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NYGA Defines Geographic Literacy

July 31, 2009
NYGA Staff


When the New York Geographic Alliance had to apply for a new National Geographic Education Foundation Grant in early July, our first task was to come up with a definition of geographic literacy. This is our answer, crafted by consensus by Carol Gersmehl, Timothy McDonnell, Phil Gersmehl, Jonathon Little, and Michael Boester.

First we need a definition of geography itself. Geography is the scientific study of anything across space (spatial component) and time (temporal component). It is unique in its ability to connect disciplines. Many non-social studies teachers include geography in their lessons, without realizing it. The New York Geographic Alliance believes that a thorough understanding of geography is required in today's society as we try and solve some big issues (e.g., climate change, displacement of people, etc.). Geographic literacy has three major components.

The first is a general knowledge base that all educated people should know about the Earth: the names of continents, the locations of major cities, rivers, and mountain ranges, the general patterns of climate, human population, economic activity, religion, etc. This is how we traditionally view geography, and how it is often tested. This component is important, but it alone does not make someone literate in geography, any more than knowing the definitions of a few thousand English words makes one a competent writer. As Daniel Edelson of National Geographic Society stated in an article he wrote for ArcNews. "Knowing Geography facts does little good if you can't do something with those facts. People don't need to know geography; they need to be able to do geography. To me, doing geography is what geographic literacy is all about." (Unfortunately, doing geography is an often ignored aspect of literacy.)

This leads to the second component. Literacy demands mastery of the reasoning and communication skills that are distinctive for a specific discipline. The list of geographic skills includes obvious map skills, such as measuring distance and decoding map symbols. It also includes a more abstract but even more important set of spatial-thinking skills, such as recognizing and interpreting spatial patterns, fitting places into spatial hierarchies or spatial sequences, reasoning with spatial analogies, and so forth. A large body of recent research shows that these spatial-reasoning skills are basic components of human cognition, and that they are both more complex than formerly thought and more tightly intertwined with other cognitive activities, including reading and mathematical thinking. Indeed, rigorous classroom comparisons in several states have shown that students who do well-designed geography lessons in early grades also tend to score higher on standardized tests in mathematics and language arts. Given the importance of these skills within geography and their demonstrated value as part of a balanced scaffold for cognitive development, we suggest that a person cannot be considered geographically literate until he/she has achieved mastery in these skills. (Example: a student who demonstrates geographic literacy, can relate the locations of the Underground Railroad stations shown on the map below to New York's topography).

Thirdly, geographic literacy's most important component is a deep appreciation for the multiple meanings of the word connection. We do not live in isolation. The physical landscape influences human activities (economy, culture, religion). All places are connected to places around them. For example, large cities are dependent on surrounding areas for food, water, electrical power, waste disposal. The communities in those surrounding areas are also economically tied to the cities. These connections are, of course, not just local but global. Civil unrest in Nigeria can easily drive up the cost of oil imports. Diverting a large number of Illinois soybeans into a biofuel refinery can affect food prices in China, promote deforestation in Brazil, and affect the growth of coral around Caribbean islands. Being able to make these kinds of connections is the ultimate test of geographic literacy. We must realize that all three components must be taught together, starting with early elementary instruction. One of the reasons that our students do not do well on tests like the Roper Survey is because geographic facts are taught in isolation and relatively late in the curriculum. Why learn the names of states if they have no connection to you? What is the purpose of learning map interpretation skills if the maps have no relevance to you personally? Success in geographic literacy fails without this holistic approach. NYGA welcomes your opinion on this very important topic.

Please contact Tim McDonnell about how you interpret geographic literacy. We want to hear your ideas!