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geography for life!

March 16, 2011

a picture of geography class, from life magazine.

i’ve been dillydallying on this post.  i almost just skipped right over it.  not because i wasn’t interested in it but because…gosh, it just seemed like a fairly daunting task.  like things could easily spiral out of control.  i am the queen of absentmindedly wandering down paths and this post seemed like the perfect place to get lost.  but i will attempt to stay on task.  it was also tough trying to figure out the appropriate balance between informative and tedious.  i wasn’t entirely sure how to go about presenting the information.  this is very much an education post and also very much an information heavy post.  i will attempt to be straightforward in this post, without being too dry.

so, geography education.  i think that those of us with first hand experience can tell you that k-12 geography education is lackluster.  if it exists at all.  i’ve got a pile full of literature (not literature in the fun sense but in the scholarly journal sense which tends to only be fun for those of us who are really into it, and even then the word “fun” is probably not entirely appropriate) on geography education but i’m going to leave the theories and analysis for a later post.  in this post i’m just going to hook you up with some information on the very recent history of suggested geography curriculum type stuffs for k-12 education.

so in 1984 the national council for geographic education and the association of american geographers came up with the “five themes of geography” in order “to facilitate and organize the teaching of geography in the K-12 classroom.”  these were the themes they deemed important for kids to be familiar with.  they were as follows:

1. Location

the most basic form of geographic literacy.  where stuff is.  location can be absolute or relative.

absolute location = a definite reference to locate a place: latitude and longitude, a street address, or even the ol’ township and range system.

relative location = location with respect to its environment and its connection to other places.

2. Place

you might now be wondering what the difference is between location and place.  legitimate wonderings.  place isn’t about the actual location but about the characteristics (human and physical) of a given location.

3. Human-Environment Interaction

human-environment interaction is a subdiscipline or area of focus in virtually every even moderately sized college geography department in the country.  this theme considers how humans adapt to and modify the environment.

4. Movement

also another area of focus in a lot of geography programs.  looking not only at human movements (migrations, diasporas, etc.) but also the movement of animals, goods (raw, manufactured and final), ideas…pretty much anything you can think of.  if you’re interested in animal migrations national geographic did a pretty great series on migrations, both in print and television which i would encourage you to check out here.  also check out freedom to roam, a group committed to preserving migration corridors.  good people.  and also i would encourage you to check out the movie winged migration.

5. Region

to be honest i’m not entirely sure why this was included as one of the themes.  i kind of understand, but not completely.  (regional geography is also an approach to geographic study that was popular in the late 1800’s, early 1900’s).  most of you know what a region is, but for a “geographic” definition we go with the idea that a region divides the world into manageable units for geographic study.  a region is defined based on some characteristic that is common to the area.  this can be physical or human.  also, “regions can be formal, functional, or vernacular.  formal regions are those that are designated by official boundaries, such as cities, states, counties, and countries.  functional regions are defined by their connections. for example, the circulation area for a major city area is the functional region of that paper.  vernacular regions are perceived regions, such as “The South,” “The Midwest,” or the “Middle East;” they have no formal boundaries but are understood in our mental maps of the world.”

so that was those.  the helpfulness of these themes in teaching geography and also in gauging student comprehension was, as you can imagine, quite limited.  so in 1994 a whole posse (American Geographical Society, Association of American Geographers, National Council for Geographic Education, National Geographic Society )of folks got together and came up with the national geography standards.

for the geography standards they broke it down into “six essential elements” and within those six elements there are a total of 18 “standards” and within those can be found 124 “knowledge statements” and 436 “learning opportunities.”  whoa huh??  little bit fancier than our five themes.  so the six elements and 18 standards look like this (feel free to skim):

1.  The World in Spatial Terms

1. How to use maps and other geographic representations, tools, and technologies to acquire, process, and report information from a spatial perspective
2. How to use mental maps to organize information about people, places, and environments in a spatial context
3. How to analyze the spatial organization of people, places, and environments on earth’s surface

