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Spring 2009
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National Geographic Society logo "Geo Learning"
A column by Daniel C. Edelson,
Vice President for Education, National Geographic Society


Geographic Literacy in U.S. by 2025

Daniel C. Edelson photoFor more than a decade, the National Geographic Society and Esri have worked together to advance the cause of geographic literacy in the United States.

This new ArcNews column represents the next step in that collaboration. We are reaching out to the Esri user community, the largest organization of GIS professionals in the world, to engage you in this important campaign.

In this inaugural column, I will address the questions of what geographic literacy is and why GIS professionals have such an important role to play in our campaign to increase the rate of geographic literacy in the United States. In future "Geo Learning" columns, I will describe specific ways that you can get involved in this effort.

It's no secret that Americans know next to nothing about geography. The most recent National Geographic/Roper Poll (2006) found that half the 1824-year-old Americans surveyed could not locate New York on a map of the United States, and nearly 6 in 10 could not locate Ohio.

One-third of the young adults in the survey gave the wrong answer when asked to name the continent where the Amazon rainforest is located. And, after being at war with Iraq for three years, 63 percent of young Americans could not identify Iraq on a map of the Middle East.

If you're like me, you find it hard to believe those statistics because they are so discouraging, but they are true. However, by paying too much attention to these statistics, we could easily teach American schoolchildren a lot of disconnected geographic facts about the world that distract us from what people really need.

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.

The problem facing American society right now is that most people don't even know what it means to do geography. So who does know what it means to do geography and understand why it is so important? You do.

GIS professionals know what it means to analyze and solve geospatial problems. GIS professionals routinely apply geographic analysis to complex situations, predict consequences, construct plans, and make decisions. Not only do GIS professionals know what it means to do geography, they also understand how valuable the ability to do geography is to them individually, to their employers, and to our society.

To me, GIS professionals represent the standard against which we should measure geographic literacy. I do not mean that every individual should have the level of expertise that GIS professionals have. That's neither appropriate nor realistic.

However, we should aspire to having all Americans be able to conduct basic geographic analysis in order to make sound personal, political, and professional decisions. This is not about technology, either; I'm not arguing that all Americans need to be able to use a GIS.

My point is about analysis. I believe that every American should understand how the attributes of a location and its relationship to other locations affect that location. Every adult should understand that his or her actions have predictable effects elsewhere and that what happens elsewhere affects them. Today, most Americans go from kindergarten through college without ever being taught how to trace causes forward or backward across space or to analyze spatial relationships in order to predict or explain.

Without this analytic ability, how would we ever expect them to make good decisions about where to live and work, how to transport themselves, what to buy and how to dispose of it, how to prepare for natural disasters, whether to go to war abroad, where to locate a store or factory, or how to market goods abroad? The list goes on and on.

An even bigger problem than the low rate of geographic literacy in this country is that Americans don't even know enough to see the price that they are paying individually and as a society. Most Americans don't have any idea how much better their lives and our world could be if they could all do geography. Once again, the largest group that does understand the value of geographic literacy is the community of GIS professionals, and that is why the National Geographic Society and Esri want to enlist you in our long-term campaign to create a geographically literate society.

So, what have we done historically, where are we now, and where do we hope to go with your help?

Beginning more than 20 years ago, the National Geographic Society took up the cause of geographic literacy and created an education foundation to fund geography education initiatives. Since then, we established a national network of state "geography alliances," which are university-based organizations that advocate for geography education and provide professional development for teachers. Funded by a combination of proceeds from National Geographic programs, state governments, and private philanthropies, these alliances were successful in establishing K12 standards for geographic literacy in all 50 U.S. states; Washington, D.C.; and Puerto Rico.

The state geography alliances also created geography education materials and trained thousands of K12 teachers in their states. While teacher professional development is the key to improving geographic literacy, it is also the biggest challenge. Most teachers who are responsible for teaching geographic content, whether it's in the context of science or social studies, have never received any training in geography themselves.

In 20 years, the National Geographic-funded Alliance Network has had an impressive impact in raw numbers, but percentage-wise, it is just a drop in the bucket. That means, today, we face a situation in which we have a powerful infrastructure for reforming education, but we do not have the resources to bring about that reform.

For that reason, we are in the process of launching the second phase of our campaign for geographic literacy. The goal of this campaign is to approach universal geographic literacy. Specifically, we set a goal to achieve 80 percent rates of geographic literacy in all 50 states by 2025, where geographic literacy is defined as the ability of students to apply geographic skills and understanding in their personal and civic lives. We set a second goal to achieve 50 percent geographic fluency in all 50 states at the same time. Geographic fluency is a higher standard, which we define as preparation sufficient for successful postsecondary study in subjects that require geographic skills and understanding (e.g., international affairs or environmental science).

The year 2025 seems far away, but because educational reform is a slow process, and we don't currently have the necessary resources, this reform is an ambitious goal. To achieve our goal, we are working with the Alliance Network and other like-minded organizations, such as the Association of American Geographers, National Council for Geographic Education, and Esri, on three parallel tasks:

  • Create a combination of top-down policy and bottom-up consumer demand for geographic literacy.
  • Obtain sufficient resources in the form of federal, state, and philanthropic funding to mount a large-scale reform effort.
  • Create and implement plans for large-scale educational reform at the state and local levels.

There are important roles for GIS professionals and other applied geographers to play in all three of these strands, and in upcoming columns I will challenge you, the Esri user community, to play your part.

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