Developers Set Final Standards For Geography

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Like the classic publication they so closely resemble in their printed form, the national geography standards were unveiled last week with the vision of opening up the world to the nation's schoolchildren.

"It's the subject of dreams," said Gilbert M. Grosvenor, the president and chairman of the National Geographic Society, which had the formal presentation of the standards at its headquarters here.

Geography enables children to "explore beyond the boundaries of their everyday lives," he said.

Nearly identical in size and style to National Geographic magazine, the ambitious standards document is printed on 272 glossy pages illustrated with color and black-and-white photos, maps, charts, and graphs.

A colorfully illustrated 32-page executive summary accompanies the primary document. It clearly sets out the 18 academic standards that students will be asked to master if their states or districts choose to use them.

The standards themselves, their developers said, are as ambitious as observers have found the wrapping to be alluring.

"They are demanding," said Roger M. Downs, the lead writer of the project. "They are, as the Goals 2000: Educate America Act asked, internationally competitive."

Moreover, said Mr. Downs, a geography professor at Pennsylvania State University, the standards exceed what students in other countries are expected to know and be able to do.

They ask 4th graders to explain with the aid of thematic maps, for example, the distribution of the human population on Earth.

Eighth graders will be expected to "analyze the environmental consequences of both the unintended and intended outcomes of major technological changes in human history."

By the time a student is preparing to graduate from high school, he should be able to "write a scenario predicting the likely consequences of a world temperature increase of 3 degrees F on humans, other living things ... and physical systems."

"For the first time, entire generations of American students will know exactly what they will need to learn for a world-class education in geography," said Mr. Grosvenor, whose organization invested $1 million in the project.

"These standards will forever change the landscape of geography education in U.S. classrooms," he asserted.

A Decade's Work

Geography is one of seven standards projects to receive federal funding--$830,000 from the Education Department and $30,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities--and the second of the federally financed projects, following the arts, to be prepared for nationwide distribution.

Along with the National Geographic Society, the American Geographical Society, the Association of American Geographers, and the National Council for Geographic Education drafted the standards and enlisted hundreds of classroom teachers, academics, parents, and business and government leaders to review them.

Although educators and geographers have been working on the project for two years, Anthony R. DeSouza, the executive director, said the standards mark the culmination of a decade of change in geography education.

In large measure, change became necessary after geography began being absorbed into a broader social-studies curriculum in which the discipline was reduced to what Mr. Grosvenor called "a very long tedious process of memorization."

The standards are built on six essential elements: the world in spatial terms, places and regions, physical systems, human systems, environment and society, and the uses of geography.

'Tradition of Geography'

The 18 standards are sprinkled across these elements. Three standards, for instance, fall under the "places and regions" umbrella, and five fall under "human systems."

Each standard lists what a student should know and what he or she should be able to do.

Finally, it suggests activities that use a variety of resources.

Some of the standards embody the traditional notion of geography. For instance, K-4 students might be expected to construct a model of a hydrologic cycle.

Other topics seem less conventional to the study of geography. Again at the K-4 level, students are asked to explain how and why people compete for control of Earth's surface, using the recent breakup of Czechoslovakia or the end of apartheid in South Africa as jumping-off points.

Indeed, the developers acknowledge that students may not be able to meet these benchmarks if their knowledge of mathematics, science, history, literature, civics and government, and other subjects is not enhanced as well.

Otherwise, how could an 8th grader be able to describe the landscape features and cultural patterns of European enclaves in 19th-century Japan and China?

The standards-setters also recognize that schools will have to make changes in order for the standards to succeed, such as providing teacher training and freeing time for geography.

Ready To Roll

Efforts are under way to begin familiarizing educators, parents, and policymakers with the standards.

In addition to an advertising campaign that began weeks ago, the National Geographic Society will promote the standards in all its publications.

Mr. Grosvenor also announced that the society has formed a partnership with the Smithsonian Institution and Nissan Motors to produce an interactive exhibit built around the standards. It will open here in November 1995 and then tour 40 cities.

Questions in the society's annual geography bee will also be based on the standards.

Copies of the standards, "Geography for Life," are available for $9 each by writing the National Geographic Society, P.O. Box 1640, Washington, D.C. 20013-1640, or by calling (800) 368-2728. The executive summary is $6.

Vol. 14, Issue 08

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