Once Forgotten, Geography Maps Out Place in Schools

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At the University of Tennessee this spring, geography professors had to turn students away from their classes.

At New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., more than 500 students are taking elective classes in geography.

And high-school educators in Frederick County, Md., last year began teaching a separate geography course for the first time in two decades.

To many proponents of geography education, these are signs that their discipline, having once nearly disappeared from the school curriculum, is making a comeback. Geography is one of only a handful of subjects mentioned in the national education goals fashioned in 1989 by the President and the nation's governors. And, in 1994, students across the nation in grades 4, 8, and 12 will be tested on their grasp of the subject for the first time.

"I think it's the 'golden age' for geography right now,'' said Robert E. Dulli, the assistant vice president of the geography-education division of the National Geographic Society in Washington. "The opportunities for kids to learn geography haven't been this available for the last 50 years.''

While not everyone in the field agrees that a golden age has fully dawned, there is widespread agreement that the signs are encouraging.

And experts say the resurgence of interest in geography education has been spawned by a complex array of factors. They include: an extraordinary commitment on the part of the National Geographic Society and other professional geographic organizations to promoting geography teaching; the subject's position on the winning end of a political tug-of-war over what goes in the school curriculum; public disenchantment over American students' ignorance in the subject area; and, most of all, Americans' growing sense of the United States's interdependence with other nations.

"I think there's an increasing recognition that the future of the United States is going to be conditioned to a large part on what we know about the rest of the world,'' said Sidney R. Jumper, a University of Tennessee geography professor. "And some of our students didn't even know they lived in North America.''

Lost in the Shuffle

Once an integral part of the curriculum, geography began to fade from view after World War II. It was absorbed in the growing movement toward a more integrated approach to teaching the social sciences. Under that philosophy, geography began sharing time in the classroom with history, economics, political science, government, civics, and other subjects now commonly considered part of social studies.

Geography was easily lost in the shuffle, geography-education proponents say, because it often was poorly taught. Narrowly defined and relying heavily on rote memorization of facts, geography was "boring'' for both students and teachers, they say.

"So what if you didn't know the state capitals or where bauxite comes from?'' said C. Frederick Risinger, associate director of the social-studies-development center at Indiana University. "There was always more to it, of course, but it wasn't always taught that way.''

By the mid-1970's, according to one national survey, the percentage of 7th to 12th graders enrolled in geography courses had dropped to 9 percent.

The lack of attention being paid to geography became evident in the 1980's, when international and regional surveys began to hint at Americans' ignorance of the subject.

In a 1983 Dallas Times-Herald survey, for example, more than a fifth of Dallas elementary-school students could not locate the United States on a world map.

In a 10-nation Gallup Poll of adult geographic knowledge conducted in 1988 and 1989, Americans ranked among the bottom third, with those between ages 18 and 24 coming in last.

And, on a trial National Assessment for Educational Progress test in geography conducted in 1988, high-school seniors responded correctly, on average, to only 57 percent of the 67 multiple-choice questions on the test.

The distressing results of those and other surveys attracted much attention in the news media and the popular culture.

"Every parent thinks they know geography and, if they know it, it's important that their children know it,'' said Don Hindman, a curriculum specialist for the Frederick County, Md., district, which recently re-introduced separate courses in geography in three of seven high schools.

An Organized Response

At about the same time, the American Association of Geographers and the National Council for Geographic Education formed a joint committee to draw up guidelines for improving the teaching of the subject. The product of their efforts, a pamphlet published in 1984 called "Guidelines for Geographic Education,'' outlines five fundamental themes for teaching geography. The booklet has since been widely distributed, and the five themes have been incorporated in curriculum frameworks and textbooks.

Considerable clout was added to such efforts in 1985 when the National Geographic Society began what its president and chairman, Gilbert M. Grosvenor, has called "a full-court press'' to promote geography education.

To promote and improve geography teaching, the 10-million-member organization formed and helped fund formal alliances of educators, geographers, and public policymakers in 47 states. It established a permanent endowment to support its cause in 1988.

