First, I need to preach the choir and hopefully reach someone out there who can learn that geography needs to be taught as more than just place knowledge.
Geography More than Places
Year after year surveys reveal facts like only 37% of young Americans do not know where Iraq is or that a large minority cannot locate the Pacific Ocean on a map. Like clock work commentators then write things like how horrible it is that the future of America is so geographic illiterate. This year's Geography Awareness Week, November 15 through 21, promises similar news stories. While it is true that geographic ignorance is horrible for a person, society, and the country; these commentators do no geography no favors.
Geography has long been thought of as merely the memorization of places. This is how it is taught by many schools. This message is reinforced even by various "geography" games that are based mostly on place memorization questions. The thinking that geography is just a memory game and not a science led to some of the nation’s finest educational institutions like Harvard to stop teaching geography in the 1940s and 1950s. Geography has been in an exile ever since and has yet to recover from it.
In order to increase geographic literacy we must recognize geography is more than place memorization. Geography is a spatial science that can be defined as studying what is where, why there, and why care. This expands geography to include places, cultures, environmental patterns, and behavior by persons and cultures to name a few of geography’s study fields.
A geographic background helps understand economic patterns such as why the Rust Belt is where it is and how the Asian Economic Tigers managed to feed each others growth by capitalizing on their shared access to the Pacific Ocean. Knowledge of the geography of sunlight and wind can help one find out where the best spots for renewable energy production are. Having information on the layout of various Afghan ethnic groups and how they relate with one another would greatly help Coalition Forces in predicting how the Taliban will try to spread its insurgency even further. Private companies can refine marketing strategies by having knowledge of where their customers come from and how they get from place to place. Finally, home buyers could save themselves misfortune in the future if they learn how to read Geological Survey maps which would tell them if their home is in a flood plan or in an area full of sinkholes.
While place knowledge is a great starting point for the study of world regions, geography teachers need to expand educational plans to include the spatialness of geography. When people see how geography can actually be useful in everything from global planning to money making to predicting future weather then greater interest and geographic literacy will develop. Excellent free tools such as Google Earth allow one to import and create data that can be overlaid maps to study spatial. GPS and sports like orienteering can further be added to make geography fun for youths and adults. But most of all teachers must convey geography properly. Bring all these elements together will make geographic literacy better.
The best thing about emphasizing geography is that it does not have to take away from other subjects. Unlike engineering or medicine where most of the knowledge requires extensive full time study to learn, geographic literacy can be learned from and applied to other sciences like environmental science, anthropology, economics, meteorology, archaeology, history, statistics, and many more. Even those who are not students can learn geography by traveling, reading newspapers, or looking at a map. Geography is a science everyone can learn from and enjoy.