This Is Not Your Father’s Geography

by Guest Blogger
November 4th, 2015

Missouri: Jefferson City, Corn. Kansas: Topeka, Corn.

States, capitals, crops. That’s pretty much what my geography education consisted of. I didn’t even see a topographic map until I was in college—a boyfriend took me hiking.

It was as an adult, reading Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, that I realized how little I knew of the field and how important it is. Today’s geographers are central to resolving issues as varied as pollution, diseases, poverty, and conflicts.


Geographers are also essential to our mobile lives (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

In schools, geography ought to be a fascinating bridge between history, civics, and science. Instead, it’s barely taught.

After the 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress geography results showed abysmal proficiency rates among eighth graders—27% of all students, 11% of those eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and 7% of Black students—the Senate asked GAO to report on the challenges of geography education in K– 12. Let’s hope the senators were not surprised when the high stakes attached to reading and math scores emerged as the primary reason little time is spent on geography:

Data on student access to geography education showed that a small portion of instruction time is spent on the subject. Our analysis of 2014 teacher survey data,… showed that 50 percent of eighth grade teachers reported spending 3 to 5 hours per week of classroom instruction time on social studies…. Of those … more than half reported that “10 percent or less” of their social studies time was spent on geography…. In addition, half of all eighth grade students in 2014 reported learning about geography “a few times a year” or “hardly ever.”…

Officials from all four state educational agencies with which we conducted interviews told us they faced challenges in ensuring that geography standards remained an integral part of the state curriculum. For example, one state official told us how the state had eliminated geography from the curriculum for over a decade, and only recently added geography courses back amid concerns from the community that students were lacking essential geography skills. Similarly, all 10 teachers we spoke with reported that geography instruction has decreased in recent years due to a greater emphasis on teaching math and reading. Half of the 10 teachers described pressures to improve student test scores in reading and math, which hindered their ability to devote time to social studies and geography—subjects that generally do not have required tests. Among the 10 teachers we interviewed, almost all described not having sufficient time to teach geography as the top challenge to providing students with a geography education. Five of the 10 teachers also reported that teaching geography was not viewed as important in their district or school. For example, one teacher said she was told that her students’ test scores in geography did not “count” and two of the geography teachers expressed concern about losing their jobs because geography and social studies courses were likely being removed from the curriculum.

Okay, so this boils down to geography isn’t tested and isn’t important. On both points, our leaders and educators are sadly wrong. As Dan Willingham has said—including in this great video—teaching geography is teaching reading. The more students know, the better their comprehension. And, the higher their test scores. Take a look at these grade 3 sample items from Smarter Balanced. The knowledge demands range from birds to how paper is made to—yes—geography. Item 10 is a listening comprehension task on the Northern Lights; it assumes knowledge of stars, the North Pole, the South Pole, Canada, and Alaska.

In reality, geography is tested—as are all other academic subjects—in reading comprehension assessments.

And more importantly, geography is a fascinating subject with critical real-life applications. As the GAO report noted:

Geography and geospatial or location-based technologies are ubiquitous in daily life, from the navigation units in cars to applications on smart phones. These technologies, which include global positioning systems (GPS) and geographic information systems (GIS), are used in a myriad of ways, from crisis mapping in Haitian earthquake relief efforts to deciding where to locate supermarkets in underserved communities in Philadelphia…. According to the Department of Labor, employment of specialists in geography, or geographers, is projected to grow 29 percent from 2012 to 2022—much faster than the average 11 percent growth for all occupations.

Google, the World Health Organization, and the military are all looking for geographers. Are they unimportant too?

Squishiness Watch

by Robert Pondiscio
October 22nd, 2012

A “draft framework” for common social studies standards is scheduled for release next month.  If a report by Education Week’s Catherine Gewertz is any indication, they might be so devoid of curricular content as to be functionally meaningless.

“Social studies specialists have been working with state department of education officials and others to create standards in that subject,” Gewertz notes.  That means expert guidance on the history and geography subject matter children should learn in each grade–the seven continents and oceans of the world in kindergarten; Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt in first grade; the U.S. Constitution in second grade–right?  I mean that is the point of this exercise, isn’t it?   Gewertz’s blog post indicates those looking for specificity might be disappointed.

“Early signs suggest that you shouldn’t expect something that prescribes the specific issues, trends, or events that students should study, but rather describes the structure, tools, and habits of mind they need in order to undertake an exploration of the discipline, and offers states a frame for the content they choose.”

Just asking: If the “framework” for social studies takes a pass on detailing what’s worth knowing and contents itself instead with a squishy and unsatisfying description of the “structure, tools and habits of mind,” how–how exactly, please–will that be anything than redundant with the CCSS ELA standards?

