Because of a previous post on this blog, Stop Making Students Memorize Maps,  I’ve been accused by some of thinking that maps aren’t an important tool for students to use. But nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t think there is much to gain from memorizing where countries are, but maps are an essential geography tool.

My students use maps all the time. We use maps to answer questions. We use maps to understand international relations. Perhaps most importantly, we use maps to practice map skills. A week doesn’t go by where my students aren’t looking at or working with maps.

But my post today comes from my family’s annual trip to the Christmas Tree farm. For the past five years, we’ve loaded up the minivan and headed off to find a giant tree to stuff into our house. (Insert whatever Clark Griswald joke you’d like.)

Each year I drive because the roads around the farm are muddy and my wife doesn’t want to be the one to get us stuck in the mud (for the record, I’ve gotten us stuck twice). So as we pull in, I roll down the window and the farmer hands me two things – one of which brings great fear to my wife: a bow saw and a map of the farm.

The official Tammen Treeberry Farm map.
No, my wife does not have a fear of saws, she has a fear of as she puts it, “getting yelled at by my map-snob husband.” She know that as we attempt to figure out where the Douglas Firs are, if I’m driving, she is going to have to direct me. And when I become impatient because I have no idea which way to go, tempers flare.

We have become accustomed to Siri, Alexa, Hey Google, or whatever other tech voice machine that tells us what to do. I have great love for GPS and mapping apps. My father-in-law refused to listen to his GPS on a trip to Knoxville and it ended up costing him an extra two hours and a lot of stress. And while those devices have saved me from getting lost several times, they do have limitations. I can ask Siri to “drive to the Douglas Firs,” but she tries to send me to Douglas and Montaldo’s Furs in Charlotte, North Carolina.

We need to teach students map skills. Students do need to know latitude and longitude. They need to know cardinal directions. Students need to know how to find distances using the scale. They need to be able to navigate across the Christmas Tree farm, the mall, the zoo, their school or wherever else GPS will fail them.

As I look forward to my family’s 2018 Summer Vacation to Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks (as well as drives through Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Carolina, Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming, Mount Rushmore and the Badlands in South Dakota) I’m reminded of what happened when my family explored the Smokey Mountains in Tennessee and Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. As you experience the beauty of these national parks, something amazing happens – technology fails. I don’t know whether there aren’t cell towers in National Parks or if too many people use them, but I have vivid memories of driving through Smokey Mountain National Park with a phone that was useless. I couldn’t call, text, tweet, message, or navigate with it. All we had was our map of the National Park from the visitor center. And you know what? It turns out it was all we needed. Being cut off from the world stopped me from posting every amazing picture to Facebook, but it also gave me a chance to find little trails and waterfalls that I would never find without staring at the map.

So teach those map skills – help students understand how to get places using road maps, or amusement park maps or Christmas Tree maps. Just don’t make students memorize them!


Post Script – The Heffernan family did successfully find a tree that worked for our family. Wish you all luck as you search for the perfect tree that will be in your house for only 30-some days!

Trees that are 13 feet tall do not easily fit in minivans.



One thought on “Maps Still Matter in a GPS World

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s