Experts Decry Poor Grasp of Geography Among Children, Adults

By Karen Diegmueller — June 08, 1994 4 min read


At the beginning of the school year, Angela Bell told a recent meeting here, many of the 5th- and 6th-grade students in her geography classes could not locate Washington on a U.S. map.

As regrettable as that situation would be for any 10- to 12-year-old students, the teacher noted, it was worse because the students themselves live in the nation’s capital.

Ms. Bell was one of a number of speakers who presented their views about the importance of geography late last month at the final public hearing of the National Council for Geographic Education, which is developing voluntary geography standards for the nation’s elementary and secondary students.

In addition to bewailing the state of geographic knowledge among today’s students, participants offered evidence that many adult Americans as well know little about the earth, its features, and its peoples.

Raiford Pierce, the owner of a travel agency, described customers who have told his agents they would like to stop in Rio de Janeiro on their return to Washington from Lima, Peru--a detour of nearly 2,000 miles.

And Norton Strommen, the chief meteorologist for the Agriculture Department, recalled times when he has been talking about, say, crop conditions in Kansas.

“‘Where’s Kansas?’'' is the invariable response, he said.

The council is scheduled to present on Oct. 20 a document outlining what students should know and be able to do. The project is one of 11 efforts under way or completed to develop national subject-matter standards, and one of seven underwritten by the federal government.

Migrants and Mickey Mouse

As speakers at the public hearing here noted, the importance of geography extends far beyond the concepts of location and borders.

William Wood, a geographer at the State Department, spoke of the need to provide citizens and workers with a solid geographic grounding in order to grasp international relations.

Citing the standard that calls for students to know about the characteristics, distribution, and migration of human population, Mr. Wood observed that various peoples are under tremendous pressure to leave their homes, often moving to crowded cities as a result.

While other speakers’ remarks may not have had international implications, they did raise issues that could affect many individuals’ day-to-day lives.

James Fonseca, the director of the Prince William Institute, a campus of George Mason University, said understanding the standard on the “processes, patterns, and functions of human settlement’’ would help Virginia residents and policymakers make decisons about the Disney Company’s recently announced intention to open a historical-theme park in the countryside outside of Washington.

Conservationists and commuters complain about the impact Disney will have on the environment and traffic, Mr. Fonseca noted.

But, he added, “The critical issue is what happens after Disney,’' when water parks, miniature-golf courses, and fast-food restaurants want to locate nearby.

Quantity and Quality

Most of the speakers at the hearing praised the 18 standards and themes upon which they are built. (See Education Week, Aug. 4, 1993.)

The concerns expressed focused on topics that had been left out or underemphasized.

Jack Williams, the editor of the weather page at USA Today, suggested that greater attention be paid to the quantitative dimensions of geography.

But Roger Downs, a professor of geography at Pennsylvania State University and a principal writer of the standards, said the council chose to gear the standards to a fairly low level of mathematical understanding. Unless there is a link with math, said Mr. Downs, “it’s not clear how much one should push that in geography.’'

Martha Reinhart, a land-use planner and mother, sought more guidance for parents in the standards.

The final document, according to Mr. Downs, will include a section that asks parents age-appropriate questions about their children.

It will ask parents if their 4th graders, for example, can give clear and precise verbal directions between school and home. And parents of 8th graders will be asked if their children can give a general description of a place that has been in the news.

Mr. Strommen of the Agriculture Department recommended that the standards embody a greater emphasis on the quality of data that can be gleaned from different sources and how students can scrutinize them.

To illustrate his point, Mr. Strommen recalled the time when he was called before Congress to testify in the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear accident in what was then the Soviet Union.

He and his staff knew how and what to extrapolate from the minimal amount of data available, he contended, while others were preparing to present inaccurate testimony because they did not understand thoroughly what some data represented or their limitations.

“Without a geographic background ... there is no way we could do this stuff,’' he said.

A version of this article appeared in the June 08, 1994 edition of Education Week as Experts Decry Poor Grasp of Geography Among Children, Adults