Lost in geography

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A Roper poll commissioned by the National Geographic Society several years ago found that just 13 percent of Americans between the age of 18 and 24, or one in seven, could find Iraq on a map, and 83 percent could not locate Afghanistan. (Just over a third of the 18- to 24-year-olds polled, however, knew that the Marquesas Islands, featured in a previous season’s “Survivor” television show, are in the South Pacific.)

As a result of this survey and similar reports, nonprofit organizations have taken up the cause of trying to improve Americans’ awareness of geography and its importance; those people most concerned include some of the country’s dedicated teachers.

One such teacher is Terri Simons, a sixth-grade teacher from Eugene, Ore., who is a consulting member of a state-based network of teachers and parents called the National Geographic Alliance (www.ngsednet.org), run by the education arm of the National Geographic Society. Mrs. Simons’ efforts include providing teachers with the resources to implement geography in their curriculums.

“I say to colleagues: ‘How do you learn about what happened if you don’t know the where, because the where is practically the why?’ I see geography as involving myself with the world,” Mrs. Simons says, adding that “some of the best teaching methods are also the hardest to do. We have large class sizes, and it is almost suicidal to take 44 kids out on a mapping activity — to go out and walk around and take notice of cultural and human characteristics of the environment.”

The alliance is a grass-roots network of teachers and parents across the country, including many educators in the Greater Washington area.

“We try to follow headlines. When the tsunami hit, we knew teachers would be talking about it and needed resources,” says Washington-based NGS Education Foundation head Barbara Chow, giving an example of the alliance at work. “We partnered with the Association of American Geographers and got experts online to answer kids’ questions.”

“People say that warfare is the best geography teacher out there,” says University of Oregon geography professor Susan Hardwick, an immediate past president of the American Geographical Society who has conducted many teacher workshops. “One of the ways to hook adults in is through their kids,” she says. For that reason, she has edited a series of children’s geography books in paperback called “World Wise Kids,” due out in the fall.

The parent-to-child relationship is equally important, Ms. Chow notes. “You [the parent] take a map and put it on the wall. When something happens in the news or locally — it may be food [the children] are eating or labels on their clothes that are not familiar. That is the moment to open the map. It puts things in context.”

Ms. Hardwick sees progress in the approval by the College Board in the late 1990s of an Advanced Placement high school course in geography. Students who pass a test in the subject can apply the credit toward a college requirement in the sciences. The numbers of students taking the test nationwide jumped from 3,272 in 2001, when it was first administered, to 10,471 in 2004, according to Michael Solem, director of education for the Washington-based Association of American Geographers.

Another benchmark was the 2002 test of geographic knowledge taken in fourth, eighth and 12th grades under the National Assessment of Educational Progress, run by the Educational Testing Service under contract to the U.S. Department of Education.

Results showed that between 1994 and 2002, students had improved their knowledge, based on test scores in lower grades (but not in high school), with the greatest progress among black and Hispanic students, according to Sarah Bednarz, a professor of geography at Texas A&M;, who is coordinator of the Geographic Education National Implementation Project (GENIP).

GENIP is a consortium of four key geographic associations organized in 1985 to promote National Geography Standards-based geography instruction. The standards are voluntary guidelines adopted by 49 states, defining what American students should learn about geography, Mr. Solem explains. (The only state that didn’t sign on is Iowa.)

“We have created an infrastructure that is starting to make discernible progress locally,” he says, emphasizing an approach to geography as science and a mode of thinking more complex than what can be fairly revealed in simple surveys.

One of GENIP’s concerns, too, is that the No Child Left Behind Act identifies geography as one of 10 core subjects in American education but offers no money for its implementation.

Ms. Bednarz sees an improvement in younger students’ awareness but remains concerned, she says, “about general public ignorance.” Being able to name, spell and locate places correctly, she says, is only a small part of the field of geography that often gets filed away in school curricula under a social studies label.

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