ERIC Identifier: ED264164
Publication Date: 1985-11-00
Author: Meredith, Sydney J.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for
Social Studies/Social Science Education Boulder CO.
Improvement in Geography Education. ERIC Digest No. 22.
For several years, the media have reported on American students' ignorance
about geography. Geography professors at various universities and colleges
across the United States have expressed concern that entering freshman are not
adequately prepared in high schools. Professors complain that they must begin
their courses offering remedial geography that students should have learned in
The claims of these professors are substantiated by a number of recent state,
national, and international polls and studies showing that many students leave
high school without the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that (1) they need to
be good citizens and (2) are important outcomes of geography programs.
How serious is the problem of geography education (or lack thereof) in the
United States? What are the prospects and pre-conditions for improvement? This
Digest explores the nature of the problem and steps currently being made to
effect its solution.
ARE STUDENTS ILLITERATE IN GEOGRAPHY?
The following are some of the numerous studies that have characterized
elementary and secondary students as illiterate in geography.
--The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) study indicated that
geographic knowledge of high school students is inadequate and that enrollment
and achievement in geography education are low (1979)
--A survey by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) showed students'
international knowledge and understanding was extremely low (Barrows and others
--Hill (1981) analyzed results from the ETS test for its geographic content.
He argues that students would have done better on the test had they taken
--Geography tests dealing with questions about relationships (rather than
place/name items) were administered to 12-year-olds in eight industrialized
developed nations. American students ranked a weak fourth among the eight groups
("American Education: The ABCs of Failure" December 11, 1983)
--A NATION AT RISK (1983) declared that geography teaching needs improvement
and that high school geography courses, although offered, were completed by only
16 percent of students in a recent sample of high school graduates (Altschul
--Over 2,000 students in introductory college classes at the University of
North Carolina were surveyed and tested on geography. The percentage of students
never having had a geography course was high--71 percent never had geography
instruction in elementary grades, 65 percent in junior high, and 73 percent in
high school. Ninety-seven percent of the freshmen and 93 percent of the
upperclassmen failed (Kopec 1984). Similar results were obtained by Ligocki
WHY DO STUDENTS KNOW SO LITTLE GEOGRAPHY?
Vuicich and Stoltman (l975) describe a number of historical events, such as
the l9ll National Education Association secondary school curriculum review,
which have had an effect on geography's role in curriculum.
The review "conceived social studies to represent a single field of study
encompassing all the social sciences, without discipline boundaries." As a
result of such reports, geography has historically been treated as a component
of all social studies coursework rather than as a separate curriculum. Within
the social studies, geography tends to be overshadowed by history, government,
and civics. When offered, it is usually an elective in senior high schools; when
it is required, it is usually taught in grade seven.
A number of geography educators suggest that the education of Americans in
geography could be made stronger if geography were taught as a separate, quired
high school course; if teachers were adequately prepared to teach geography; and
if the public recognized the importance of the subject. Salvatore J. Natoli,
Educational Affairs Director of the Association of American Geographers, urges
that geography be treated as a unique discipline in the public school
curriculum. A separate geography course would emphasize certain principles basic
to modern geography: conceptual, attitudinal, and skill learning which offers a
powerful, transferable learning experience for students, helping them to develop
tools to cope with the changing world (Natoli l985).
Another reason for teaching geography separately is that teachers'
preparation and state certification requirements for teaching geography would
become more stringent. Because many teacher education programs prepare social
studies teachers to teach multiple courses rather than focus on one specialty
such as geography, it currently appears possible to teach elementary social
studies without having had a single geography course and to teach high school
geography with only six credits of study (Winston l984).
As to one possible reason why the status is low, Winston points out that
secondary and elementary school geography lacks credibility among the general
public, school personnel, and students. She references Gallup polls to show that
the general public tends to regard social studies as less useful than many other
areas of the curriculum and she states that "if the public perceived greater
value for student learning in geography, inservice teachers might be encouraged
by school adminstrators to improve their preparedness in the subject and their
abilities to teach related knowledge and skills" (1984).
WHAT IS BEING DONE TO IMPROVE GEOGRAPHY EDUCATION?
Recently, many efforts have been made to combat the negative aspects of
geography education shown by the studies cited above.
The most positive steps to improve geography education have been efforts of
the National Council for Geographic Education and the Association of American
Geographers. Offering strong leadership and direction to this urgent need, these
educators have recently co-published guidelines focusing on what should be
taught in geography. Intended as a current statement for improving geography
education, these guidelines have been widely circulated in the United States.
In addition, these organizations have made plans to accomplish short- and
long-term tasks to promote geography education. Some of these include
development of grade-by-grade curriculum guidelines with activities; a network
of people to serve as consultants in geography education; model workshops and
materials for improving geography education; and an information network in
geography to share news about such things as new materials, notes on important
reports, workshops, conferences, and professional training.
States and school districts are also working hard to put geography education
into classrooms as a separate discipline. For example, the University of
Colorado had instituted a geography admissions requirement; some school
districts have added a required course in geography to the high school
curriculum (for example, San Diego, California's Unified School District); and
Tennessee and South Dakota have implemented statewide requirements. Legislation
is pending in Texas.
Geography educators have identified the need for curriculum change and have
developed mechanisms for accomplishing this task. To date, their efforts have
been noteworthy and offer promise for significant improvements for the benefit
of students and the public.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Altschul, Robert D. "Geography's Response to 'A Nation At Risk.'" l984. ED
Barrows, Thomas S., and others. COLLEGE STUDENTS' KNOWLEDGE AND BELIEFS: A
SURVEY OF GLOBAL UNDERSTANDING. The Final Report of the Global Understanding
Project. Educational Testing Service. New Rochelle, NY: Change Magazine Press,
"American Education: The ABC's of Failure." DALLAS TIMES HERALD. December ll,
GUIDELINES FOR GEOGRAPHIC EUDCATION: ELEMENTARY AND SECONDARY SCHOOLS.
Washington, D.C.: Joint Committee on Geographic Education of the National
Council for Geographic Education and Association of American Geographers, l984.
Hill, David. "A Survey of Global Understanding of American College Students:
A Report to Geographers." THE PROFESSIONAL GEOGRAPHER 2 (May l98l):237-245.
Kopec, Richard J. "Geography: No 'Where' in North Carolina l984." l984. ED
Ligocki, Clemenc. "High School Geography and the Need for Communication."
JOURNAL OF GEOGRAPHY 8l (September-October l982):l88-l90.
National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). SUMMARIES AND TECHNICAL
DOCUMENTATION FOR PERFORMANCE CHANGES IN CITIZENSHIP AND SOCIAL STUDIES
ASSESSMENT, l969-l976. Denver, CO: NAEP, l979.
National Commission on Excellence in Education. A NATION AT RISK: THE
IMPERATIVE FOR EDUCATIONAL REFORM. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office,
Natoli, Salvatore. EDUCATION DAILY (January 21, l985) and information
obtained via telephone conversation (January l985).
Vuicich, George, and Joseph Stoltman. GEOGRAPHY IN ELEMENTARY AND SECONDARY
EDUCATION: TRADITION TO OPPORTUNITY. Boulder, CO: Social Science Education
Winston, Barbara. "Teaching Education in Geography in the United States." In
TEACHER EDUCATION MODELS IN GEOGRAPHY: AN INTERNATIONAL COMPARISON, edited by
William Marsden. Papers prepared in conjunction with the 25th Congress,
International Geographic Union, l984.