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.


Shutterstock image
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?

4 comments on “This Is Not Your Father’s Geography”

  1. 1
    Ponderosa on November 4, 2015

    Many of my seventh graders know almost nothing of geography. They’re even uncertain about finding N, S, E and W on a map. The difference between city, state, country, continent and empire is fuzzy for them. Unless they have well-educated parents who actively teach them, they know almost nothing of their state’s geography (e.g. where Los Angeles is or what the Sierra Nevada is). Sadly I find many adult Californians do not know much of their state’s geography. It is a rare adult who knows where Kings Canyon National Park is. We live within 40 miles of Silicon Valley, but most of my students have no idea what Silicon Valley is or where it’s located. It’s not unusual to encounter a student who does not know the capital of the state or of the United States. Many have no idea that Washington D.C. is on the east side of the country. What have they been learning in elementary school? Virtually nothing. They just practice “literacy skills” and math (and they’re no whizzes at literacy or math).

  2. 2
    Michelle Zhang on November 8, 2015

    Geography is very important in our life. In China, all third-graders students start to learn Geography. All the primary students know where Beijing is. I still remembered when I was a primary student, and I did not like Geography. My dad bought a Chinese map and sticks on the living room. He showed me some cities and asked me to watch the weather focuses every day. He told me that Chinese map is looks like a rooster. The Harbin is the rooster’s head and located at the north end of a map of China. My dad told me that Beijing is the capital of China should remember as a Chinese. In Beijing, there is a big famous Ancient building that calls the Forbidden City, the main gate calls Tian’an men. Every morning there are many people stand up for the national flag and sing the national anthem at Tian’an men square. Geography is a compulsory subject in primary school textbooks. Every primary student needs to take an examination.
    I agree with Lisa that Geography is location-based technologies are ubiquitous in daily life. For example: for the navigation units in cars, research the earthquake location and a map for traveling, they all cannot do without Geography.

  3. 3
    Mia Munn on November 8, 2015

    ESRI, the major GIS software company, offers free online mapping tools to schools. http://www.esri.com/connected

  4. 4
    Darina on November 15, 2015

    I teach on an elementary level. Sadly, there we also do not teach Geography. I believe Geography is such an important aspect. Students not only need to know where they came from and how it shapes their culture, but also use Geography to bridge the gap between other units of study. Although in my state, we do not have indicators for geography, I still try to incorporate it into my daily lessons. When students learn about animal adaptations, they study and analyze maps and discuss why certain animals adapt to a specific environment. We discuss where in relation to us is the place located. The students are fascinated with the maps and the globe. It builds an overall a well rounded student.

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