We’ve all seen YouTube videos of Jay Leno asking geography questions to average Americans and getting ridiculously stupid answers. Wait. You haven’t see it? Just remember, once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it.
Our friends from @NatGeoEducation also shared the article “Most Young Americans Can’t Pass a Test on Global Affairs” last Fall after presidential candidate Gary Johnson’s “What is an Aleppo?” moment.
As I took the National Geographic Quiz, it horrified me that on questions with a 50/50 chance of getting the answer right, less than 30% got it right. You could flip a coin and have better results.
Rather than lament about how stupid Americans are when it comes to understanding the world, I thought about how we could fix this problem.
Here are three things we could do to make Americans more geoliterate.
1. Play Games!
Everyone in education has heard about gamification over the past few years. There’s plenty of research to support that it makes a difference to turn lessons into games. But even simpler than that is playing games that involve maps.
Risk, Ticket to Ride, Axis and Allies all have maps on the game board. They require players to look at the map to figure out moves. And while playing the game, you start to add some geographic skills. After playing Ticket to Ride, my first grader knows that to get from Chicago (where we live) to Miami he needs to go through Nashville and Atlanta. He knows that New York is Northeast and Los Angeles is Southeast. He knows this because he played!
My sixth grader and third grader both know where bunches of countries are from playing Risk and attacking each other. They might not know exactly where Scandinavia begins and ends, but they do know it’s in Northern Europe and a good way to get further into Europe.
I still remember playing Agent USA and Where in the World is Carmen San Diego on my Commodore 64 as a kid. They may very well have been the gateway drug to my map addictions later in life.
2. Take the DVD player out of the car on roadtrips
Any parent reading this just shouted at their screen. And I don’t blame you.
Now that I have your attention, let me rephrase. Lessen the movies and devices in the car. Have kids look out the window. Look at an atlas. I could have (and probably should have) an entire Facebook album of pictures of my kids staring at the map on display at rest areas and in the back of the car.
Kids want to know where they are.
They want to know where they are going.
Show them landmarks, cities, and rivers on the map. Talk about what the landscape looks like. Talk about why the weather is different from home. Make a game out of it (remember – games were the first idea). Kids are inquisitive – encourage the questions and have conversations on roadtrips.
3. Show your kids kids in other places.
A few weeks ago I bought a couple picture books for my classroom. Toy Stories: Photos of Children Around the World and Their Favorite Things by photographer Gabriele Galimberti and Where Children Sleep from photographer James Mollison are quite simply, amazing. And what is better – both of them put the photos from their books online so you can use them!
Along with Peter Menzel’s Material World and Hungry Planet and projects like #shareaclassroompic on Twitter, these books show us what people look like and possess in other countries. As I watched my three kids look through these books (and when they look at Menzel’s photos in my classroom) they immediately run to the map to figure out where these people live.
When kids see other kids – see their bedrooms, their toys, the food they eat, it makes them realize that the world is a lot bigger that just their community.
So tell me – what did I miss? What else can we be doing to make Americans more geoliterate?