When I was hired as a geography teacher in 2001, I was out of my element. I was a history person. I knew bizarre bits of American History and Ancient Civilizations, but nothing about geography. In that first year, my career plan was simple: wait it out. Wait until there was an opening in ancient civilizations or U.S. history, and then move to that curriculum.

The only geography class I ever had was when I was in seventh grade. I remember learning basic map skills – latitude and longitude, cardinal directions, scale, and how to interpret the key. We learned about landforms like peninsulas, straits, and mountains. We discussed climate and biomes. Most important (apparently), we took map quizzes.

But since I started my geography career in August 2001, I experienced the Sputnik moment for geography, 9/11.

Like everyone else, I have vivid memories of that day. I remember my students doing an activity using roadmaps to find the best route across the state of Illinois. But while my students sat in groups with giant Illinois roadmaps trying to figure out Interstates and state routes, the world had changed dramatically.hate

As we began to process who had done this, a more important question emerged, why? Why did people want to do this to us? I remember the Newsweek cover a few weeks after, “Why do they hate us?” Most of us had no idea.

It became obvious that it wasn’t just my students who needed to learn about the world, but I did too. I knew where Afghanistan was on a map, but I didn’t know much more than that. I didn’t know what the Taliban was. I didn’t understand that the government was one of the most repressive governments in the world. In my mind, Afghanistan was the country that had fought off the Soviet Union in the 1980s, so therefore, they must be our ally. I may have known the physical geography of Afghanistan, but I was ignorant to the human geography that existed there.

To get back to the point, geography matters today more than ever, but only if we are looking at the right things. Google has changed our world, and geography is included in that. I haven’t given my students a map quiz in years because there isn’t really a need to memorize where countries are. Students can Google any country in the world to find its location.

Geography matters more now than ever because students need to know human geography. They need to understand the relationships that exist between cultures. They need to see not just the differences in cultures, but the similarities. Students need to know that the kid sitting in a school in Afghanistan today, probably doesn’t speak the same language, practice the same religion, or live in a home that looks anything like a student in the United States, but they have a lot of things in common. They both love their families, they both want to play, and they both want to learn. When we focus on the similarities instead of the differences, it changes the picture.

Geography matters today more than ever because our students are growing up in a globalized world. Nearly all business is international. Our students will never work in isolation. They need to know that the others they work with, whether in a cubicle down the hall or on a screen halfway around the world all have ideas and value. While they might see the problem and solution differently, they still see the problem and have solutions.

Geography matters now more than ever because of crises that range from North Korea to the global water crisis to global health issues.

Geography matters because learning about a problem isn’t enough, we have to take action to solve them.

Geography matters because we are all connected.

Geography matters because this is our world.

 

 

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18 thoughts on “Why geography matters now more than ever

  1. Dear Chris,
    While reading your blog I was nodding my head and agreeing throughout. I have always loved geography / maps and never understood why others don’t – geography opens so many hearts and minds and sparks curiosity but most importantly it’s a valued subject everywhere else in the world so they know all about us but people in the US know so little about the rest of the world. While in Kashgar (Kashi) in Western China children I encountered knew Hong Kong, Chicago and Texas (they also knew the US President!!) all learned in school (it was 1997 so before full internet access).
    Thank you for saying it so beautifully and I am proud to be a fellow Geo teacher!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. So true! Just recently, I went to a Ford dealership in Tomball Tx to buy a pickup. The young Anglo American car salesman who approached me started probing about my credit worthiness, which is understandable. I told him I worked for an organization that was based in the UK — In London to be more specific. He asked me what language was spoken there!
        .

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  2. Chris, I had a very similar introduction to Geography teaching. My second year of teaching began in 2001, and 9/11 was our third day of school. I also got a rude awakening that Geography is much more than making maps or memorizing locations, but I was young and inexperienced so it took me a while to adjust my teaching practices….
    Remember when “Afghanistan” was the stand-in name for “random place on the other side of the world”? We can’t predict specifically where the next surprise global hotspot will be, but we can prepare ourselves and our students by finding patterns of settlement, climate, etc. AND as you said near the end: focusing on connections that link us all.

