Defining Geography for Education

Odds are that if I ask you and the person in the next office to describe the field of geography, I will get pretty different answers. And if I were to ask other members of your family—your mother, your brother, your spouse—I would get an even broader range of answers. And if I were to ask the people next to you on your morning commute, the answers would be more diverse still.

This diversity is, of course, an inherent property of human psychology. We all carry around our own personal understanding of words and concepts that result from our own particular set of experiences.

In most cases, the fact that there is such a broad range of definitions for the field of geography isn’t a problem, but there is one place where it is a serious issue—in conversations about geography education.

In more than a decade of talking to people about how to improve geography education, I have learned that it is important to be explicit about the definition of geography that I am using.

While there are, of course, as many definitions of geography as there are people, there are three clusters that are important for discussions about geography education. I call these clusters of definitions “geographers’ geography,” “the popular perception of geography,” and “school geography.”

Before I go on, I should note that these definitions are all specific to the United States. From talking to geography educators from other parts of the world, I believe that these clusters exist elsewhere, but I have also learned that the specific definitions in each cluster and the similarities of the clusters to each other differ from place to place.

“Geographers’ Geography”

While there can be no “correct” definition of a field, the cluster of definitions that I think of as geographers’ geography has a status that sets it apart from the others. It reflects the way experts and practitioners in geography think of their field. Because geographers’ definitions of geography are the product of academic study and discussion, they cluster around a set of conventional definitions, including geography as the study of place and space and geography as the study of spatial patterns and processes at the earth’s surface. Geographers also commonly describe geography as encompassing human geography, physical geography, and human-environment interaction.

Unlike nongeographers, who often define maps, mapmaking, and map interpretation as the defining characteristics of geography, geographers tend to talk about maps as being instrumental to geography but not the defining feature. In my experience, geographers describe maps as tools that they use to understand and communicate about space and place.

The benefit of being able to refer to geographers’ definitions of geography in discussions about education is that they make it easy to describe the specific advantages of geography in contrast to other subjects of study, and they highlight the societal goals that geographic understanding and practices support. It is easy to connect geographers’ geography to the myriad activities of commerce, government, and community life.

“The Popular Perception of Geography”

Unfortunately, the popular perception of geography is very different. I find the understanding of geography that I encounter on a daily basis to fit the stereotype that geographers refer to as “place-name and location” geography frighteningly often. Most people I encounter, regardless of their level of educational attainment, view geography as a body of discrete knowledge about the world that includes names and locations of countries, cities, bodies of water, and major geological features and facts about those places.

Most people I talk to consider map reading and wayfinding to be the only skills that geography teaches, and if they are aware that one can study geography at an advanced level or practice geography professionally, they believe the focus of that geography is mapmaking.

From the perspective of geography education, the popular perception of geography is as pernicious as it is widespread. People are increasingly aware that factual knowledge is of limited value in the Internet age, so it is difficult to have a productive conversation about the value of geography education with someone who believes geography is about factual understanding and thinks its usefulness for careers is limited to the obscure profession of cartography. Unfortunately, it can be very difficult to change this perception of geography, especially in a single conversation, when the individual has had no personal exposure to systematic geographic reasoning or problem solving.

“School Geography”

The third cluster of definitions I encounter is what I call “school geography.” This is what is taught in schools under the label of geography. School geography is typically a little broader than the popular perception of geography but dramatically narrower than geographers’ geography.

In the United States, the overwhelming distinction between school geography and geographers’ geography is that school geography focuses almost exclusively on human geography. To the extent that physical geography is taught as geography in the United States, it is taught as background and context for human geography. This is not to say that physical geography is not taught in American schools. Some physical geography is taught, but it is taught under the labels of earth science, environmental science, and geoscience rather than geography. Anything that is taught with the label geography is taught as part of the social studies curriculum and focuses on the geography of people.

The second characteristic of school geography is that it focuses primarily on factual knowledge. It would not be fair to modern curriculum designers, textbook authors, or teachers to say that geography education today focuses exclusively on facts, but it is fair to say that school geography is so dominated by the teaching of facts that it has not done anything to change the popular perception of geography as being about knowledge of discrete facts.

Geographers and geography educators have worked hard to change the definition of school geography through the development and dissemination of standards that reflect the subset of geographers’ geography they believe K–12 students should learn. However, the impact of these efforts on the geography that is taught in schools is still limited.

Like the popular definition of geography, the school definition of geography is a problem for conversations about geography education. It leaves out the critical component of physical geography and makes it difficult to talk about the study of human-environment interaction. Likewise, the focus on factual knowledge makes it hard to make the case of the importance of geography education in our modern world.

The bottom line here is that the differences between these definitions represent both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is that it is very difficult to have productive discussions about improving geography education when the participants in these conversations have definitions that are limited to either the popular perception of geography or the school definition of geography.

On the other hand, it exposes an opportunity in the form of a specific issue to work on. If we could bring the geographers’ definition of geography to a larger audience, it could make it much easier to bring about change in geography education. While it is difficult (I can’t count the number of times when I have explained to people what I mean by geography, only to have them revert to their old understanding of geography a few minutes later), people can learn new definitions. It requires deliberate effort and clever communications strategies, but it can be done. In fact, I believe that it must be done if we ever are to make significant progress on the challenges of improving geography education and geographic literacy.

For more information about the efforts that the National Geographic Society, the Association of American Geographers, the National Council for Geographic Education, and Esri are making to increase popular understanding of geography, visit