The ELA standards strike a hammer blow for a content-rich vision of literacy in U.S. classrooms without detailing the content.  It’s a step in the wrong direction if social studies specialists are unwilling to begin to detail at least some of what that content should include.

Perhaps the authors of the draft framework would like to help themselves to the Core Knowledge Sequence for Pre-K to 8th grade.  It’s free for your downloading.  Take it.  Steal it.  Call it your own.


Core Knowledge Quiz: Springsteen Study Guide Edition

by Robert Pondiscio
November 17th, 2009

When you’re 60-years-old and living on the road it’s easy to get disoriented.  Surely that explains why Bruce Springsteen shouted out “Hello, Ohio!” to the crowd at the Auburn Hills Palace in Michigan last Friday.  He mistakenly referred to the Buckeye State from the stage several times before one of his bandmates set him straight.  Even if you’re born to run, it’s good to know where you are.  To prevent similar faux pas over the rest of his tour, here’s a handy quiz to help The Boss—and you– test your knowledge of the next ten cities on his tour. 

1.        Known today as “Music City,” this state capital was an important river port long before it became the home of the Grand Ole Opry in 1925. 

2.       Francis Scott Key wrote The Star-Spangled Banner describing an unsuccessful British attack on this city during the War of 1812. It is also the hometown of Edgar Allan Poe and Babe Ruth. 

3.       Located on the eastern shore of Lake Erie, this city grew rapidly after the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825.  At the beginning of 20th century, it was the 8th largest city in America, however today there are fewer people living there than in 1900. 

4.       The first capital of California, this city must now content itself to be known as The Capital of Silicon Valley.   

5.       By reputation the most politically liberal city in one of the nation’s most conservative states, it is home to the headquarters of Dell Computers and Whole Foods Supermarkets.

6.       First settled in the 1830s by the Creek tribe, it was once known as the “Oil Capital of the World.”  Today, however, this city on the Arkansas River in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains has a diverse economy in energy, education, finance and aviation.

7.       Located just east of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, this city was originally settled as a gold mining town.  It really is 5,280 feet above sea level. 

8.       Chicago may be nicknamed the Second City, but its population makes it #3.  This city is actually the second largest in the United States. 

9.       Founded by Puritan colonists in 1630, this city had America’s first public school, and first subway system. 

10.   One of America’s best known poets, Wallace Stevens, spent most of his career working as a lawyer and insurance executive in this city, still known as “The Insurance Capital of the World.” Other famous authors who lived there included Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Answers, scoring guide, and Springsteen tour dates below:

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Way Smarter Than a 5th Grader

by Robert Pondiscio
May 23rd, 2008

Pop Quiz (answers below):

  1. What is the westernmost Asian national capital?
  2. In which country is Makossa is a popular type of music?
  3. Where is Tillya Tepe?

If you don’t know, then you too would have lost the National Geographic Bee. The winner, 11-year-old Akshay Rajagopal from Lincoln, Nebraska won the contest by knowing that Cochabamba is the third-largest conurbation in Bolivia.

A conurbation, needless to say, is an extensive urban area resulting from the expansion of several cities or towns so that they coalesce but usually retain their separate identities. But you knew that.

There’s a terrific, if humbling, ten-question daily Geo Bee online. Start boning up for next year.

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She Had Me at Turkmenistan

by Robert Pondiscio
February 6th, 2008

This You Tube video of a toddler who can do what few high school students can do—ID nearly every country on a world map—has been viewed over two million times. Thus, I’m probably the last person to have heard about it. At an age when most kids would be happy merely to be put in front of a video of Madagascar, she can actually find it on a map.

Other than David Tyree’s catch, it’s the most amazing thing I’ve seen all week.

Where on Earth can you take a geography class?

by CKF
April 26th, 2007

Orlando SentinelStudents learn the subject in other countries, but most American public schools don’t teach it — except as part of history and social studies.

Shradhha Sharma | Columbia News Service

Ten years ago at a convention in Baltimore, fifth-grade history teacher Lydia Lewis met someone she described as a “bright, college-educated young woman in her 20s.” Lewis was busily reviewing her notes for a slide presentation on geography when she felt someone tapping her on the shoulder.

Turning around, she saw the young woman standing there, a quizzical expression on her face. In her hand was a slide depicting a map of the United States. She held it upside down so that Florida was in the north and asked Lewis innocently, “Ma’am, which way does this slide go in?”

“I was completely shocked,” Lewis recalls. “But being a teacher, I thought this was one of those teachable moments so I started to explain to her the right way to look at the map. But she simply wasn’t interested.”

As teachers across the country try to help their students meet test-score standards mandated by law, there is one subject that has been left behind: geography.

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