The Decline of Geographical Literacy among Americas High School Students

I remember taking geography as a ninth grader; it was a prerequisite for graduation. Twenty-five years have passed, and now as a teacher, I remain baffled how some students do not need a geography course for graduation. I am constantly amazed by the lack of geographic knowledge of all students, not just the high school scholars I teach. As a resource teacher, I spend more time assisting students with map interpreting skills, which is a geographic skill that crosses all curriculums. Is it the instructional delivery? Are the textbooks written at the appropriate level?

There is a combination of issues within the social science curriculum that prevent the increase of geographical literacy among K-12 students. As an endorsed social studies teacher and predominantly a geography teacher, I feel that we as professionals need to sculpture above-average courses that naturally incorporate the discipline without an awkward pause in curriculum mapping. First, a working definition of geographical literacy is needed. Secondly, the director of social science education must provide examples and resources for its citywide instructors. The curriculum pacing guides should seek specialists within the field and not generalists, one who is endorsed to teach all social studies courses without detailed coursework. Lastly, geographical literacy needs an introduction at the upper elementary school level.

If geography is the student of the earth and its maps and literacy refers reading, writing, and comprehension, then the definition of geographical literacy is the ability to read, write, understand, and interpret the earth. The geography curriculum divides into two main courses of study: physical and cultural geography. In a typical high school geography course, students learn the first semester physical characteristics, like weather, temperature, and climate. The second semester focuses on human interactions on different continents. Students begin to learn world regions, beginning with North America, Latin America plus the Caribbean, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia. For years, I taught World Geography to my ninth graders and each student who I encountered outside of school would remember a particular lesson. My goal was pretty lofty: each student would learn the seven continents, at least three characteristics, and name all 50 states and at least five countries on each continent. It was enough: I had a high percentage rate of state standard passers. The background skills for geography I provided served as an adequate background to 10th grade World History and 11th grade U.S. and Virginia History.

Naturally, the other social science courses can focus its curriculum on the interaction of people and landforms when geographical literacy is provided early. For example, how did the Colonists defeat the British during the Revolutionary War? The colonists, if ones history is rusty, were familiar with the diverse terrains of our great land (swamps, hills, mountains). Weather also played a great role in the defeat, as the British were more familiar with temperate than humid-subtropical settings in the Southeastern U.S. From that one example, the U.S. History teacher can incorporate a map skill application in the unit. Another example to use in the curriculum is to create a population map for the 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries to demonstrate the growth of the United States since its first permanent settlement. Government, the last social science course for a high school student, is based on interpreting maps, charts, and diagramsthe tools first reinforced to a high school freshman. Within any social studies department are specialists, one who has the expertise in one field. The curriculum framework for geographical literacy can comprise of mainly geography specialists and the sequential teachers.

The learning gap among America’s students, when it concerns geography is due to lack of correlation. Students who are born and reared in the same set of circumstances and societal norms cannot handle a global concept, whether it is at age 9 or 16. The world outside their city is foreign. Geographical literacy needs a starting point before the high school level. Concepts should be introduced at the fourth and fifth grade levels. School and state standards should recommend age-appropriate activities where students can readily identify terms relating to climate, culture, and land. When I taught in my own classroom, I tackled geography on several levels, beginning first with the neighborhood. I asked students why milk was $4.50 a gallon at a downtown grocery store versus $2.75 in midtown? Students began to think about the distribution of wealth within our own city. Next, I taught students to relate to it on a regional level, then nationwide, and finally internationally. Without sounding conceited, I knew that I was one of the best teachers when it came to geographical literacy. Students finally grasped the concept of relating geography in their world! If I could break the curriculum down to their level, then it would not seem impossible to relate the curriculum in the 4th or 5th grade classroom. Basic critical thinking skills, an underlying theme within geography, can be incorporated earlier than high school.

Whereas some historical facts change due to modern research, the core of geographic study remains constant. Physical and cultural geography are not emphasized nearly enough in the U.S. curriculum, whether it is K-12 or college level coursework. Teaching geographical literacy begins with a clear understanding of the topic, examples for applying the information across the curriculum, and starting earlier than the high school level. The worldwide interdependence for goods and services warrants further investigation of geographical literacy.