A New, Global View of Geography

The `name that state capital' approach is giving way to one that is `inquiry based'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

AT Selvidge Middle School in Ballwin, Mo., seventh-graders are making papier-mache globes showing the seven continents and four oceans along with major cities, rivers, and mountains.

Yet the goal of this world geography class is not to memorize where major cities and other landmarks fall on the globe, says geography teacher John Lucas.

``A lot of people get very upset if a student can't pinpoint exactly where Paris is,'' says Mr. Lucas, a large, gregarious man who is the school's teacher of the year. ``But given the coordinates, my students can locate it in a heartbeat. And that's the important thing.''

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Here, and in school districts across the country, geography education is moving away from the traditional ``name that state capital'' approach to a richer mix of knowledge.

In this suburban St. Louis school district, all seventh-graders are required to take geography. They spend half the year on ``physical geography,'' learning what falls where on the globe, and the other half on ``human geography,'' the study of governmental and religious patterns around the world, for example.

``When my students leave this course, I want them to know how to get around on a globe and interpret a map,'' Lucas says. ``But I also want them to understand that people are a product of their environment.''

A nationwide resurgence of interest in geography began in the early 1980s. An increasing number of school districts and states are making the subject a curriculum requirement, particularly at the middle-school or junior-high level.

``The United States woke up about 12 to 15 years ago and realized that the economy had been internationalized,'' says Ruth Shirey, executive director of the National Council for Geographic Education. ``What happened in other countries mattered to us in economic terms in ways that had never been true before. The resurgence of geography is rooted in that realization.''

International surveys also raised awareness about the need for improved geography education in the US. In 1989, a Gallup survey ranked Americans aged 18 to 24 last in geographic knowledge, compared with their international counterparts. In 1990, only 50 percent of 12th graders knew that the Panama Canal cuts sailing time between New York and San Francisco.

Major geography organizations have dedicated themselves recently to improving geography education. Geography was one of the five original subjects included in the federal ``Goals 2000: Educate America Act.''

``That gave the discipline incredible visibility,'' says Roger Downs, a professor of geography at Pennsylvania State University, ``because we were on a par with history, and science, and math.''

Gilbert Grosvenor, president of the National Geographic Society, has taken a lead role in supporting training for geography teachers. The Geographic Society helps fund geography alliances in every state to provide geography materials and training workshops for teachers.

For many years, geography was lumped in with social studies. As part of the social-studies curriculum, it was ``competing for classroom time with history, economics, and civics,'' Professor Downs says. ``And social studies itself was competing with math, reading, and science. So there wasn't much room for geography.''

What little geography instruction took place consisted mainly of memorization and place location, Downs says. But ``if you know the atomic table,'' he explains, ``it does not make you into a physicist or chemist.... You have to be able to do things with the information. It's in the doing of geography that there's been a dramatic change.''

The new approach is ``more inquiry-based, more idea-oriented,'' Ms. Shirey says. ``It emphasizes that not only do natural processes shape land forms and climate and create geography, but geography is also created by decisions that human beings make.''

For the past two years, several geography organizations have been designing national geography standards to help school districts develop their own curricula. The voluntary standards were unveiled last month.

``The vision of the geography standards is not to train geographers,'' Shirey says, ``but to create citizens who are geographically informed, who understand how to think spatially, and who understand the environmental perspective as well.''

Geography education has come a long way in little more than a decade. But the discipline still is widely misunderstood and neglected, Lucas says. ``I don't think very many people at the upper levels [of education] are looking at geography as anything other than a background for American history or world history,'' he says. ``I don't think they see it as an integral science of its own.'' The key to retaining geography knowledge is application, Lucas says. ``Geography is something that needs to be included constantly in other classes for reinforcement.''

WHEN Lucas's seventh-graders leave his class, they may never take another geography course. Yet some teachers are working to integrate geography into other subjects.

Bridget Hermann includes geography in her American history and civics classes at Rockwood Summit High School in Ballwin. ``All history teachers use maps to show locations,'' she says. ``But there are other aspects of geography that they could easily pull into history courses.''

For example, Ms. Hermann's students hold mock elections each spring and use maps to track electoral votes and decide where to campaign. They talk about students' ethnic heritage and trace them to specific regions.

One of Hermann's favorite lessons is having students look at the labels on their clothes to find out where they were made. ``Then you can ask; `Where is Korea? Where is Taiwan? How did the clothes get to you?' All those questions are geographic in nature,'' she says. ``It's important for the kids to realize the connections between them as individuals, their local community, their nation, and the world.'' *Nov. 13-19 is National Geography Awareness Week.

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