Did you know it’s Geography Awareness Week (November 13-19)? Did I just lose your interest because when you hear “geography” you picture a dusty, outdated atlas on your classroom shelf? This is my plea for geography instruction in today’s schools.
Geography is about more than the physical properties of the surface of the Earth. Geography is the study of places and the relationships between human societies and their environments. It examines where things are found, why they are there, how they develop and change over time, and how they have an impact on people.
Geographic reasoning is a major facet of modern geography, yet you may never have heard the term. It involves measuring and mapping geographic distributions (where things are), identifying patterns and clusters (weather, climate, migration, etc.), identifying paths and flows (natural and man-made, like roads), and analyzing geographic relationships over time. Think of the geographic challenges we are facing now and how many are in our future …we need people who understand water, climate, traffic, and energy systems!
Teaching geography increases students’ spatial awareness. Spatial thinking and reasoning are emphasized in geography and influence success in the STEM fields. Geography skills help students understand and apply STEM skills like measurement, graphing, and building code. Spatial awareness has been shown to increase with instruction.
Geography isn’t merely a “hard” science. Geography teaches the significance of place and broadens it at the same time. Sociology and psychology teach that children naturally have place attachments for the development of their identity, security, and sense of belonging. In today’s society children’s independent access to their surroundings is becoming more restricted due to parental fears and a more indoor, sedentary lifestyle, and this trend has implications for the development of children’s place attachments. Attention to place through geography can be a vehicle for examining bias, and promoting empathy and social justice.
Here’s the thing: we talk a good talk about raising global citizens in today’s schools. But the United States trails the rest of the world in the quality and quantity of geography education. There has been a significant dip in geography NAEP test scores and we lag behind most other countries. There is a gender gap in geographic learning in American schools, with boys outperforming girls by 4 to 5 points across all grade levels.
We need to change this for our students’ future success. The Department of Labor says that jobs for geography specialists are projected to grow 29% from 2012 to 2022. That’s much faster than the average 11% growth across all occupations. I had no idea what a geography specialist does, so I investigated. They track endangered species, find the best places for new construction, use aerial photographs and satellite images to fill in maps, and more. That sounds like a job that has the right mix of problem-solving, technology, and adventure that some of my students would love!
Take Alex, one of my fifth graders. We were reading an article about the 15th-century explorer Vasco de Gama’s shipwreck that was recently found off the coast of Oman. Alex used his exploration time in class to find Oman on his personal world map, researched the country and people there, and presented his findings to the class. Alex harnessed his access to information and used the opportunity to learn about a new culture and communicate his learning with others. If we want our students to be global citizens, they must learn about the world itself and the people that call it home. As Alex told me with a grin as he finished his presentation, “Without geography, we’re nowhere.”
An emphasis on the subjects of high-stakes testing, and lack of time, current resources and technology are problems with teaching geography in schools today. But teachers are never ones to shy away from something important even though there are difficulties. It begins with making more teachers aware that there is a problem with a lack of geography education.
What if we spread the word this week? Let other educators know that this is Geography Awareness Week. Share geography lessons and resources, especially those integrated with literacy or math to overcome some of the barriers of time and emphasis. Advocate for geography courses in our schools. Will you help me spread the word?
We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. T. S. Eliot