Are we asking the wrong question?

A recent article in Canada’s National Post newspaper expressed dismay that despite the arrival of a globalized society, university students cannot locate the Atlantic Ocean on a world map.

Atlantic Ocean in ArcGIS Online

Atlantic Ocean shown in ArcGIS Online.

My colleague and chair of Canadian Geographic Education Connie Wyatt Anderson wrote a response to this article, stating that this lack of geographic content knowledge is the result of decades of “the erosion of geography  as a curriculum staple.”  She called on parents, curriculum developers, education authorities, and educators to be advocates to return geography to its rightful place throughout the educational system.

The National Post article reflects something that we in the geography and GIS education community have become used to and frankly, rather tired of.  We are now in the 30th year after the first of the dismal reports from National Geographic and the National Assessment of Educational Progress about geographic illiteracy.   While I salute the Post for caring about geography education, these types of articles and reports about students not knowing where Alberta or Addis Ababa are interesting and well-intentioned, but I think are asking the wrong question.

Yes, it is unfortunate that some students do not know the location of major oceans, continents, or countries, let alone the location of their own ecoregion, watershed, or neighborhood in their own city.  We can bemoan what we consider the lack of core content knowledge not only in geography but in any other discipline.   But now more than ever, students can look up that information in a flash.  Yes, they need to be critical consumers of that data when they look it up, most certainly.  However, in a book I recently read entitled Understanding the Digital Generationthe authors claim that the model of the educator dispensing facts for students is increasingly out of touch not only with societal needs, but out of touch with how students learn.  The results are increasing disengagement by students to their own education, and a tragic under-utilization of their talents and skills.

The  real tragedy is not that students don’t know where the Atlantic Ocean is, but how oceans function, why oceans are important to the health and climate of the planet, how oceans support economies, about coral reefs and other ocean life, about threats to the ocean, and so on.  The tragedy is that very little of what I consider to be true geoliteracy is  being rigorously taught and engaged with around the world:  Core geographic content (such as sustainability, biodiversity, climate, natural hazards, energy, and water), the spatial perspective (such as holistic, critical, and spatial thinking about scale, processes, and relationships) and geographic skills (such as working with imagery, GIS, GPS, databases, and mobile applications).   While there are many fine exceptions, we need a much greater global adoption, beginning with valuing geography and geospatial as fundamental to every student’s 21st Century education.

As a consequence, I am concerned that the the key issues of the 21st Century will not be well understood and be able to be grappled with graduating students as our future decision makers.  I firmly believe that geotechnologies have a key role to play to help enable effective teaching and learning of the above three pillars through inquiry.  And then along the way, students will also be learning core content; even the location of the Atlantic Ocean!

Do you think we are asking the wrong question?

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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One Comment

  1. aviris says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. In my experience of teaching geography students (mostly majors at a 4-year university) I do wish they had a bit more domain knowledge, but over the past 7-8 years much of my teaching has shifted to “Here’s a question/problem, how are you going to solve it?”. What I am dismayed at more than people not knowing where Paris is on a map is that they don’t even know how to find out. For “digital natives” they sadly don’t even know how to use Google effectively.

    Students are often shocked when they come ask me whether something can be done and I say that it can, but I’ll have to look through the EXCELLENT ESRI help files to figure out exactly how. They’d rather poke buttons for an hour hoping that something will happen than spend 15 minutes in the help files. I often ask my classes whether they have read the instructions for Google. I’ve only had one (1) positive response. All the information is out there, but if it isn’t in the first 10 Google results they decide it doesn’t exist. It never crosses their mind that their search skills are poor. So, for those who know how to look and evaluate the information, it is all out there. They still need a solid base of knowledge to even understand the importance of spatial thinking, but they are becoming so dependent on pushing the “Add Basemap” that they don’t know what do do if they get a dataset that is generic binary. We need to teach them how to think, and how to do research beyond “I tried Google and couldn’t find anything.”