And the venerable organization began holding four-week summer institutes in the subject for teachers, with the stipulation that the teachers would return to their school districts and share what they had learned with their colleagues.

In this way, the society estimates, it has provided free geography training thus far to 157,000 elementary- and secondary-school teachers across the United States and Canada.

In all, Mr. Grosvenor said, the geographic society has spent or committed more than $70 million in its seven-year-long campaign.

"National Geographic has been able to make a point that geography professors have been trying to make for a long time,'' said Ruth Shirey, the executive director of the National Council for Geographic Education and a geography professor at Pennsylvania State University.

Getting Specific

Despite the high profile lent to the effort by the society, some educators were caught by surprise when the President and the nation's governors included the infrequently taught subject as one of only five disciplines mentioned in the national education goals. By listing geography separately, the policymakers had eschewed the broader, more commonly used term, "social studies.''

"The concept of social studies in my opinion has led to a tendency to water everything down,'' said Lynne V. Cheney, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, who sat in on many of the private meetings between governors and Bush Administration officials during the formulation of the goals.

Although she was expressing a view held by several federal officials at the time, Ms. Cheney was particularly vocal in arguing in favor of specifying history and geography, participants said.

"I took it as one of my particular responsibilities, every time the phrase 'social studies' was used, to object and say, 'No, you mean 'history,' '' Ms. Cheney recalled.

"I clearly saw the need also for teaching geography--either separately or integrated with history,'' she said.

Additional support for geography came from some of the Southern governors who were key participants in the talks, according to some involved in the process.

It has also helped, geography proponents say, that the world has undergone significant geopolitical upheavals in recent years. Events such as the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and the Persian Gulf war have heightened Americans' global awareness.

"As a country, we are constantly surprised by political and economic events that occur in places we've never heard of and involve people we don't understand,'' said former Gov. Gerald L. Baliles of Virginia, who during his term in office chaired a Southern Governors' Association panel that called for more international studies in schools.

"We no longer can afford it,'' he said.

Signs of Progress

While there are no hard data on the degree to which geography is now being taught in the schools, some anecdotal evidence suggests the campaign in behalf of geography education is starting to pay off. For example:

  • Participation in national student geography competitions has increased greatly. The number of students participating in the National Geography Bee sponsored by National Geographic, for example, has doubled since 1989, reaching 6 million this year. Similar increases have come from national competitions sponsored by American Express and Rand McNally.
  • Four state universities or university systems in recent years have taken steps to require a course in geography for admission. They are the state university system in Minnesota, the University of California, the University of Colorado's college of arts and sciences, and the University of Tennessee and Tennessee State University systems.
  • The number of precollegiate geography textbooks on the market has increased from 21 three years ago to more than 30 this year, according to a survey by the Geography Education National Implementation Project, a group formed to foster implementation of the "five themes'' of geography teaching.

"When I first started teaching geography, it was difficult to find good teaching materials,'' said Michael Roessler, a Portland, Mich., high-school teacher whose students recently won top honors in the annual American Express geography competition. "In the last 10 years, there's been a virtual explosion of materials.''

Making It Stick

Some experts express caution over how permanent the new attention to geography will be.

"The only thing I'm not sure of is whether the institutionalization of it has been completed,'' said Salvatore J. Natoli, the director of publications for the National Council for the Social Studies and the chairman of the joint committee that produced the "five themes.''

"We're not to the point where we can say one course is required in junior or senior high school, or to the point where most colleges are requiring it for admission,'' Mr. Natoli pointed out.

"Teachers are teaching it much better than before because of in-service [training],'' he said. "We can't say that about pre-service.''

Compounding the uncertainty, some experts say, is the inherently "horizontal'' nature of the discipline. More than some disciplines, geography is easily integrated into history, earth science, and a variety of other subjects in the school curriculum. And some experts contend that, at least at the elementary-school level, it may be best taught that way rather than as a stand-alone course.

"It's a very crowded curriculum out there,'' warned Frederick R. Czarra, who is conducting a study on international education for the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Some geography proponents, however, contend that separate geography courses are needed.

"Geography, like history, is a way of thinking about the world, and it does have its own perspective,'' said Ms. Shirey of the N.C.G.E.

