I love maps. I love old maps and tech enhanced maps. I vividly remember from my childhood that when my dad took business trips, the souvenir he always brought me was the United Airlines flight magazine. I would sit in my room and plot routes all over the country and world. I loved it.

The 1982 United Airlines map looked a little different than this, but you get the idea.

But I’m odd. I wasn’t a normal kid. Looking back on it, it was a really weird thing for an elementary kid to do. It was my gateway into being a map dork though, so I’ll never forget it.

Perhaps it’s because I love maps so much that I become so defensive of them. And that is why I offer this public service announcement:

Stop making students memorize maps. Just stop.

When I was a freshman my World History teacher thought we needed to understand the modern world as much as the ancient. This I agree with (teaching kids about Greeks wearing togas and Egyptians having pharoahs is stupid if that’s what they think life is still like there). Unfortunately, his way of getting us to understand the modern world was to have is take a map quiz every other Friday.

So I would spend the Thursday night cramming. My bus ride on Friday morning was a cram session as was every passing period before that class. I’d take the map quiz, get an A- or B and then promptly forget EVERYTHING.

I watched my 6th grade son do the exact same thing in his geography class last year. Cram, take quiz, forget. And what broke my heart was at the end of the year when I asked him to rank his classes, geography came in dead last. Map memorization was the focus in his geography classroom and it sucked the fun and beauty out of our amazing subject.

In a world where I can ask my phone where Botswana is and it will show me on a map, why do I need to memorize it? Do I need to know the exact location of a country I’ve never been to and probably won’t ever get to? Isn’t it good enough for me to know it’s a country in Southern Africa? 

Some of you might have read that last paragraph and thought, “you know what, he has a point.” But there are others of you that read that paragraph and felt your blood pressure rise. So let’s keep going and think this through logically.

Who was the 37th president? It’s Richard Nixon. What is more important, to understand the legacy of Richard Nixon or the number that goes with his name?

What element in the periodic table is Ne? It’s Neon. Is it more important to know it’s abbreviation or that it is a nonflammable, noble gas?

Like the number and abbreviation, the exact location isn’t the most important thing about a country. If you want students to know where that country is, you have to convince them that it’s worth it.

So use maps.

Ask a question like, “how does the land of Colombia impact the people there.” The best way to answer this question is for students to go look at a map to find the answer. They’ll find Colombia and then find themselves asking, where in Colombia – the mountains, the rainforest, the coast? As they study Colombia to answer the question, they’ll probably start to figure out where it is in the world.

Ask a question like, most of Russia’s land is on the Asian side of Russia, but most of the people are on the European side – why? They’ll spend a lot of time looking at maps to find out about landforms, climate, waterways, trading partners, etc. They’ll know exactly where Russia is, and a lot more about it.

I’d challenge any teacher to tell me that memorization is more important than being able to answer a questions using maps.

I learned every state from those United Airlines maps. As I traced my route from Chicago to Topeka to Salt Lake City to Boise I learned what states each of those cities were in. I learned them because I was answering a question for myself – not because I was told to memorize it. As I plotted out my European journeys in the magazine I found myself asking questions like why does United only seem to fly to the western part of Europe? And why don’t they fly to most Africans countries?

I learned geography from using maps, not memorizing them, and so will your students.

How do your students use maps? Comment below or let me know on Twitter! And keep the conversation going on #worldgeochat – Tuesday nights on Twitter at 9 Eastern/8 Central!

15 thoughts on “Stop making students memorize maps!

  1. Bravo! And I love maps, too. I make a similar argument about history – just like your Nixon comment. So many students hate history because all they did was memorize names, dates, and places. Now we DO geography and history. Inquiry is much more powerful.


  2. I couldn’t agree more! Maps should a tool for inquiry and spark curiosity – borders and names change so students need deeper understanding of the world.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Without knowing it you are making a case for pop up quizzes for the maps.
    Sure have that test or quiz when you tell them but after that either have random quizzes or many quizzes where they need to know.
    Have I had students that did not remember where Congo was the week after a quiz? Sure. But I also had students who could map 75 or more places as seniors that were under 10 as freshmen. So there’s that.
    What I am getting at is why not both?


  4. This is actually a great read – mind you, I was one of those whose blood pressure was skyrocketing to answer you (lol). You make greats points. With what you suggest a persons memory(understanding) or understanding(memory) of the maps will also increase drastically.

    Liked by 1 person

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