Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Worldly Wise

Long-neglected geography is winning back students by teaching the 'why of where'

Eighth-grader Seyi Fayanju has answered a lot of difficult questions in his life, but the one he will never forget came at the finals of last year's National Geography Bee.

"Name the European co-principality whose heads of state are the president of France and the bishop of Urgel."

About these ads

The New Jersey student's correct answer - Andorra - earned him a $25,000 scholarship.

Such a question would leave most adults stumped. But it is symbolic of a much larger picture: Geography is back on the map in education.

"We feel we have to get harder questions because kids are doing well and they're getting more right early on," says Mary Lee Elden, director of the National Geographic Society's National Geography Bee. "It's harder to whittle down a winner."

After more than a decade of charting a comeback, geographic education is realizing its place in the curriculum. In what educators are calling a renaissance, respect for geography is on a Kilimanjaro climb, bringing to light what geographers and teachers have been saying all along: Without geography, you're nowhere.

"This is the most encouraging time in the history of the discipline," says Sid Jumper, professor of geography at the University of Tennessee.

States such as Georgia and Kentucky have mandated that geography be taught in middle school. More teachers of those grades are specializing in geography. California, Minnesota, Tennessee, and Colorado each have a geography requirement to get into the university system.

And public awareness is growing. On May 27, state champions will compete in the National Geography Bee, sponsored by the National Geographic Society and Sylvan Learning Centers and held annually in Washington. Children in Grades 4 through 8 will compete for a $25,000 scholarship. (Most PBS stations will air the finals on the 29th.)

About these ads

But a strong grasp of geography can lead to far more than contest earnings or triumph in Trivial Pursuit. According to Professor Jumper, jobs are abundant for geography majors, with growing demand in fields like urban planning, environmental management, information systems, and teaching.

Back in the 1980s, however, things were far from top-of-the-world.

Geography was misunderstood as a memorization game of "location, location, location" - learning state capitals and which regions produce the most bauxite. Instead of remaining a separate discipline, the topic was fused with social studies, history, and earth science. Teacher training fell off.

Then came a rude awakening. Reports of geographic illiteracy made headlines. Surveys showed 1 in 6 high school seniors suggesting the Panama Canal as a route from New York to London. Other students struggled to name the world's oceans and identify the continents on an unmarked map.

"That became the nadir," recalls Roger Downs, head of the geography department at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pa. "Then people started to pay attention."

Editorials abounded. Parents plunked their children in front of the Public Broadcasting System's "Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?" And the National Geographic Society got to work.

As the largest nonprofit and nongovernmental geographical organization in the world, the venerable keeper of maps began bolstering education with grass-roots groups involving teachers, geographers, students, and administrators.

Today, the society's alliances are in every state, supporting teachers and representing geography at curriculum bargaining tables. "We have these invigorated, enthusiastic, charged-up alliances of teachers who, in one way or another, have fallen in love with geography," says Robert Dulli, director of education at the National Geographic Society.

NGS has invested $85 million to get geography back into classrooms and to train teachers, Mr. Dulli says. Close to 90 percent of the governors are supporting geography education in their states to the tune of $50,000 a year, which is matched by NGS's Education Foundation. Summer institutes and teacher training further the effort.

While NGS was at work, educators and geographers were also joining hands to develop specific guidelines for geographic education, which laid groundwork for national standards.

The real stamp of approval came when geography was included as a core subject in the "Goals 2000: Educate America Act" of 1994.

"That equaled clout in a political sense," says Susan Hardwick, a professor of geography at California State University at Chico. When "Geography for Life: The National Geography Standards" followed in 1995, "there was a fury of excitement," says Ms. Hardwick, a committee chairwoman.

Geography educators are reveling in their new status. "Ten or 15 years ago you had to explain what geography is and why it's important. Now, it really is a case of geography matters," Professor Downs says.

At the university level, enrollment in geography programs has climbed steadily for the past 10 years. More freshman are declaring geography as a major than ever before, says Osa Brand, educational-affairs director with the Association of American Geographers in Washington. And from Southwest Texas State University to Florida State, schools with strong programs are attracting more graduate students. Two hot areas: environmental geography and geographic information systems, a computer-based mapping and database system.

"Students want to learn technology and skills they can apply to solve problems.... It equates to jobs," says Lawrence Estaville, department head for Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos. Since 1984, the school's geography enrollment at the undergraduate level has doubled; at the graduate level it has increased sevenfold.

In secondary-school classrooms, educators say, reform is just beginning to show up.

More schools are addressing geography as a separate discipline. They take a two-pronged approach, explains Dale Petrosky, NGS's vice president of public service, addressing content and technique - training teachers to get kids excited about the ever-changing world around them.

"We're beginning to see teachers ask for activities to engage their students," reports Ruth Shirey, executive director of the National Council for Geographic Education, based at Indiana University of Pennsylvania in Indiana, Pa.

She hopes the trend toward asking so-called process questions will continue. "How did the recent flood in the Ohio River Valley come about? How can we relate storm systems and melting snow to flood-plains management? Educators need to be sensitive to how geography education can contribute to other parts of curriculum" and vice versa, Ms. Shirey says.

Nearly all in the field agree that public perception could use some improvement.

"Ask me what the capital of Kentucky is and I'll tell you, 'I don't care,'" says George Demko, professor of geography at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., and a former geographer for the United States State Department. "I argue that geography is the art and science of place" or "the why of where." What he and others in the field are pushing is imaginative thrust in teaching geography.

"Everything has a spatial element or component," he says. Migrations of people, the study of currency, vegetation. How will global warming affect grain trade? "I'm interested in the dynamics of place."

Many teachers say that geography is not a hard sell - when taught effectively.

"Most kids like learning about different places and people," says Randy Hoover, a middle-school geography teacher at Forestdale School in Sandwich, Mass. "It's essential that students have a full-fledged geography course in the middle grades because they need that grounding to understand the history and current issues they'll encounter.

"The study of the environment, habitats, and how the earth works involves science; human geography includes reading multicultural literature, current events, and the media, world languages, art, music," he goes on. "And math skills are used to understand charts, graphs, scale, and projections, as well as the economics of trade."

So are today's students better prepared?

"There is a mosaic of anecdotal evidence," answers Mr. Petrosky of NGS. The next National Assessment of Education Progress test for geography won't take place until 2000 or 2001.

At the University of Tennessee, Jumper conducted a survey of his own. Among his incoming freshman geography students, 75 percent had a geography course in high school, a leap from just 5 percent 11 years ago. From the late '80s to 1994, geography enrollment has multiplied five times, he says. "It's going to cause us to rethink what we're doing in the introductory course."

Winning Questions Geography Bee 1989-1996

1989 - Name the flat intermontane area located at an elevation of about 10,000 feet (3,050 m) in the central Andes?

1990 - Mount Erebus is a volcano on which continent?

1991 - What type of landform is commonly associated with orographic precipitation?

1992 - Many coastal countries have established so-called EEZs - areas extending 200 nautical miles from shore over which countries have sovereign rights for resource exploration. What do the initials EEZ stand for?

1993 - Tagalog is one of the three main native languages of which island country in Asia?

1994 - The Tagus River roughly divides which European country into two agricultural regions?

1995 - Pashtu and Dari are the official languages of which mountainous, landlocked country in southwestern Asia?

1996 - Name the European co-principality whose heads of state are the president of France and the bishop of Urgel.


(1989) Altiplano; (1990) Antarctica; (1991) mountain; (1992) Exclusive Economic Zone; (1993) Philippines; (1994) Portugal; (1995) Afghanistan; (1996) Andorra.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.