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!

All of the images from Toy Stories can be found here and the images from Where Children Sleep can be found here.

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?



8 thoughts on “3 things we could do tomorrow to make Americans geoliterate

  1. Your post inspired me to plan and book a geo/history vacation this summer. We will be taking the kids to see important places in my home state of Kentucky — Mammoth Cave National Park, Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace, Mohammad Ali Museum, Mary Todd Lincoln home, Henry Clay’s home Ashland and Cumberland Falls. Thanks for making me look beyond the beach for our summer vacation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We have family in East Tennessee and I always think that we should stop in Lexington for Henry Clay and Mary Todd’s home.
      Let me know when you are at Mammoth Cave – I could make the drive there with my family!


  2. It continues to shock me that people all over the world study and appreciate geography and the US as a whole still doesn’t embrace geo but have faith because the amazing #worldgeochat teachers and the work they do everyday!
    I’m inspired as well this summer I am planning to head to Nebraska to catch the Solar Eclipse in the Sand Hills then road trip to the Badlands & Mt. Rushmore & maybe even a loop through Wyoming.

    Thank you again for an awesome blog about the power & importance of Geography!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The Badlands was one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been to! We drove to Colorado and went through South Dakota for the “scenic route” and so we could see Mount Rushmore. The Badlands were an unexpected treat. Absolutely loved our few hours at the National Park!


  3. Have students create activities to help them navigate the states and the globe. Allow them the opportunity to individually investigate and create activities for others to explore, examine, investigate and eventually question the world around them. Kids are amazing resources for reaching out to other students, Not only will those investigating profit from their findings, but other will as well. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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