First, an anecdote:
“How did Francis Marion earn the nickname Swamp Fox?” I asked, looking out at my U.S. history students.
“Because he used guerilla tactics like escaping into the swamp so that he couldn’t be chased. That’d be crazy with alligators and stuff in the water,” a student responded.
“Totally. What would that be like – wading through waist-deep water with alligators and other swamp-y hazards? That terrain is kind of unpredictable,” I replied.
“I mean…it would be really cold. He was probably really uncomfortable, since he had to wear a heavy uniform,” the student said.
“Why would it be cold?” I asked, perplexed. After all, Marion’s Southern swamps were hot and muggy.
“Because the water and the air would be cold. Duh.”
I was attempting to gauge if my students had done their homework, and got more information than I bargained for: after a number of incidents like the one described above, I came to the realization that a large number my students lack a functional understanding of physical geography, including climate regions.
My students aren’t a representative sample of society at large – my urban school is very diverse and most students live in poverty. I wondered if this was a problem unique to us or if it was happening elsewhere. I soon discovered that my teacher friends from other schools had the same problem, and that demographics didn’t appear to have much of an effect. This led me to two new questions:
- Is this problem—a lack of geography knowledge—as bad as I think it is?
- If so, why is it happening and how do we go about solving this problem?
I went on a journey of discovery (online) to find some answers.
Why are Americans bad at geography?
The assumption behind this question may feel like an overgeneralization, and it stings a little bit! No one wants to be told they’re bad at something, but it’s time to take a long, hard look in the mirror. According to a study published a National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) featured in U.S. News and World Report (U.S. Students Are Really Bad at Geography by Lauren Camera), only 24% of 8th graders surveyed in 2014 displayed Proficiency (“solid competency”) in geography and only 4% displayed Advanced skills. That means that 72% of students scored in the Basic or Below Basic range. According to the U.S. News article, “(results are) similar…when looking at prior NAEP assessments of fourth- and 12th-graders, approximately 80 percent of whom tested below proficient in 2010.”
Why isn’t geography taught?
The U.S. News article says a lot of what teachers already know:
…more than half of social studies teachers spend 10 percent or less of their time on geography…As of 2013, only 17 states required a geography course in middle school and 10 states required a geography course for students to graduate from high school…State education officials and K-12 teachers interviewed as part of the investigation told the GAO researchers that spending time and resources on geography education is difficult due to the heavy emphasis placed at both the national and state levels on reading, math, and science. Federal law, for example, requires students to be tested in all three areas.
“One state official told us how the state had eliminated geography from the curriculum for over a decade, and only recently added geography courses back amid concerns from the community that students were lacking essential geography skills,” Nowicki said.
The heavy emphasis on core subjects has put social studies—particularly geography—on the back burner.
Why should we bring geography back? How do we do it?
Many arguments in favor of bringing geography back into schools are based on economics: according the U.S. News article, job growth in disciplines that require geography knowledge like GIS (computer-based) mapping, civil engineering, and disaster preparedness is outpacing job growth in other sectors by 18%. However, the “softer” reasons are also quite compelling: in an increasingly partisan political climate and globalized world, students need to understand physical geography and its BFF, human geography, to participate in civic life with empathy and cultural competence—because geography is about more than just labeling maps or parlor tricks like drawing maps from memory (which are actually pretty impressive)!
How can I incorporate geography into my classroom practice?
You may be thinking I’m not a social studies or humanities teacher. Or your invisible audience of mentors, professors, and colleagues may be saying teaching rote memorization is not best practice – how can you avoid it? I’ve made it a habit to include maps and physical and human geography vocabulary as often as possible – for example, I’ve put maps with questions in my “Do Now” activities, explicitly taught the regions of the United States to explain voting behavior, and asked my students to hypothesize about settlement patterns in the American colonies. Here are some resources that may be helpful as you think about how to incorporate geography in non-social studies classes:
• Use maps to provide context for fiction and non-fiction or have students map the setting of a story.
• Check out this resource from the University of Cambridge about how to teach geography through English.
• Use maps and equations to add a visual element to calculating distance or speed.
• Check out this resource from STEM Learning about the links between geography and mathematics.
• Applications in science are only limited by your imagination – regional climatology would be a great place to start, considering recent extreme weather events (pair with news coverage to assess the accuracy of climate science data in mainstream journalism).
• Check out this resource from ThoughtCo about exploring geography as a science.
• Incorporate neighborhood geography into your lessons. My school has a walking class in which students visit local landmarks.
• Check out this lesson from PE Central about using the US maps common on many elementary school playgrounds to teach the cardinal directions.
• Use historical and modern maps to discuss political history and change in countr(ies) where the target language is common—learn and apply geography vocabulary in the target language.
• Check out this lesson from The World Language Classroom about using “invisible maps” in the foreign language classroom.
Fine and Performing Arts
• Have students conduct research and create an artistic rendition of a map. Here is an example of an interesting one made (digitally) by the UK-based clothing company Generation:
• Check out this interesting piece about the interdisciplinary connections between performance and human/cultural geography.
What standards should I use to assess geography knowledge?
The Common Core State Standards include language about “diverse formats and media,” in the History/Social Studies subsection (grades 11-12):
Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
How do you currently incorporate geography into your classroom? Share your ideas in the comments!