Monday, March 30, 2009

NGS's Danny Edelson: Knowing Geography Facts is Not Enough

When I pulled the latest issue of ArcNews out of my mailbox this afternoon, I was happy to see the first in what will be a regular column by National Geographic's vice president for Education, Danny Edelson. The column - Geo Learning - is the latest front in NGS's all-out war on geographic illiteracy. As you may have read here in the past, I am personally involved in that campaign through my work with the Florida Geographic Alliance and My Wonderful World.

As I prepare to head out to Jacksonville, Florida this Friday for the Florida Geographic Bee (sponsored by NGS) - and event that celebrates geography trivia - I was happy that Mr. Edelson rightly pointed out that "People don't need to know geography, they need to know how to do geography." Amen. I am certainly not knocking the geography bee format. I coordinate the bee at my school and I've been involved in the state bee for the past three years. I love trivia as much as anyone. The problem is that too many in education confuse the regurgitation of facts with actual geographic literacy. As a historian and history teacher, I see the same in much of history education. Kids today have access to more facts than ever before. Most kids at my middle school carry around that access in their pockets (i.e. their cellphones); but being able to use that information to draw conclusions and formulate opinions about current global issues is where we see deep deficiencies.

Unfortunately, the problem we see in geographic literacy and education is the same problem that pops up across the curriculum. I am not fundamentally opposed to standardized tests. I believe they do serve a purpose. The problem is that we have designed our education system to create good test takers. We pump our students full of disconnected and random facts and figures so that they can fill-in the correct bubble on an answer sheet. But what about analyzing, synthesizing, and problem-solving using those facts and figures? Those are the skills that we should be teaching. My students have no problem accessing more information than they can ever use, but they struggle when trying to formulate a coherent argument using that information.

I'm not suggesting here that we should abandon the teaching of important facts, but I am saying that the teaching of facts should serve what our real objective should be - teaching kids to think.

I applaud Mr. Edelson for distinguishing knowing and doing in his inaugural column. I think that arguments that focus on doing might gain more traction as we fight for the cause of geography education in our legislatures.

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