Almost all of us can access a map of our town, our country, and our world with just a few clicks on our smartphones. So why do we need to teach geography?
At its most basic, geography is the study of places, according to GeogSpace, an initiative of the Australian Geography Teachers Association. Geography looks at the physical and human characteristics of a place, and “their interconnections and interdependencies, and their variation across space. It is the link between the physical and the human that is the unique strength of geography and which helps students to make sense of the world around them.”
“Geography tells us where we are in any given time and space,” said Sally Flaherty, Studies Weekly social studies curriculum director. “Knowing this, geography is also how we look around and see what’s here to meet our needs and wants. And if my needs and wants cannot be met here, do I have to leave, adapt or bring them to me?”
But why does this matter to students?
1. We are a global community.
More and more, we are a worldwide community — joined by causes, conflicts, business and families. Little countries that no one heard of just a few decades ago now affect American and worldwide policy and people. Our economic well-being floats up and down upon the global financial tide.
“Geography matters today more than ever because our students are growing up in a globalized world. Nearly all business is international. Our students will never work in isolation. They need to know that the other people they work with, whether in a cubicle down the hall or on a screen halfway around the world, all have ideas and value. While they might see the problem and solution differently, they still see the problem and have solutions,” said Chris Heffernan in a May 2017 column for PBS.
2. We are connected.
Unlike any other era of history, people connect across the globe through the internet. Instead of reading a day or two later about events halfway around the world, we can experience them almost the instant they happen. In addition, people are more mobile now than ever before and the world is increasingly becoming more culturally interconnected.
Studying geography helps students make sense of the complex world we live in now, GeogSpace explained, adding that when learners develop “deep knowledge and understanding of the basic biophysical and human processes that shape the earth’s places, and how they interact with each other, students are well positioned to make sense of a highly connected world. Such studies also allow students to understand the connections between countries, cultures, cities and regions, and between regions within countries.”
3. Geography teaches how to navigate our world.
History is the study of the past, but geography is the study of the past, present and future.
Heffernan postulated that the attacks of 9/11 caused a rebirth of the study of geography, because we needed it to make sense of what happened.
“As we began to process who had done this, a more important question emerged. Why? Why did people want to do this to us?” Heffernan said in his article, explaining that the answers to those questions came from a better understanding of geography and cultures.
Because geography “looks at people and culture and the whys and hows of what is taking place,” it has the power to answer tough questions, S. Kay Gandy explained in a 2007 article for NCSS.
“It is a subject that deals head-on with the globally integrated world we live in and the big issues of sustainability, migration, refugees and asylum seekers, global inequalities, population and climate change,” said Tim Costello in a September 2010 column for The Age.
4. It helps us be better global citizens.
Geography teaches us about our differences, but also about our similarities.
Flaherty uses plants to illustrate this. There are certain food staples that grow all over the world. Countries as different as Korea, England, Germany and South America all have food dishes unique to them, but that use the same ingredient: cabbage.
“The difference depends on where they live, what spices and other ingredients are available — that’s what makes the recipes theirs,” she said.
Understanding the similarities within our different cultures helps us all to be better global citizens and develop stronger empathy for people all over the world.
“Students need to know that the kid sitting in a school in Afghanistan today probably doesn’t speak the same language, practice the same religion or live in a home that looks anything like a student in the United States, but they have a lot of things in common. They both love their families, the both want to play and they both want to learn. When we focus on the similarities instead of the differences, it changes the picture,” Heffernan said.
5. Geography prepares students for the future.
The study of geography opens up students’ awareness to what is around them locally and globally, and the connectedness of people, regions and cultures within those places. This knowledge can help them think critically about the world as they become the world’s government, business and family leaders.
Those who understand how physical spaces affect people’s wants and needs can make better decisions about policies, development and the environment.
“As their awareness of the world grows, children use their geographic skills to feel a connection with people they have never met and places they have never been. Essentially, geography brings the world alive to students,” Gandy concluded.