Curriculum Proposed To Combat ‘Geographic Illiteracy’

By Lynn Olson — December 12, 1984 5 min read
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To counteract “Americans’ ignorance of their own country and of the world,” the nation’s two major organizations of geographers and geographic educators have issued a plan for revitalizing the study of geography throughout the grades--including the development of high-school courses in the subject.

The five-theme plan, proposed by the National Council for Geographic Education and the Association of American Geographers, urges schools to incorporate “important geographic understanding and skills” into their K-12 curricula.

More emphasis on geography is justified, the group contends, because “major policies formulated and carried out by governments and large corporations usually have impacts that reach around the globe,” and the insularity of American young people seriously limits their capacity to understand the world in which they live.

“A sound geographic education” according to the guidelines, “provides the perspectives, information, concepts and skills to understand ourselves, our relationship to the earth and our interdependence with other peoples of the world.”

In addition, the group argues that geography reinforces and extends the critical-thinking and problem-solving skills that are applicable to all parts of the curriculum.

‘Geographic Illiteracy’

Members of the committee that developed the guidelines note that “geographic illiteracy” is widespread at all levels of schooling and that professional geographers and geographic educators felt that it was time they stepped in to address the problem.

For example, they cite the Educational Testing Service’s test of the geographic knowledge of more than 3,000 undergraduates in 185 institutions of higher learning. The college students tested achieved a mean score was 42.93 out of a possible 101.

“The locational ability,” according to Salvator J. Natoli, chairman of the committee and the aag’s director of educational affairs, “was so abysmally bad, we felt it was necessary to come out fairly strongly with a statement about geography education.”

Five Themes

The guidelines are intended to present geographic education to teachers, school administrators, school-board members, and legislators in a more systematic way, according to Robert W. Morrill, chairman of the department of geography at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and a member of the committee.

Geography, the guidelines state, is essentially the study of “places on the earth and their relationships to the people who live in them.’'

The document identifies five “central themes” around which geographic education should revolve:

Location, or position on the earth’s surface;

Place, or the physical, human, and observed characteristics that distinguish one setting from another;

Relationships within places, or the disadvantages and advantages that places have for human settlement, and how people have modified or adapted to natural settings;

Movement, or the relationships between and among places through the movement of people, ideas, and materials;

Regions, or areas that display unity in terms of selected criteria such as a governmental unit, a language group, or a type of landform.

Learning Outcomes

The guidelines also identify learning outcomes for the different grade levels that form the basis of a suggested sequence for grades K-12. In grades K-2, for example, suggested outcomes include the abilities to recognize a globe as a model of the earth; describe characteristics of seasons and their impact on people; identify local landforms; and trace routes within and between neighborhoods using a variety of maps and models.

By the end of 6th grade, students should be able, among other things, to recognize distance, direction, scale, map symbols, and the relationship of maps and globes; work with latitude and longitude; identify, locate, and describe well-known economic areas of the United States; compare and contrast life in Anglo-America with life in Mexico and understand the interrelationships between these areas; and identify important global problems with geographic dimensions, such as deforestation, desertification, pollution, and overfishing, and offer suggestions for improvement.

At the high-school level, the guidelines recommend one semester of state or regional geography and two semesters of world geography in grades 7-9; two semesters of earth sciences (including physical geography) and one semester of the geography of the United States in grades 8-10; and at least one semester each of two of the following courses in grades 9-12: environmental geography, urban geography, political geography/global geographic issues, historical/cultural geography, economic geography, and problems in local geography.

The committee also proposes the creation of a one- to four-semester ''honors course” in geography in grade 11 or 12.

Mr. Natoli defended the creation of separate courses in geography at the secondary level as a demand for “more rigor.” “In the general progression, when students begin to reach high school, they become more specialized in all the various fields,” he said.

Values and Social Issues

The guidelines also emphasize a focus on current social problems and on a discussion of values in studying geography. In environmental geography, for example, the guidelines recommend that students investigate “differences in perceptions of the environment and environmental quality” and study the problems created by technological hazards such as toxic-waste disposal sites and nuclear-power plant malfunctions.

“We needed to focus on contemporary and sometimes controversial issues [in the guidelines], because that’s the reality we face,” said Mr. Morrill.

Added Mr. Natoli: “There’s a debate in the education community about values education. But in geography, one of the things you learn ... is that people tend to perceive places from their own value system.”

Future Plans

Committee members are hoping that the guidelines, while not providing teachers with a definitive course outline, will help to justify the study of geography in school.

In the last few weeks, more than 6,000 copies of the guidelines have been distributed to directors of national education organizations, legislators, chairmen of geography departments and colleges of education, state school-board members, social-studies supervisors, and others in hopes that they will make some use of the document.

In addition, Mr. Natoli said, aag and ncge committees are looking at issues of preservice and inservice training for teachers; state certification requirements for teaching social studies; and the development of nationwide networks of college and university professors and “master teachers” of geography at the elementary and high-school levels who could serve as local resources for school systems.

Copies of the guidelines are available for $3.00 per copy from the Association of American Geographers, 1710 Sixteenth Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20009, and the National Council for Geographic Education, Western Illinois University, Macomb, Ill. 61455. Bulk rates are available upon request.

A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 1984 edition of Education Week as Curriculum Proposed To Combat ‘Geographic Illiteracy’


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