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Teaching of Geography - Effectiveness of Instruction, Maps and Spatial Concepts, Evaluating Geographic Learning

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Geography, like history, is not defined by the uniqueness of its content; rather, both gain their distinction by the way in which they organize and analyze the data they collect regarding particular aspects of the human experience. History compares and contrasts information within the framework of chronology, while geography organizes its information within the context of the spatial environment. Today, the focus of geographic inquiry is generally conceded to be on spatial interactions, that is, the geographer seeks to understand the significance of human activity within a spatial framework. Where historians report their findings primarily through written narratives, geographers present their data primarily through the construction of maps.

Until the advent of the Progressive movement in American life, beginning in the decades following the Civil War, geography was taught as a separate subject. Memorization of the names of important cities, physical features, and relational facts dominated instruction. Recognition of the temporary shelf life of that kind of information taught in rote fashion led Progressive educators to deemphasize the acquisition of facts and to instead emphasize the role of reasoning and problem solving in learning. Under this program, the traditional subjects of geography, history, and civics were fused. In this context the teaching of geography began to lose its identity as a unique area of study.

Effectiveness of Instruction

Whether taught as a separate subject or fused in some way with subject matter drawn from other fields of the natural and social sciences, there is a long history of ineffectiveness of instruction in the teaching of geography. From the first attempt to assess the effectiveness of instruction in geography, in the 1840s in Boston's public schools, to the most recent efforts, notably the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), there is a continuing record of what most consider to be substandard results. A much more sophisticated assessment tool than those of past years, the NAEP results have shown, for example, that secondary students learn more geographic information in history classes than in those classes devoted exclusively to the study of geography. Although one can decry such a seeming incongruity, the historical knowledge displayed by students on these tests was equally dismal.

How is it that geographic instruction appears to be so ineffective? One reason may be that teachers generally are not themselves geographically literate. One teaches what one knows, and today's teachers are as much a product of their schooling as anyone else. It might be hoped that professional geographers would be able to communicate the nature of geographic literacy and would be effective in educating teachers for the task of teaching geographic concepts. Unfortunately, the number of professional geographers is limited–hardly a drop in the bucket when compared to the number of professional historians, for example–so it is to be expected their ability to help teachers will also be limited. However, there are many geographers who are devoted to the task of teacher education and are actively involved in remediating this problem, which is coordinated to the extent possible through a professional organization, the National Council for Geographic Education.

A second reason that geographic instruction is not as effective as it might be is because not enough is known about how students acquire geographic concepts. There is, however, a body of information that is suggestive of that process. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896–1980) is the towering figure in the development of research techniques and in broadening understandings about the fashion in which spatial concepts develop. Rather than being interested in a child's ability to give a correct response to direct questions, he sought to understand the reasoning process that led children to give incorrect answers to the broader tasks he set before them to solve. As well, instead of attempting to secure answers in a third-person setting in which the correct answers were foretold–the paper-and-pencil test so familiar in American schools–he asked youngsters to talk their way through the solution to a particular spatial problem irrespective of "correctness."

Piaget's pioneering research, and that of many researchers who followed his lead in exploring the emergence of spatial concepts, tells us that the intellectual progression in the ability to comprehend spatial properties moves from perceived space to conceived space, from experiencing space only in the most direct sense to conceptions of space in which the child's thoughts, at first quite primitive, gradually become abstract and based on Euclidean (mathematical) conceptions. The development of a reasonably mature ability to comprehend spatial interactions appears not to be available to the student until early adolescence. If this is so, then the importance of providing direct environmental experience, especially in the elementary school, would be required for the development of the kind of thinking that is basic to the mature comprehending of spatial interactions. That school environments largely preclude direct experiencing of the spatial environment means that the development of geographic literacy faces some significant hurdles, and it also explains why the focus on "where-is-it," "what-is-it" kinds of questions persist in the school curriculum.

Maps and Spatial Concepts

Since the map provides the basic tool for reporting spatial interactions, the ability to read maps meaningfully is a primary objective of instruction. Map reading can be viewed as a more complex form of print reading–the reading of books, newspapers, and so forth–in which the number of symbols and their positions in relation to one another are both consistent and limited. Map reading, in contrast, requires the reader to develop meanings for a wide variety of symbols, some conventional print but others of varying degrees of abstraction, all arranged in a relational two-dimensional environment. The reading process, regardless of the symbol systems employed, requires the creation of meanings, which in turn are dependent upon the reader's conceptual base, that is, what the reader understands the symbols are intended to represent. There has long been controversy over how the reading process, regardless of the complexity of the symbol system involved, is initiated. Many believe that initial skills should be taught in a more or less arbitrary fashion and that the development of meanings follows. Others, and that is the argument here, believe that form follows function, that concepts, in this case of spatial relationships, are basic to the process of creating meanings in response to apprehending textual material.

As in learning to read conventional print, it is argued that the most constructive route to fluent reading involves much writing based on one's own experience. If map reading is, as it appears, similar to reading print in its more conventional form, but complicated by the presence of a variety of symbols representing different sets of meanings arranged in a two-dimensional plane (as well as an abstraction of the world's three-dimensional reality), then learning to read maps with some degree of sophistication must depend upon prior experiences in constructing maps out of one's personal experience. Taking this view, an important activity throughout the school curriculum for both elementary and secondary schools should entail an emphasis on a developmental sequence that takes the student from first creating maps directly out of one's own experience and going onward from there toward learning how the mathematics of map making results in the kind of representations seen in classrooms and the world at large.

Studies of children's conceptions of spatial interactions indicate the progression toward some degree of intellectual maturity in this regard is much slower than commonly perceived. For example, concepts of political entities (towns, states, nations, etc.), notions of boundary lines, slope, and elevation seem to commence their emergence late–in early adolescence at best. The argument that television and various forms of virtual reality, abstractions even at their best, have expanded student's views such that they are much more aware of the world they live in begs further examination. It is to be regretted in this regard that Piagetian research protocols have not been updated and applied to furthering our knowledge. The admittedly little evidence we do have suggests that we be cautious in coming to any conclusions about the efficacy of media, including the Internet, in promoting geographic understandings because the emergence of mature geographic understanding appears to be so highly dependent upon prior firsthand experiencing of the immediate environment.

Evaluating Geographic Learning

How, then, does one evaluate geographic learning? Geographers are not in agreement regarding the approach instruction should take and, consequently, how to judge whether significant learning has occurred. The major traditions of geographic inquiry, which might be used as the basic framework for making such judgments, have been defined as the spatial tradition, the areas studies tradition, man–land tradition, and the earth science tradition. These are the traditional categories employed in developing college curricula. Geographers more interested in defining geography appropriate to elementary and secondary schools have argued for what they call the five themes of geography: location, place, relationships within places, movement over the earth, and regions.

Whichever set of criteria one uses for developing test items, and despite the popularity of paper-and-pencil multiple-choice questions, easily evaluated by mechanical means, it is now widely accepted that evaluation procedures, to be valid, must include questions requiring the student to demonstrate reasoning abilities for reaching a particular conclusion about spatial interrelationships. Evaluating responses that demonstrate reasoning powers along with knowledge of specifics requires more time than current test practice provides and will, therefore, not be widely used until there is a broader acceptance of in-depth analyses of knowledge as the better indicator of students' progress toward geographic literacy.


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U.S. DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION. OFFICE OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH AND IMPROVEMENT. 1995. NAEP 1994 Geography: A First Look: Findings from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

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