2001), briefly summarized as:

  1. Learning is constructed through the modification of knowledge.
  2. Learning occurs through both conscious and unconscious goal setting.
  3. Knowledge is recalled and utilized based on its construction.
  4. Knowledge should be presented in a way that supports its use

These four principles underlie how learning occurs and specifically, the design of curriculum through a three-step process: (a) motivation, (b) construction of knowledge, and (c) refinement of knowledge (Edelson, 2001). In conjunction with geographic information systems (GIS), LfU is able to effectively integrate content and process learning through the use of appropriate inquiry-based activities.

In the field of Earth Science, there remain many misconceptions from simply differentiating the terms rocks and minerals to erroneous ideas about volcanoes, such as magma originating in the core (King, 2010). However, misconceptions with plate tectonics could potentially be remedied through LfU and GIS support. Various concepts associated with plate tectonics continue to be misrepresented in the classroom and textbooks themselves (King, 2010). These include the general concept of ‘tectonic plates’ and how they move, how continents and oceans form and develop, and the links between earthquakes, volcanoes, and plate movement.

As evidenced by Bodzin, Anastasio and Kulo (2014), geospatial tools such as MyWorld GIS or Google Earth help promote and foster spatial thinking. Remotely sensed aerial and satellite images can be utilized to support plate tectonic theories and concepts of by viewing the Earth’s surface and examining changes that have occurred over time. This would be especially helpful in viewing how continents move. Further, Perkin, Hazelton, Erickson, and Allan (2010) demonstrated that students are engaged through hands-on and real-world learning with a place-based educational approach. Similar activities, using aerial views of local areas and overlays, could also demonstrate plate tectonics and their specific relationship with the formation of earthquakes and volcanoes.


Bodzin, A. M., Anastasio, D., & Kulo, V. (2014). Designing Google Earth activities for learning Earth and environmental science. In Teaching science and investigating environmental issues with geospatial technology (pp. 213-232). Springer Netherlands.

Edelson, D.C. (2001). Learning-for-use: A framework for the design of technology-supported inquiry activities. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 38(3), 355-385.

King, C. (2010). An analysis of misconceptions in science textbooks: Earth science in England and Wales. International Journal of Science Education, 32(5), 565-601.

Perkin, N., Hazelton, E., Erickson, J., & Allan, W. (2010). Place-based education and geographic information systems: Enhancing the spatial awareness of middle school students in Maine. Journal of Geography, 109(5), 213-218.


  1. Hi Darren,

    I like how you identified the specific misconceptions in earth science that can be resolved using LfU. MyWorld GIS and Google Earth remind me of taking students on virtual field trips to see how continents move, which would be more informative than going on a physical field trip to actually see continents. As well, in the process, students can simultaneously explore other related topics like you mentioned, such as earthquake and volcano formations.

  2. Hi Darren,

    Using LFU for learning about plate tectonics is a great way for students to demonstrate their understanding in another dimension. I think the whole plate tectonic example really ties into the third criteria you listed (knowledge is utilized and recalled based on its construction). Allowing students to construct their understanding of a concept through GIS gives them a valuable hands-on learning experience.

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