Teaching Geography in the Twenty-First Century

New Tools Are Available to Teach Geography in More Engaging, Dynamic, and Effective Ways

Geography is considered one of the world’s oldest disciplines. It was first defined and formally established by Eratosthenes in 250 BC and has a rich tradition of scholarship extending from 2,000 years ago to the present. As a scientific discipline, geography has always embraced new technologies, research practices, instructional methods, skills, and content.

Teaching geography in the 21st Century includes working with mobile and online mapping tools, in addition to traditional focuses such as physical and cultural geography, fieldwork, and understanding landscapes.

The challenge for geography teachers today is how to teach the subject effectively in the twenty-first century while remaining true to its rich heritage and embracing emerging and exciting tools and perspectives. Teaching geography is about leading students to an understanding of today’s challenges including population, land-use, urban, economic, and health issues and natural hazards. Teaching geography effectively in the twenty-first century requires a focus on scale, systems thinking (such as climate, watersheds, and energy systems), and critical thinking.

Implementing Twenty-First Century Teaching Strategies and Tools

This is best accomplished through an inquiry-driven, hands-on, problem-based format that uses technological tools to teach conceptual foundations, skills, and geographic perspectives.

  • Rural, Urban, Economic, Land-Use, and Population Issues. To better understand and more effectively teach these issues requires a grounding in population dynamics (including such concepts as settlement, age, birthrate, growth rate, and human-environment interaction), land use (such as zoning and land-use practices), urban development (such as historical and current development of cities, site versus situation, and challenges facing cities), economic geography (including industrialization, energy, employment, and measures of development), and physical geography processes (watersheds, landform dynamics, and natural hazards).
  • Core Geography Themes. Embedded in studying these issues are core geography themes such as considerations of scale in patterns and processes; interpreting maps and analyzing geospatial data; understanding and explaining the implications of associations, networks, and interconnections among phenomena in places; defining regions and the regionalization process; establishing a sense of place; and understanding the nature and limitations of geographic data.
  • Spatial Perspectives and Tools. The spatial perspective is critical to understanding geographic content and processes. Being competent and confident in the application of the spatial perspective to geographic understanding enhances and strengthens our ability to communicate about and teach human geography. A number of powerful web mapping and related tools such as ArcGIS Online (arcgis.com) and story maps (storymaps.arcgis.com) are now available for the geography instructor, and building familiarity and confidence in using these tools is best done through hands-on activities.

To gain these foundations and skills, a number of options are available, such as the Teaching Geography in the Twenty-First Century online course that I offer periodically (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C7e6IN5IWW4), the online Elmhurst College certificate program in AP Human Geography (http://public.elmhurst.edu/admission/school_for_professional_studies/certificate_programs/ap_human_geography), the essays we write every few days that are focused on teaching with GIS (http://edcommunity.esri.com/blog), and the hands-on workshops we teach at conferences such as the Association of American Geographers, the National Council for Geographic Education, the National Council for the Social Studies, and our own Esri Education GIS Conference.

A geospatially literate population is the goal of teaching geography in the twenty-first century. Such a population is better equipped to recognize, understand, and resolve those critical issues, whether local or global, that will confront us today and in the future.

Joseph Kerski

About Joseph Kerski

Joseph Kerski is a geographer who believes that spatial analysis through digital mapping can transform education and society through better decision-making using the geographic perspective. He serves on the Esri education team and is active in GIS communication and outreach, creates GIS-based curriculum, conducts research in the effectiveness of GIS in education, teaches online and face-to-face courses on spatial thinking and analysis, and fosters partnerships to support GIS in formal and informal education at all levels, internationally. He is the co-author of Spatial Mathematics, The Essentials of the Environment, The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data, and other books. Follow him on Twitter @josephkerski
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  1. smithha says:

    Just the thing to make geography courses and the accompanying skills attractive to school administrators who have to make the best use of those scarce resources. It may well be that the best use of those resources is an excellent geography course that includes authentic skills training in spatial analysis technology.

  2. kenneth3rd says:

    I wasn’t sure if geography was still being taught in schools during these austere times; with what we can do Online, Google Maps, Google Earth, ArcGIS Online, and the many free GIS training opportunities, there may be some justification to drop geography from some school curriculums. Then again, maybe introductory math can be replaced with the Math Made Easy video training course. Better technology in education is the key to developing successful students, and student interest.

  3. cfair5623 says:

    Hello Joseph,
    Although I agree wholeheartedly with your definition of Geography and the importance of being abreast of current technology when enthusing young geographers in the classroom, I feel that the price of the technology, the programs and their associated extras are too prohibitive for many schools. (Here in Australia).
    I work in a State Government School in SE Australia (rural), and funding issues abound! We purchased ArcMap v 10 in 2012, and although I know it is excellent, we are limited as to what can analyse or produce without the additional extensions and their tools. These items depend upon a budget to which we have no access.
    Am I correct in my understanding that unless we have an organisational account, we cannot produce Story Maps either? They would be marvellous cross-curricula tools, but unfortunately for us they are unavailable, especially as small rural schools are not by definition ‘large organisations’.
    It seems to me that schools here are tending towards the open platform online spatial analysis programs such as QGIS, as they are free.
    I am not suggesting that you become a charity, but I feel sad that the fantastic ESRI products are financially inaccessible to many educational institutions here, and as such are not being widely used.
    Thanks for ‘listening’ to my Aussie concerns,

    • Joseph Kerski Joseph Kerski says:

      Hi Chris!

      If you email me directly on jkerski at esri.com, I can send you an article I wrote last year for the Geography Teachers Assoc of Victoria’s journal. I go into the tools in more detail there and why they merit attention in education, but in brief here, yes, you can create storymaps from a public account. I have done it many times. I have also sent your comment to my colleague at Esri Australia. I would love to see these tools priced around the world in such a way so that all educators and students can use them without major financial hurdles. In my fondest dreams I would love for a program like connected.esri.com to exist in every country – this is a program where schools can obtain ArcGIS Online organizational subscriptions for no cost. As you know, there are still challenges – curricular fit, professional development for educators, curriculum development, adherence to content standards, bandwidth – but having the financial barrier removed is a big leap forward. I feel that with the advent of the ability to do true spatial analysis in the cloud on any device, collecting data with smartphones, and being able to publish your own data on the cloud, make this the PERFECT time to be using geotechnologies in many disciplines in education – not just geography, but in maths, science, history, Language Arts, and others. Thanks for commenting and let’s keep in touch.

      –Joseph Kerski