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Geography for a Flat World

Schools are only beginning to prepare students for a changing landscape.
Elementary and middle school students in a Reach the World (RTW) project in New York City learn geography and how it relates to learning.
Elementary and middle school students in a Reach the World (RTW) project in New York City learn geography and how it relates to learning.

Geography isn’t what it used to be. Nowadays, that subject is often buried—and therefore inadequately covered—in a social studies curriculum itself under siege because of the extended commitment in schools to reading and math.

But geographical knowledge also isn’t what it used to be. It’s become essential to understanding a brave new world of international economic and political developments, as well as preparing for a host of jobs that did not even exist 20 years ago. The release of revised national standards for geography later this year—the first revision since these standards were introduced in 1994—will emphasize the changing geographical landscape.

Over the past decade, meanwhile, business and educational leaders have retooled their approaches to deal with rapidly emerging economies and societies, from China and India to Mexico and Brazil. Even Facebook has realized the importance of knowing geography, having added a world map to users’ pages so they can include all the places they have visited in their lives.

In a 2004 report, the latest report available, the U.S. Department of Labor declared that geo-technology—the combination of geography with an ever-expanding array of new high-tech jobs—represents one of the labor megatrends for the 21st century. These changing realities are posing a problem—and an opportunity—for American schools and their students, who by most measures lag behind the rest of the world in geographical knowledge and skills.

The Geography Problem

In a 2002 geographic literacy survey of 18- to 24-year-olds in nine countries by the National Geographic Society, a nonprofit that has long promoted geographic literacy, the United States ranked eighth—just ahead of Mexico and behind the likes of Canada, Japan, Great Britain and Italy. In 2006, a follow-up questionnaire aimed just at Americans found that 88 percent could not find Afghanistan on a map of Asia, 70 percent could not locate North Korea, and 50 percent had no idea where New York state was on a U.S. map.

Last year, the National Center for Education Statistics found that the average geography score for high school seniors (282 on a 500-point scale) on the National Assessment for Educational Progress had not changed between 2001 and 2010 and had declined from 1994. Only 1 percent of those taking the 2010 test achieved the “advanced level,” which required tasks from explaining the reasons for American imports and exports to describing how wetlands function. geo

American students are not even on the map when it comes to advanced geographical knowledge—and it’s no secret to Jacqueline Waite, director of education affairs for the National Council for Geographic Education in Washington, D.C. “No Child Left Behind has significantly reduced the focus in schools to just a few areas and to the detriment of geography,” she explains.

Waite notes that NCLB blunted a “growth spurt” largely promoted by National Geographic in the mid-1990s that included the creation of alliances in all 50 states to promote geography in schools, the proliferation of statewide geography bees, and the development in 1994 of a set of national geography standards.

Along with the District of Columbia, Texas, South Dakota, Utah and Virginia are the only states that require stand-alone geography courses and standardized testing on the subject. (California, Rhode Island and New Mexico require a combined history and geography course.)

“I really struggle with why geography isn’t more important,” admits Kevin Gasner, who teaches a seventh-grade geography course at the Oregon Middle School in the Oregon (Wis.) School District. “We’re all connected globally, and if we want to prepare kids for a global economy, we better teach them what culture and life is like around the globe.”

Not Your Parents’ Geography

That message is beginning to sink in at districts and larger institutions around the country, including the College Board, which since 2001 has offered an AP exam in human geography that covers a curriculum worlds apart from what was taught years ago. The students taking that exam have grown in number from 3,200 the first year to 87,000 in 2011 and an estimated 100,000 this year.

“We used to have a T-shirt that read, ‘It’s not your parents’ geography,’” says Liliana Monk, who for eight years has taught the AP course at Thomas S. Wootton High School in the Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools and also serves as co-chair of the College Board’s AP Human Geography Development Committee. 

“In the past we used to believe that you needed to know what were the names of the seas, what were the capitals of different countries, and what was the difference between a hill and a mountain,” Monk recalls. She points out that the course she teaches nowadays asks a different set of questions, such as, “Where are people located around the world, how do they alter their environment, and what kind of occupations do they pursue in developed and undeveloped countries?”

The juniors and seniors in Monk’s AP class also study conflicts over borders between countries; the diffusion of religions over entire regions, such as the growing influence of Islam in southwest Asian countries like Indonesia; and even high-tech examples, such as how texting led to reviving an indigenous language in Africa. geography

“It recognizes that geography has real value, and that it’s both a physical science and a social science,” says Sarah Bednarz, Monk’s fellow co-chair on the AP committee and a geography professor at Texas A&M’s College of Geosciences. “Location really does matter, and we need to have a geographically competent citizenry.”