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  3. Chris,
    In your effort to emphasize the importance of human geography, you may have pushed the physical geography too far out of the picture. In order to understand why conflicts arise in different places of the world, physical geography is often the key element. You point it out at the end: shortage of water is a lot of times the reason for conflicts (Israel-Palestine, Kashmir, …). But also lands that lost fertility and the ability to feed people, climatechange endangering crops and livestock, … It is all connected. That’s the beauty, but also the difficulty of geography: you can’t ignore parts or you fail to see the connection and explanation. And the map is our tool to make it visible and hold the overview. You are right about the map: learning it by heart is good for a quiz, but how many times will you take one once you graduated?
    Glad you joined our team of geography teachers!
    Kind regards,

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    1. Never my intention to imply that physical geography isn’t important. You can’t teach students the world without it! You are exactly right about how the physical geography creates so many of the issues we see today. Thanks for reading and commenting on it!

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  4. Chris,
    Thanks for your article…read it via the PBS website. Every Geography class from 3rd grade through college should have a big (and fairly recently updated) globe. It is not so much that students need to memorize where every country or main cities, rivers, etc are located, but they should know the names of the continents and have a basic understanding of our planet, not just country boundaries, but the relationships of where the lands are, where the oceans are, the size and extent of the polar regions and other basic understanding of the features of the planet we all share. Google and other mapping applications and videos from around the world are great, but there is nothing like having a good sized globe to really appreciate the land and water features of the earth, I agree with the importance of cultural and physical geography, but just like the difference in driving a real car vs a video game car, there is nothing more real that being able to “hold the world” in your hands and really visualize the complexity and variety of our world. There is nothing so beautiful or thought-provoking as seeing the photos of our earth from space photos, which in a way is what you are able to do when you can study the earth with a globe.

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  5. You bet Human Geography is important, but so is the memorization of names and locations of countries and capitals. I never thought it was important, and as a result, I can barely carry on an intelligent conversation about current events. One commenter said no one takes a map quiz in life – true-and that’s the problem with removing them from school – which is prep for life. Memorization simply sets the stage for fluency. Fluency frees the mind for higher and more engaged thinking. How we cognitively cripple our students when we tell them memorization doesn’t matter; that they can just google basics before they engage in a conversation. How many students (or adults) will go to that trouble? Memorization builds vocabulary….without it there is no conversation. Naturally, memorization without application is absurd as well. I get your emphasis, I really do. But the very reason this idea of Human Geography is such a revelation to you is because it wasn’t emphasized to you as a student. It would be a similar mistake to overcompensate by underemphasizing the memorization of physical geography. We teachers want to convey the big picture…and that’s important…but what can students do with a big picture without any nails to hang it on? #bringbackthemapquiz #babywiththebathwater

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    1. But, if I have students for 40 minutes, is trying get them to memorize places the best use of time? In a perfect world I’d love them to know them. In reality, it’s not a top priority.

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  6. I couldn’t agree more with Sarah Howard. It’s not that it isn’t important, it’s more complicated than that. Knowing country locations provides a foundation for students to make the connections you’re trying to teach them. It’s all important. Knowing when, and how, to teach the locations and relationships between places and the people who live there is our challenge.

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  7. You mentioned you were originally looking to teach history. I’ve loved maps and geography as well as history for a long time. However, I’ve often felt the two have never been adequately combined. I find it fascinating how geography has shaped and controlled human history, but I seldom see that addressed in presentations and discussions of history. Do you try to bring that into your class: perhaps show how geography has controlled the movement of armies, economies, and empires; or maybe why many of our cities are located where they are.

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    1. When we do discuss the history of a country, I absolutely bring geography into it. I would love to collaborate with a US History teacher at this point to focus on how geography plays such a huge role in our history.

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