Thursday, November 20, 2008

Geography Awareness Week 2008: Is it working? A look back.

Geography Awareness Week was designated by Congress in 1988 to combat ignorance.

I stumbled on a 1992 New York Times article in honor of Geography Awareness Week titled “Redoubling the Efforts at Teaching Geography.” It cited a 1988 Survey of Geographic Literacy stating that 25% of young Americans, 18 to 24 years old, could not find the Pacific Ocean on a map. This got me thinking: what has happened since? Thankfully, NG has continued the study in both 2002 and 2006. Catholicgauze happened to comment on the 2006 survey results, too.

It's interesting to see the trends and compare results over time of young Americans. I'm trying not to bombard you with statistics, so I picked out what I believe are interesting and balanced indicators.

Overall there has been little to no change since the 1988 study. Moreover, young Americans lag behind their counterparts in Europe. Simply stated, Americans need more geographical knowledge. How can this be accomplished? Well, I'm sure that could be up for debate. National Geographic has wonderful online tools and resources; however, if they have been implementing programs to combat geographic ignorance since 1988, perhaps the programs they have need to be revisited (or I suggest doing a case study on effectiveness at those schools/classrooms that use the NG material vs. the classrooms that do not).

Geography is not all about locations – only 29% in 2006 stated correctly that the U.S. is the largest export of goods and services measured by dollar value (48% incorrectly stated China) – and – only 18% knew that Mandarin was the most widely spoken language in the world (74% said English).

So, who did well on the 2002 and 2006 surveys?

  • Those who had taken a geography course or completed more education.

  • Those who travel internationally, speak more than one language and/or have contact with cultures outside of the U.S.

  • Those that keep up with world events through the Internet and other media sources.

  • Those whose families (as well as themselves) were not recent immigrants.

And finally, if you can't get enough: Test your knowledge with National Geographic's quiz!


Dan tdaxp said...


There's quite a discussion on reforming education going on at tdaxp [1].


Steve said...

I feel one of the biggest barriers to improving geography literacy is that in many states geography is one of several disciplines lumped together in social studies; therefore, it competes with history, economics, and government. Also, some states emphasize tested subjects such as reading and math thereby marginalizing social studies. Teachers who have not had a geography course in high school or college may only present the geography content presented in their social studies textbook, which in many cases is meager. Lastly, the push to integrate the social studies into reading and other classes rarely results in teaching geographic concepts nor does it encourage spatial thinking.

State geographic alliances, formed under the auspices of the National Geographic Society, do deliver good geography professional development to teachers and provide excellent resources for teaching geography. Those alliances compete with all the other disciplines for often-reduced staff development time and money. We need to continue to speak up for geography education in the classroom and for a fair share of professional development time and money. Remember that geography was the only core subject that was not funded under the NCLB legislation.

Unknown said...

Another issue is that the geographic education proponents always hammer on geography as being a well educated citizen. If we were to work on career options, maybe we would attract better people into the discipline at the university level.

Anonymous said...

Face it. Geography is nice, but in today's learn-it-or-be-fired environment, it's not essential. It's more important to be able to learn new things today than to retain old information.

Does anyone in the Americas really CARE where Brussels is? And how many of our "enlightened" European colleagues know where Death Valley is?

Knowledge for the sake of knowledge is not valuable.

Catholicgauzette said...

Den, In a growing inter-dependent global world, understanding geography (physical, cultural, etc) is part of the picture.

Both the names Brussels and Death Valley state something about their geography: Brussels means “home in the marsh” in old Dutch. Brussels grew due to is trade route and location on the Senne. I care about where Brussels is because the HQ for NATO is there. Death Valley is the lowest evaluation below sea level in America and is also the hottest valley.

The 2002 study questioned people in 10 countries – and those in Europe could identify more European countries than Americans could identify US States.

Identification of locations is only part of it. For instance, Kashmir is a currently disputed land – in-between two countries. Which are those countries? Where are they? Why is it disputed? It's a more complete picture when you know where that location is. Some may even say that you need to know the location in order to understand the rest.

For more information, I suggest reading: Why Geography Matters and The World is Flat.

Unknown said...


Thanks for this post. You pose some pretty provocative questions. Specifically, you reference National Geographic programs. As a National Geographic Education employee, I'd like to briefly address some of your contentions.

First, I can assure you that National Geographic programs are continually evaluated with an eye toward improvement. You're correct, though, that in the 20+ years since the NG Education Foundation was established and began conducting surveys like the ones referenced in this post, little appears to have changed on objective measures of student performance.

Why? There are several reasons. While NG, and other geographic organizations, continue to expand and improve programs for curriculum design and teacher professional development, many teachers and students never benefit from these programs. Students who DO benefit from NG programs tend to do very well on assessments of geographic literacy!

Why don't students and teachers have access to this high quality geography instruction? Geography is not a required course in many schools across the country, and is not required as part of high stakes national testing like No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Under NCLB, geography was named a "core" academic subject along with reading, English language arts, math, science, foreign language, history, civics, economics, and art. But it's the only one of those nine subjects that doesn't receive any designated federal funding.

No federal $$ means limited priority for schools to teach geography, and limited incentives for teachers to pursue professional development opportunities.

So the reality is that most students, including me, now working in a career in geo-ed, never take a geography course K-12. And those who ARE lucky enough to take geography are often stuck with "bad" courses of the "traditional," color in a map and memorize place names" sort, taught by a teacher with little or no training in geography.

So, what's the answer to increase student performance in geography and on national surveys?
1) Improve geography curriculum. NG and other geographic orgs are at the forefront of this movement.
2) Expand geographic course offerings in schools. How? Through federal legislation (learn about the bill we're endorsing called "Teaching Geography is Fundamental:
3) Educate the public about the importance of geographic education. We strive do this through our campaign called My Wonderful World; visit

So, there's a lot of work to be done! But National Geographic and others in the geographic community are tackling the challenge. We hope you'll join us; learn more about these issues at

Unknown said...

The US isn't the largest exporter any more, at least not according to the CIA World Factbook.