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Geoliteracy in America: A brief note

Article Author(s): 

Michael Conway

Over the past decade, vast new territories of digital map data and services have emerged. The landscape of digital products now includes digital topographic maps – current and historical, atlases, geologic and physical geography maps, weather maps, political maps, soil maps, biome maps, and more. Federal and state agencies, e.g. the U.S. Geological Survey, and private companies, e.g., Google, Microsoft, and ESRI, now serve up free mapping services.

Ironically, this explosion of digital map services and geospatial data coincides with growing concern on the part of American educators for the geographic literacy of young Americans.

Geoliteracy in America

Results from the National Geographic-Roper 2002 Global Geographic Literacy Survey drew attention to the geographic shortcomings of Americans, age 18 to 24. In comparison with their peers in Europe and Asia, they performed poorly on geographic tests. Mexico fared worse, while Canada and Great Britain performed marginally better. By way of example, 30% of American participants were unable to locate the Pacific Ocean; 56% could not find India on a map.

In 2006, National Geographic and Roper Public Affairs conducted a second Geographic Literacy Study for the same age group. There was little improvement. Remarkably, 74% of American participants believed that English was the primary language spoken by most people in the world; it’s Mandarin Chinese. Seventy-five percent could not find Israel on a map of the Middle East, and 70% were unable to locate North Korea. On the positive side, participants who relied on the internet for news performed marginally better.

In 2011, the National Council for Geographic Education summarized the state of American geoliteracy and geographic education in a comprehensive report, “Geographic Literacy in the United States: Challenges and Opportunities in the NCLB Era.” They point to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which identifies geography as a core discipline, as evidence of growing national interest in geography. Unfortunately, the absence of dedicated NCLB funding for geography programs derailed progress and curtailed geoliteracy program development.

Geoliteracy & the Internet

"The electronic world offers tremendous hope to increase the geographic literacy of our youth,” says Ron Dorn, Professor of Geography at Arizona State University. “From Google Earth to sites like the Arizona Geological Survey's online geologic maps, the sky is the limit for individuals who want to become literate.” Dorn and his colleagues at the Arizona Geographic Alliance provide Arizona K-12 teachers with good "old fashioned" tools like blank outline maps for use in the classroom. The maps are free and specifically designed for use in different grade levels.

MyWonderfulworld, founded by National Geographic and its partners, champions geoliteracy online. It provides teachers, parents, and students with the tools for building a strong and robust geographic foundation. There are geographic games, quizzes, tips for educators and parents, and opportunities to join the campaign for geoliteracy in the U.S.

As parents, teachers, legislators, and citizens, we should be in agreement that the onset of the information age and the integration of national economies into a global economy framework requires an intimate knowledge of physical and human geography – the geography of lands and cultures. How do we achieve that?

Other resources

For digital map resources, read the related article, Geoliteracy Tools for Arizona Educators: Digital Maps & Map Services.

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