Teaching Opinion

Teaching the Why, Not Just the What, of Geography

By Phil Gersmehl — October 28, 2014 6 min read
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The public image of an academic subject is often reflected in the Internet “briefs” regularly consulted by decisionmakers. I often scan news from Education Week, ASCD, the National Council for the Social Studies, Middleweb, FP Mideast, and half a dozen others.

By my rough count, I spotted nine recent articles about the use of technology in teaching geography. (This is a Commentary, not a scientific survey, and therefore the details of my admittedly sporadic sample are not vitally important. You can start your own count to verify the tentative conclusions I offer.)

At least seven of the nine articles noted a high level of student interest: “Excitement was so prevalent ...” All nine described a classroom activity; one noted: “They’re finding different places [on] a modern type of topography and maps,” and “We can drop ourselves [anywhere]; ... it feels like you’re there.”


Don’t get me wrong here. I love these new technologies. While designing lessons or presentations, I probably “visit” someplace on another continent at least four times a week. But I worry a little about the implied answers to two somewhat more abstract questions: What is geography? And what constitutes educational progress?

None of the nine articles described the students doing anything other than getting a visual impression of what another place looks like—usually, the more exotic, the better.

To a geographer, however, a picture of a place is the equivalent of a note in an appointment calendar to a historian. Just as an appointment is a simple factual record of an event associated with a specific time, a photo is a factual record of features associated with a specific place. As such, they both can be useful raw materials for historical or geographical inquiry.

But no historian would accept the suggestion that historical inquiry ends when we have identified the date when something occurred. Likewise, geographers rightly object to the idea that geographic inquiry consists only of pinpointing what lies in a particular spot.

Caution: We need to be careful while interpreting an omission in a brief. A failure to mention any form of advanced geographic inquiry could be an accurate description of a class, if a teacher does not understand geographical analysis and therefore settles for helping students learn about conditions in other places. Alternatively, it could reflect the perspective of journalists who do not understand geography and therefore note only the most basic form of factual detail in a lesson they observe.

We see ... a steady stream of feature articles praising geography classes that use technology to help us observe (but not analyze) conditions in other places."

Either way, the public image of geography classes—to legislators, administrators, and other “outsiders” reading these briefs—is of a subject that consists of mastering the skill of using technology to find a picture of any place in the world. I could teach that skill in a few days, and one result would be a citizenry less able to use the tools of geographic inquiry to help them understand topics such as migration; communicable diseases (Think Ebola); resource use; international trade; the role of ocean currents in redistributing solar energy; and a host of other physical, biological, economic, and political processes.

Processes like these all operate at different rates in different places and/or exhibit other characteristics that can be usefully examined through what can be called a spatial lens.

In the 1700s, Immanuel Kant posited that human beings had several “a priori” ways of organizing information—spatially, temporally, causally, quantitatively, etc. He suggested that these methods of structuring inquiry were built into the human brain.

Fast-forward a couple of centuries, and we go past a long sequence of “isms” dominating discussions among teachers and curriculum designers—behaviorism, pragmatism, progressivism, constructivism, and so forth. They differ in significant ways, but all have one thing in common: a tacit assumption that the brain is a blank slate, upon which teachers can help students inscribe understanding.

Modern brain scanning, however, suggests that Kant was at least partly right—humans do indeed have several modes of information organization that are hard-wired into our neural architecture.

As the psychologist Steven Pinker says, in his 2008 book The Stuff of Thought:

“What the innate apparatus of the mind contributes is a set of abstract conceptual frameworks that organize our experience—time, space, substance, causation, number, and logic.”

For a long time, American curricula were “Kantian,” with math classes dealing with numbers, science classes investigating substance, history classes looking at events over time, geography classes examining the importance of location and other spatial relationships, and everyone looking at logic and causation. It would be comforting if all of these perspectives still were reflected in our modern educational standards and curricular frameworks, but they are not.

The Massachusetts standards, for example, have a “geography” page for each world region, which consists primarily of a list of place names to be memorized “to support the teaching of a coherent historical narrative” (“Massachusetts History and Social Science Curriculum Framework,” Page 5).

The Common Core State Standards document is even more egregiously unbalanced. In describing ways to organize information while reading, it has dozens of references to time frames, temporal orders, and event sequences, but it mentions spatial organization—examining how location and proximity affect issues—only once. That mention is in a combined standard that uses a temporal example:

“Language Standard 3-6: Acquire and use accurately grade-appropriate conversational, general academic, and domain-specific words and phrases, including those that signal spatial and temporal relationships (e.g., After dinner that night ...).”

It is a truism that teaching reflects what gets tested. Tests based on standards like these are likely to have many questions that deal with temporal arrangements, but none that focus on spatial patterns, associations, sequences, or any of the other modes of spatial organization that appear to be wired into human brains.

Not surprisingly, teachers might spend little (or no) time trying to help students learn how to organize information by using various modes of spatial reasoning. Instead, what we see is a steady stream of feature articles praising geography classes that use technology to help us observe (but not analyze) conditions in other places.

As with most things pedagogical, the devil is in the details. Mastery of details takes many hours of practice. I am not sure I buy the oft-quoted maxim that one needs a fixed minimum of 10,000 hours of practice to become a good teacher (or good at anything else, for that matter). At the same time, I sincerely doubt that one can do it in the first year of teaching, yet eight of the nine articles in my review noted—even extolled—the limited experience of the teacher.

Let me suggest, therefore, that teachers and especially administrators would be better served if the editors of academic briefs would try to solicit ideas from people recognized as experts, in addition to enthusiastic novices, within each field, and insist that people have tried an idea several times, refining it in response to both formative feedback and summative assessment of its effectiveness, before publishing it as a recommendation for others to follow.

In this way, we can build on the shoulders of giants, instead of reinventing wheels. In our public face, and especially in our recommendations to others, shouldn’t we emphasize ideas that are demonstrably effective in meeting standards, not simply those that are innovative and engaging?

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A version of this article appeared in the October 29, 2014 edition of Education Week as Geography Education: More Than Just Facts


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