Mr. Grosvenor of the National Geographic Society makes the case in more practical terms.

"I've been burned for 40 years,'' he said. "For 40 years we languished in social studies, and geography disappeared.''

"We deserve a shot of our own,'' he said.

A 'New Kind' of Geography

It is not, however, simply a matter of bringing back geography; proponents say they want to see "the right kind of geography'' taught in schools.

"A lot of times, if you ask somebody, 'Are you teaching geography?' they say, 'Oh, yes, I have all my students learn the state capitals and the nations' capitals,' '' said Sarah Bednarz, the co-coordinator of the Texas Alliance for Geographic Education. "That's not the kind of geography we're talking about.''

While that kind of basic knowledge remains integral to the discipline, the new view calls for a broader, more analytical, and cohesive approach to the topic than much of what has been taught in schools up to now.

As the "Guidelines for Geographic Education'' put it: "Geographic education requires knowing where things are located, but more importantly requires a system for inquiring why they are there and where they should be.''

The guidelines, for example, divide geographical content into five themes: location, where things are on the Earth's surface; place, encompassing the physical and human characteristics of places; relationships within places, which takes in the interrelationships between humans and their environments; movement, as humans interact on the Earth; and regions, which involves looking at how regions form and change.

Students in these new geography classrooms, for example, may explore environmental issues and examine some of the reasons for cultural diversity among nations and regions. They may use computers to plot three-dimensional maps or learn to analyze satellite photographs. Contemporary topics, such as the Persian Gulf war or international trade talks, also figure prominently in classroom discussions.

"There's an applicability to geography that has an immediacy to students' own lives,'' said James Marran, the chairman of the geography department at New Trier High School. "That's something schools have tended to ignore.''

That mode of instruction is typified in the kind of classroom project that Mr. Roessler's class in Michigan undertook to win the American Express national competition.

The class's project was to determine whether their tiny Midwestern town could--or should--support a major, enclosed shopping mall. They scouted possible locations with the help of local planning and zoning officials. They interviewed students in another small Midwestern town with a new discount mall to find out how it had affected their community.

They interviewed managers at that mall to determine if their customers also shopped at local businesses. They looked at traffic patterns and discussed the potential impact of the proposed mall on the environment. Eventually, the students decided against the idea.

This broader vision of geography teaching is expected to gain some impetus from upcoming national assessments in the subject. The framework for the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress tests in geography, approved earlier this month, suggests a level of geography teaching not commonly found in classrooms now.

"We need to be ready for the fact that the results from the 1994 framework may be very weak,'' said Chester E. Finn Jr., a member of the federal panel that approved the new framework and a professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University. "It's the closest thing I've ever seen to NAEP becoming evangelistic about what students should know and be able to do.''

Teaching the Teachers

To help students meet such a high standard of achievement, teachers themselves may need a firmer grounding in geography, according to experts.

"Obviously, there's a need for better staff development and better-prepared people to teach it,'' said Ms. Bednarz, a former teacher whose interest in the subject prompted her to leave teaching to become a research associate in geography at Texas A&M University.

While there have been a number of efforts to provide teachers with in-service study in geography, Ms. Bednarz pointed out, few teachers come out of college with any knowledge of the subject.

When he began teaching geography, for example, Mr. Roessler said, he had not taken a single college-level course in the subject, even though he has a master's degree in social studies.

"I think I'm typical of most geography teachers that way,'' said Mr. Roessler, who eventually took courses in geography at a local university.

Despite the greater prominence geography appears to have achieved, it is still unclear whether students are learning more of it. The most recent national study of students' knowledge of the subject was conducted by NAEP in 1988.

However, a small-scale international study soon to be released by the Educational Testing Service could provide a glimmer of hope. While the E.T.S. is providing few details of the results of the 27-question survey, some experts said it is expected to show American students ranking "somewhere in the middle'' among the nations tested.

Vol. 11, Issue 35, Pages 1, 14-15

Published in Print: May 20, 1992, as Once Forgotten, Geography Maps Out Place in Schools
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