Volatile global economies. Bouncing fuel prices. International food shortages. Our world is changing, not always for the better. Yet we are doing too little to prepare young people for troubled new realities. As we enter a new era in American politics, it’s time to ask how we fix this problem.
The children in school today are America’s first global generation. They make up what I call “Generation G.” Gen-G inhabits a planet in which our generation’s assumptions no longer hold. Just as the generations preceding ours were wrenched from their isolation by world wars—and we from our insulation by 9/11—the lives of America’s children are being transformed by the world’s increasing interconnectedness.
Problems such as terrorism, climate change, and the global economic crisis show us clearly that we can no longer behave as if change elsewhere does not affect us. This new reality may, in the long run, be good for America. But unless we prepare Gen-G for all its dimensions, the adaptation will be painful.
As educators, we must ask ourselves if we are meeting our responsibility to do this. Are we teaching Gen-G students what they need to know about their world in order to succeed in that world? Are we, for example, creating workers who know how to minimize the use of energy in making and transporting goods? Are we preparing citizens to make decisions about how to use scarce freshwater, whether to irrigate wheat or to provide habitat for salmon to spawn? Are we preparing them for a culturally rich society in which descendants of European immigrants are no longer the majority?
The stark answer is that we are not. The K-12 curriculum contains shockingly little instruction about either the social, cultural, and political world or the world of the physical environment.
While this diagnosis will come as no surprise to most Americans, the recommended treatment might: If we want to prepare Gen-G for the challenges of its world, we need to restore geographic education to a place of importance in the K-12 curriculum.
As a geography educator, I have grown accustomed to skepticism in response to this recommendation because of the out-of-date understanding most people have of geography. For most Americans, the term geography evokes images of memorizing state capitals, coloring and labeling maps, and other exercises in trivia.
But modern geography is very different from the geography that most of us experienced in school. It is not about facts and descriptions. It is about planning, problem-solving, and decisionmaking in a complex world. Good geographic education teaches students how both the physical and the social world work, and prepares them to function effectively in both.
What will a strong geographic education prepare Gen-G students for? The best way to answer that is to break geography down into the two categories that geographers tend to use, human geography and physical geography, which roughly correspond to the division between social studies and science in K-12 schools.
On the human-geography side, a 21st-century education will teach Gen-G students information such as how the distribution of natural resources on Earth influences economic opportunities in different places and how trade, migration, and communication systems connect us to each other locally, nationally, and globally.
On the physical-geography side, a 21st-century geographic education will give students knowledge in such areas as how their drinking water gets to them and what the cost of transporting it is. And it will show them such cause-and-effect processes as how decisions about fertilizer application in Illinois and Maryland influence the health of the seafood industries in the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay.
From both sides of the discipline, students will learn about human-environment interactions. They also will learn to analyze situations geographically, using data and spatial-analysis techniques to understand trends and patterns. This ability is widely recognized as an important 21st-century workforce skill.
Neither human nor physical geography has a secure place in today’s K-12 curriculum (and, by extension, neither does human-environment interaction or geospatial analysis). To the extent that either kind of geography is being taught at all, it has generally been pushed to the margins. And federal policy in education is tending to push them even further to the periphery as an unanticipated side effect of the narrow focus of the No Child Left Behind Act’s accountability requirements.
Human geography has, like other social studies, been left out of NCLB’s accountability requirements entirely. And while the sciences are being tested now as part of No Child Left Behind, physical geography has fared little better in science than human geography has in social studies, since most education reformers overlook the geosciences and ecology in favor of the sciences associated with more-traditional careers.
Fortunately, much of the foundation for reform in geography education has been laid. For 20 years, dedicated geographers and educators have been working out of the public eye to modernize the discipline. These researchers and practitioners have banded together in “geography alliances"—grassroots professional-development and advocacy organizations committed to the cause of geographic education—in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.
These coalitions of academic geographers and K-12 practitioners have succeeded in designing an engaging, purposeful approach to geographic education that bears almost no resemblance to the shower of trivia most of us experienced in school. They have helped create national geography standards that embody the new approach, and to establish geography standards in all 50 states.
With this foundation in place, what more is needed to bring a meaningful geographic education to all students? Here are three concrete steps to consider:
First, we need policies that create demand for geographic education. We cannot allow the field to be a forgotten stepchild of accountability. We should make sure that geographic literacy, on both the social studies and science sides, is part of the accountability requirements for all schools.
Second, we must have resources to meet the need for high-quality geographic education for all students. Geography is the only one of the nine core subjects listed in the No Child Left Behind legislation that has no federally funded program to support improvements in its teaching. Congress, to its credit, has recently taken notice, with the proposed Teaching Geography Is Fundamental Act, which would fund research and implementation of reform in geography education, gaining bipartisan sponsorship in both the House and the Senate. We should encourage Congress to pass this legislation without delay.
Third, we must learn from past reform movements. The quiet, grassroots transformation in geographic education has been relatively small-scale. To update and re-energize the subject nationwide, we will have to learn from the previous large-scale reform movements in literacy, math, and science. One benefit of being late to the party is this opportunity to learn from their experiences. Because our need is pressing and our resources limited, we must do this quickly and well, so that we can not only achieve better outcomes, but also achieve them more rapidly and less expensively.
One way or another, Generation G will come to understand the hard realities of our new, interconnected world. If we don’t prepare these young people in advance, they will learn through painful experience. As educators who understand this, we have the responsibility to act now.
A version of this article appeared in the January 28, 2009 edition of Education Week as Geography and ‘Generation G’