2.  Places and Regions

4. The physical and human characteristics of places
5. That people create regions to interpret earth’s complexity
6. How culture and experience influence people’s perceptions of places and regions

3.  Physical Systems

7. The physical processes that shape the patterns of earth’s surface
8. The characteristics and spatial distribution of ecosystems on earth’s surface

4.  Human Systems

9. The characteristics, distribution, and migration of human populations on earth’s surface
10. The characteristics, distribution, and complexity of earth’s cultural mosaics
11. The patterns and networks of economic interdependence on earth’s surface
12. The processes, patterns, and functions of human settlement
13. How the forces of cooperation and conflict among people influence the division and control of earth’s surface

5.  Environment and Society

14. How human actions modify the physical environment
15. How physical systems affect human systems
16. The changes that occur in the meaning, use, distribution, and importance of resources

6.  The Uses of Geography

17. How to apply geography to interpret the past
18. How to apply geography to interpret the present and plan for the future

if you want to geek out a bit harder go visit the national geographic standards matrix and click on the standard number for more details, or go here and scroll down.  and if you want to geek out super, super hard then go to both since they both contain different information.

so this is a little more detailed and, particularly if you geek out super hard and read all the info at the above websites, much more helpful in teaching material; setting up more concrete learning objectives and outcomes; and better gauging the success of those teachings.  national geographic also has a page that they have dubbed xpeditions, which is “home to the U.S. National Geography Standards—and to thousands of ideas, tools, and interactive adventures that bring them to life.”  which is actually a really great resource for teachers looking to actually teach the standards.

the geography standards also came with a book, called geography for life.  this is detailed and probably reserved for the hardcore geekers, or teachers.  it breaks the six elements down for three different age groups (k-4, 5-8 and 9-12).

so as a guide, the national geography standards are admittedly really pretty great and quite thorough.  if a kid could do all of these things, shoot, even 1/4 of these things, by the time they graduated from high school i’d consider them a really geographically literate person, and then some.  unfortunately i’d be surprised if most kids graduate high school with 1/10 of these skills or this knowledge.  the geography standards are great…problem is…they’re not standard educational fare.  they’re not required to be taught, or learned.  fail.

all states have a different set up, i know washington state doesn’t require a geography course, and in idaho we take it our freshman year and learn where things are located and who and what is there.  which is great.  but perhaps we should’ve worked on that a bit earlier and then built on it.  geography was more or less abandoned after that.  we hit on a few things in world history…but mostly this geography related to regions that are no longer particularly relevant…and events that happened in large part quite a long time ago.  mostly ancient and classical histories.  what about a class that looked at the more recent histories/geographies of india/pakistan/afghanistan.  hmm???  give some context to the current clashes?  or more recent histories of africa, latin america, even europe?  how about some colonial/post colonial histories and geographies?  alexander the great and all those folks are important, to be sure.  but really not that relevant in application or in understanding our world today.  a brief skimming and general knowledge of those events would more than suffice for k-12.  the details of events that long ago (down to the year…really??  not useful) is complete overkill.  i’m not saying get rid of world history, just saying maybe tweak some things, don’t spend so much time on such specific dates and events.  to be honest i don’t remember 90% (it’s quite possible this figure is even higher, possibly even as high as 99.9%) of the exact dates of much ancient and classical history and my life has yet to be at all impacted by this forgetfulness.  and here’s the kicker:  we don’t need stand alone geography courses.  in fact in my opinion we’d be better off with an initial stand alone geography course followed by the integration of it in our other classes.  we had a really great world literature component to my senior english class.  incorporating geography into our other classes is a great way to build a lot of spatial analysis skills…my u.s. government and u.s. history classes would’ve been greatly improved by some world geopolitical components.  current events, international relations, global issues classes could, and should, be an integration of geography, politics, history and economics.

so there’s some thoughts.  that’s enough for now i reckon.  i’ll be attempting to throw up a separate post on why this matters…why we should care about teachings geography to our kids, on why we should care if they’re building these skills or not.  cheers.

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