Learning geography has taken on greater urgency at Lamar High School in the Houston Independent School District, which is in its second year of offering AP human geography. The school also teaches a stand-alone geography course mandated by the state for all ninth graders.

“It’s one of their first exposures to geography,” Principal James McSwain says of the freshman course. “If you don’t understand where something is, you really can’t understand the events of the world. You have to understand the planet and what part the natural environment has played in shaping civilization.” He says of the AP course, “This takes geography to a higher, more advanced level.” The Winton Woods School District in suburban Cincinnati also is aiming toward an advanced level during the first year of its Academy of Global Studies. The district’s new high school enrolls ninth-graders and will add a grade each year. As part of the curriculum, the freshmen are taking a global seminar with strong geographical underpinnings. “Geography is infused into all of the subject areas,” says Superintendent Camille Nasbe. She recalls that one algebra teacher at the academy asked students to use various kinds of graphs to demonstrate how the Arab Spring political movement in several Middle Eastern countries has had an impact in that region and in Europe. “Students are learning geography in a more integrated way that shows how it affects their lives,” she notes.

Geography in the Earlier Grades

Advocates for geography education emphasize that getting started with geographical concepts early on will be essential to competing in a 21st-century world. At the Winton Woods Middle School, a yearlong, elective geography course for eighth-graders melds geography with current events. In the Africa part of the course, students study apartheid and its end in South Africa, as well as the 1990s genocide in Rwanda. They also practice their geography facts in a Jeopardy-style game in which they have to match those facts to the country they describe.

In Oregon Middle School, meanwhile, Gasner has helped create a required, yearlong, seventh-grade course in geography that proceeds continent by continent and uses the CIA’s World Factbook—an extended compilation of factual and statistical information about other countries—as a primary textbook for countries around the world. “The maps and borders are the easy parts now,” Gasner explains. “For Africa, we talk about the history of colonization and spend a week or two on the genocide in Darfur. For the Middle East, we talk about OPEC. It’s cool to have seventh-graders understand the economics of oil energy.”

“They jump into the CIA Factbook,” Gasner continues, “and they realize that in certain countries there are more gravel roads than paved roads, or that when it comes to national debt, the United States doesn’t look bad compared to some places.”

In the European section of the course, students have to create a tour company and plan a tour of at least five countries. “I think they like it,” Gasner says of his course, “because a lot of them tell me that they go home and teach their parents what they’ve learned here.”

Texas A&M’s Bednarz emphasizes that middle school is not soon enough to introduce geographic literacy. “We need to teach geography from the beginning,” she says. “When a teacher takes children outside, that teacher can ask, ‘Where are the businesses located? Where are the houses?’ In the United Kingdom, they have kids out mapping, drawing pictures and thinking about where they are.” The nonprofit organization Reach the World, founded in 1998, is doing its part to expose underprivileged students to geography. Most of its 11 elementary and middle school sites in New York City qualify as Title I schools.

“I think there’s an abhorrent lack of geographical-based education and knowledge in most disadvantaged schools,” says Heather Halstead, the group’s executive director. A $2,000 per semester fee provides a classroom assistant once a week and professional development for four or five teachers, each of whom is matched with a college student studying abroad and serving as a “traveling correspondent” somewhere in the world. That correspondent files weekly articles for and holds regular videoconferences with classes at the school.

With funding from National Geographic, Reach the World has also developed GeoGames, which allows users to test their geographic knowledge online by dragging and dropping countries and other geographical features onto a Planet Earth template.

Making the teaching of geography more widespread—at all grade levels—is still a problem waiting to be solved, say its proponents. One critical factor is increasing teacher training in the subject. In 2002, National Geographic found that 72 percent of eighth-graders and 93 percent of fourth-graders were taught by teachers who did not have a major, minor or emphasis on geography education in their undergraduate or graduate studies. “Even now, when you train social studies teachers, it’s often up to them what they want to emphasize, and geography can fall out of the mix,” observes Montgomery County’s Liliana Monk.

Zachary Dulli, director of operations for the National Council for Geographic Education, hopes that the release of revised national standards for geography later this year will have an impact on the development of the Common Core State Standards in social studies and the possible reauthorization—or replacement—of the No Child Left Behind law.

Along those lines, the advocacy group, Common Core, is developing K8 curriculum maps in history and geography. The group is promoting programs, policies and initativies that provide rigor. “It’s about deciding whether we want to have a 21st-century student population that understands a global, interconnected world,” Dulli says. “They need English. They need math. But they also need geography.”

Ron Schachter is a contributing writer to District Administration.