Trooping into my room on the first day of school, my 8th grade geography classes would look above the board and see a sign:
- What’s where?
- Why is it there?
- So what?
I would tell them that they didn’t need to know a lot of facts for my class; primarily they needed thinking skills. They would build up their background knowledge by exercising those skills endlessly. We quickly began exploring.
Their growing background knowledge and thinking skills would allow them to answer the first and second questions. But to answer the third question they needed to always be alert, not just “go through the day.” They needed to be attentive wherever they were, look for patterns and relationships at various scales, and pay attention to what they heard adults talking about, as well as what they saw/heard/read in the news. I told them it was OK to ask “So what?” in class, any time they wanted, and such diversions happened often.
True literacy—about words, numbers, graphics, personal finance, social relationships, etc.—means more than simply reciting facts and rules committed to memory. It means being able to understand situations and relationships, and handle questions not previously encountered—and to do so with increasing sophistication.
For geographic literacy, or “geoliteracy,” this means far more than knowing the states and capitols in the US or the directions around a compass. Such facts are handy, for sure, but insufficient by themselves.
So what does geoliteracy mean?
- It means being able to detect patterns that vary across space, and to understand how phenomena in one place and time relate to other phenomena.
- It means looking at a map, a classroom, or an athletic field and seeing patterns with similar clarity.
- It means looking at a label on a piece of clothing and understanding how an item made in a distant land might have gotten to this location, and being able to describe some possible related conditions and effects of such a journey.
- It means understanding how different groups might see and describe the value of a specific tree, a species, or an ocean differently.
- It means looking at a billboard next to a vacant lot on the way home from school and being able to describe some of what “Future home of BigBox SuperStore” might mean to the community beyond just one less place to play catch.
- It means hearing a discussion about labor, economy, local resources, and global patterns, and being able to talk about what different sides might value.
- It means carefully choosing which ideas to support and discard, and knowing how to learn about new things, including deciding why certain bits of information might be more appropriate than others.
Geoliteracy helps people to navigate through life and to cope with overlapping and often competing information and values, at scales from micro to cosmic. It means being able to describe for new situations “what’s where,” postulate “why it’s there,” and being interested enough to wonder and skilled enough to resolve “so what.” Geoliteracy fosters skills in managing disparate information about complex problems. And this is exactly what employers are seeking today—workers accustomed to thinking critically, learning insatiably, collaborating naturally, and using technology to analyze and integrate more efficiently and powerfully. Geoliteracy opens doors to a better future for individuals, communities, and the planet.