As I read the article “Geography Maps Out Place in Schools’’ (June 17, 1992), I was encouraged by what appears to be a resurgence of geography education in U.S. schools.
Evolution is perhaps as apt as resurgence, for as the article asserted, geography now requires a much broader and more cohesive approach than in years past. As a discipline, it is clearly evolving to be more than the study of population, capitals, and “where bauxite comes from.’'
The Peace Corps, naturally, has always had an interest in geography awareness. Returned volunteers have been teaching it--formally and informally--since the Peace Corps’s inception in 1961. In September of 1991, the agency became more formally involved in geography education with a program called World Wise Schools, which has since been endorsed by the National Geographic Society and 17 state boards of education to date.
In 1989, Congress directed the Peace Corps to place more emphasis on its third goal, which is “to promote a better understanding of other people on the part of American people.’' The agency created World Wise Schools as a means of fulfilling this goal while combatting the distressing level of geographic illiteracy of our students.
The program arranges letter exchanges between classrooms in the United States and Peace Corps volunteers working overseas. Supplemental to the exchange are videos featuring countries where the Peace Corps serves, and study guides with exercises and activities that follow the Guidelines for Geographic Education.
The program takes a distinctly Peace Corps approach. Whether the class is corresponding with a volunteer in the Ivory Coast or Thailand, Poland or Bolivia, the students learn something essential to geography as a whole, indeed, to their entire education--an appreciation for another culture and an awareness of the daily lives of its individuals.
This awareness, first of all, makes the subject interesting and real. Fifth-graders may understand the meaning of “drought,’' but hearing a firsthand account of carrying water miles from the river, of dry wells and ceremonies to bring rain, will help them more fully understand the importance drought holds for a people and a place.
Secondly, such an awareness is crucial to our future as a nation. As the world grows more complex through the rapid advance of technology, changing political systems, and a growing population, we realize that our fate rests largely on the successful interdependence of nations--something with which the United States has limited experience. Without a concentrated effort to overcome it, the combination of our traditionally isolationist attitude and our notorious ignorance of other countries may well cripple us in global politics and a world economy.
Geography education should be, in part, a lesson in interdependence, a lesson in viewing the United States as part of the world. How can such things be taught? By giving students the means to appreciate cultural differences--whether between countries or between neighbors and classmates--by giving them the tools to recognize and overcome mistrust and miscommunication.
Only if students are exposed to other countries and other ways of living can they understand that their way of life is simply one among thousands. Ideally, they will also learn that no matter how different people are, communication is always possible. This is the purpose of the Peace Corps’s World Wise Schools program and many other existing and emerging programs with an emphasis on world affairs, languages, and global awareness.
Here at the Peace Corps, in the interest of our children and future generations, we sincerely hope it is a trend that continues.
Peace Corps of the United States
The gifted are not gone, nor is their programming. However, they do need your help.
What George Lederer is seeing is only the normal cycle of pressures on those who are somewhat different (“The Calligraphy on the Wall?’' Commentary, June 17, 1992). Temporarily, the educational leadership in our country has lost its way. The cycles are disappointingly familiar to those of us who have been committed to education of the gifted for many years. In statistics, we call it “regression to the mean.’' In life, we call it “the pressure to fit in’’ or “normalize.’'
When that pressure has caused our country’s test scores to decrease further, or when our worries about other countries’ surpassing us increases, educators and politicians will again listen to parents who are “crying in the wilderness’’ about their children’s boredom in school. We will again proclaim the need for cultivating our country’s most important resource--its intellectual, creative, and leadership talent.
I’m a psychologist, and my field is underachievement. I specialize in working with bright students who aren’t performing to their abilities in school. Sometimes we call them “at risk’’ kids, and very many of them are gifted. They march to the beat of a different drummer and sometimes have I.Q. scores that exceed ceiling levels of all tests. Their grades are C’s, D’s, and F’s, and they see no reason to learn in schools that provide no opportunities for individual creativity and challenge.
About cooperative learning, these students say, “Oh yes, I do the work, and they get the A’s’’ or “Other kids can’t even understand the concepts I’m trying to explain.’'
Many schools are doing away with grouping, which means that schools are now teaching gifted children how not to learn. They’re asked to be teacher helpers instead. That may elevate their self-esteem, perhaps unrealistically, but what about their learning?
My friend Gina Ginsberg Riggs, an advocacy leader for gifted children, says, “Parents want for their gifted children the same as all parents want for their children: opportunities to learn all they are able to learn--no more, but certainly no less.’'
Have you ever experienced the boredom of reviewing the same concept repeatedly for an hour that you learned in the first five minutes? Is that learning?
In my work with underachieving children, I find they lack two important underlying experiences: First, they don’t really understand perseverance and hard work, and second, they don’t risk competition unless they’re sure they can win. Now that we’ve discovered what underachievers don’t know how to do, will we teach our gifted children to underachieve? Doing away with ability grouping, and an emphasis on cooperative learning will provide few experiences for hard work or for learning to function in competition.
When we have taught our gifted children that schoolwork is always easy, and when we have explained why they must conform in the name of cooperative learning, we will have deliberately taught them how to underachieve. Since many other countries are just as deliberately encouraging achievement, do you suppose they will take care of our nation of underachievers? More likely, they will chastise us for our inability to work hard or compete.
When our country’s test scores decline further, gifted ecucation will be back. For most of us who believe in the individual needs of all children, we’ll continue to plug away.
Educators, the printing is on the wall in large bold letters. Please don’t look the other way. Gifted kids also need your help.
Family Achievement Clinic, S.C.
I find much of what George Lederer has to say about gifted students to be disturbing, but nothing quite so appalling as his cited example of an Oregon teacher who says, [as a way of showing the equal treatment given all children], “I don’t know who these kids are, and I don’t care.” Mr. Lederer concludes: “Of course, she is right.”
Do the classroom teacher and Mr. Lederer also feel the same way about children who are dyslexic, functionally illiterate, suffer from epilepsy, have some other exceptionality?
Teachers who do not want to know about or care about the special needs of their students--whatever those needs may be--should find employment producing widgets and leave teaching to those who genuinely care about the growth and development of all children.
A version of this article appeared in the September 09, 1992 edition of Education Week as Letters to the Editor