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Geo-Education: Preparation for 21st-Century Decisions

"Geo Learning"

National Geographic Society logoA column by Daniel C. Edelson,
Vice President for Education, National Geographic Society

photo of Daniel EdelsonGeo-education is about preparing people to make the important decisions we will all face in the 21st century. At National Geographic, we call people who are prepared to make these decisions geo-literate.

Geo-literacy requires three kinds of understanding:

Interactions—A geo-literate individual understands that the world is composed of interacting systems that move and transform resources. These may be social systems, like political, economic, and cultural systems. They may be technological systems, like transportation, energy transmission, and communications systems. Or they may be environmental systems, like hydrological, atmospheric, and ecological systems.

Interconnections—A geo-literate individual understands that these systems connect people and places to each other. This means that events that happen in one location affect other people and places. It also means that our actions affect other people and places.

Implications—A geo-literate individual is able to use his or her understanding of interactions and interconnections to make well-reasoned decisions. This means being able to anticipate the cascading consequences of actions that result from systems interactions and interconnections among people and places. It also means being able to weigh costs and benefits for oneself, for one's community, and for other people and places when making decisions.

More important than what it requires is what geo-literacy enables you to do. Here are six categories of critical decisions that geo-literacy prepares people to make:

Community life—A geo-literate individual understands the factors that improve or degrade the quality of life in a community. These factors include everything from walkability to cultural resources to housing stock. A geo-literate individual is able to use that understanding to (1) make good personal choices about where to live and spend time, and (2) make good civic choices about how to improve the quality of life in his or her community.

Location and transportation—A geo-literate individual is able to reason through problems involving site selection and transportation planning. These problems come up in personal, professional, and civic life, but they are particularly important in professional life in the modern world. Individuals with geospatial reasoning skills are in high demand in fields as diverse as military logistics, intelligence, natural resources management, and supply-chain management.

Interactions across cultures—Our local communities are increasingly diverse, and our daily lives increasingly involve interactions with people in faraway places. Both of these trends make it important that members of our society be culturally literate, meaning able to communicate and collaborate effectively with individuals from different cultures.

Environmental and social impacts—Both the connections that knit together our world ever more tightly and the growth in our global population mean that the impacts of our actions on the environment and on other people are amplified. This makes it all the more important that we all be able to anticipate the potential environmental and social impacts of our actions and make decisions accordingly.

Global affairs—While most individuals' direct influence on global affairs is limited, people throughout the world have growing opportunities to shape global affairs through participation in political processes and public opinion. So geo-literacy is important to be able to participate in the public debate about trade, diplomacy, military action, and foreign aid.

Acts of caring—By "acts of caring," I mean actions to improve the lives of other people or care for the world that we share. This includes efforts to alleviate poverty, reduce hunger, or improve health care and education. It also includes wildlife conservation and environmental restoration. Whether one is taking action oneself or providing financial support, it is important to be able to make informed decisions about what actions are most likely to have a meaningful and lasting impact. This requires geo-literacy.

The challenge of geo-education is weaving the knowledge and reasoning skills required to make these six categories of critical decisions into the written curriculum of schools and the unwritten curriculum of home and community life. This is a challenge that we have not yet taken on explicitly in our modern society, but we must all take it on if we are to prepare today's youth for the world they will inherit.

Follow Daniel Edelson on Twitter: @NatGeoEdelson.

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