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Summer 2011 Edition

Why Geography Education Matters

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Joseph Kerski, education manager for Esri and 2011 president of the National Council for Geographic Education (NCGE), passionately believes in the importance of geography in the curriculum. "Geography enables students to understand their world locally to globally, make wise decisions about the planet and its resources, and become critical thinkers," said Kerski. "Geography grapples with the key issues of our time—energy, water, biodiversity, climate, natural hazards, population, and much more." In the following essay, Kerski explains why geography plays such a pivotal rule in education.

Geographic questions begin with the whys of where. Why are cities, ecoregions, and earthquakes located where they are, and how are they affected by their proximity to nearby things and also by invisible global interconnections and networks?

After asking geographic questions, students acquire geographic resources. They collect data such as maps, satellite imagery, and spreadsheets from their own fieldwork. They analyze this geographic data and understand relationships across time and space.

Geographic investigations are often value laden and involve critical-thinking skills. For example, after examining a map of cotton production in the USA, students investigate the relationship between latitude, altitude, climate, land use, and cotton production. After discovering much cotton is grown in dry regions that must be irrigated, students can then ask "Why is cotton grown in these dry areas? Should cotton be grown in these dry areas? Is that the best use of water and other natural resources?"

Finally, students present the results of their investigations using geographic tools such as web GIS and desktop geographic information systems. Their investigations usually spark additional questions, and the resultant cycle is the essence of geographic investigation.

Students study geography to understand that the earth is changing. Then they scientifically and analytically think about why it is changing. And they even dig deeper than that. Should the earth be changing in these ways? Is there anything that I can do about it or that I should be doing about it? This not only captures the heart of spatial thinking—inquiry and problem-based learning—but also empowers students to become decision makers, to make a difference in this changing world of ours.

Geography therefore is not simply just a "nice to have" subject for an already-crowded educational curriculum. It underpins, in my view, the critical-thinking skills, technology skills, citizen skills, and life skills that underpin all other disciplines. It is essential for grappling with the essential issues of our time.

If you care about geography education and want to see it strengthened and supported at all levels—K–12, university, formal, informal—consider joining NCGE at

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