ERIC Identifier: ED277601
Publication Date: 1986-11-00
Author: Backler, Alan - Stoltman, Joseph
Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education Bloomington IN.
The Nature of Geographic Literacy. ERIC Digest No. 35.
Much attention has been given recently to the "geographic illiteracy" of Americans. This attention has unfortunately reinforced the common view that
geographic literacy consists only in knowing where things are. Where on a world
map is Vietnam? Through which countries does the Nile River flow? Where is
Knowing where things are is only the first step in attaining geographic
literacy. Ultimately, geography is concerned with understanding why things are
located where they are. To answer this type of question requires the use of a
wide range of geographic themes, concepts, and skills. Birdsall (1986) says: "We
must also be comfortable enough with the underlying concepts and principles of
geography that our understanding of places and people will be enhanced, not
This digest explores the nature of geographic literacy. It discusses 1)
fundamental themes of geography, 2) basic geographic skills, and 3) likely
outcomes of education for geography literacy.
WHAT ARE THE FUNDAMENTAL THEMES OF GEOGRAPHY?
In 1984, the Association of American Geographers and the National Council for
Geographic Education published GUIDELINES FOR GEOGRAPHIC EDUCATION, which
identifies the fundamental themes of school geography and develops them
explicitly for use by teachers, curriculum developers, and school
administrators. A description of the themes follows.
--LOCATION: POSITION ON THE EARTH'S SURFACE. Absolute and relative location
are two ways of describing the position of places on the earth's surface. In
many situations, it is important to identify absolute locations as precise
points on the earth. For instance, determining the precise position of fresh
water supplies is critical to filling the world's fresh water needs. The
coordinates of latitude and longitude are widely accepted and useful ways of
portraying exact locations. Determining relative location--the position of one
place with respect to other important places--is equally significant. If, for
example, the position of fresh water supplies with respect to potential water
users is too remote, then it will not be feasible to exploit these supplies.
--PLACE: NATURAL AND CULTURAL CHARACTERISTICS. All places on earth have
distinct natural and cultural characteristics that distinguish them from other
places. The natural characteristics derive from geological, hydrological,
atmospheric, and biological processes that produce landforms, water bodies,
climate, soils, natural vegetation, and animal life. Human ideas and actions
also shape the character of places, which vary in population composition,
settlement patterns, architecture, kinds of economic and recreational activities
and transportation and communication networks. One place may also differ from
another in the ideologies and philosophical or religious tenets of people who
live there, by their languages, and by their forms of economic, social, and
--RELATIONSHIPS WITHIN PLACES: HUMANS AND ENVIRONMENTS. People modify and
adapt to natural settings in ways that reveal cultural values, economic and
political circumstances, and technological abilities. It is important to
understand how such human-environment relationships develop and what the
consequences are for people and for the environment.
--MOVEMENT: HUMANS INTERACTING ON THE EARTH. Human beings, unevenly
distributed across the earth, interact with each other; that is, they travel
from one place to another, they communicate with each other, or they rely upon
products, information, and ideas that come from beyond their immediate
environment. The most visible evidences of global interdependence and the
interaction of places are transportation and communication networks linking
every part of the world. These demonstrate that most people interact with other
places almost every day of their lives. Interaction continues to change as
transportation and communication technologies change. We need to anticipate
these changes and to examine their geographical and societal consequences.
--REGIONS: HOW THEY FORM AND CHANGE. The basic unit of geographic study is
the region. The region is any area that displays unity in terms of selected
criteria. We commonly use regions to show the extent of political power, such as
nations, provinces, countries, or cities. However, there are almost countless
ways to define meaningful regions, depending on the issues and problems being
considered. Some regions are defined by a single characteristic, such as their
governmental unit, language group, or land form type, and others by the
interplay of many complex features.
Regions are used in geographic education to examine, define, describe,
explain, and analyze the human and natural environment. They define convenient,
manageable units upon which to build our knowledge of the world and provide a
context for studying current events. We may view regions as an intermediate step
between knowledge of local places and knowledge of the entire planet.
WHAT ARE BASIC GEOGRAPHIC SKILLS?
The authors of GUIDELINES FOR GEOGRAPHIC EDUCATION recommend a series of
geographical skills for processing information needed in the study and analysis
of important issues.
Geographic information processing skills can be grouped under five headings:
(1) asking geographic questions, (2) acquiring geographic information, (3)
presenting geographic information, (4) interpreting geographic information, and
(5) developing and testing geographic information.
--ASKING GEOGRAPHIC QUESTIONS. Geography is distinguished by the kinds of
questions it asks--the "where?" and "why there?" aspects of a problem. It is
important for students to develop and practice skills in asking such questions
--ACQUIRING GEOGRAPHIC INFORMATION. These skills range from identifying
locations using grid systems, through making observations and acquiring
information in the field, to obtaining statistical data.
--PRESENTING GEOGRAPHIC INFORMATION. These skills involve preparation of
maps, tables, and graphs, and coherent written or oral presentations.
--INTERPRETING GEOGRAPHIC INFORMATION. Interpreting involves the ability to
determine what a particular map, table, or graph says (e.g., describing trends
portrayed on a line graph).
--DEVELOPING AND TESTING GEOGRAPHIC GENERALIZATIONS. These are skills in
making inferences based on information contained in maps, tables, and graphs.
WHAT ARE LIKELY OUTCOMES OF EDUCATION FOR GEOGRAPHIC LITERACY?
What learning outcomes should be expected if young people are provided with
systematic instruction on the perspectives, information, concepts, and skills of
First, students will understand that absolute and relative location are
significant aspects of every natural and cultural feature on earth. For example,
knowing the absolute location of Afghanistan and its location relative to that
of the Islamic minorities in the U.S.S.R. helps students understand events in
that country in recent years.
Second, students will be able to determine the significance of places in
terms of their natural and human characteristics and how the meanings of places
change over time. For example, students will be able to identify natural and
human factors that led to emergence of New York as a major world city and
describe how New York has changed.
Third, students will be aware of how people inhabit, modify, and adapt
culturally to natural environments. For example, students will realize that rain
forests have been used for hunting and gathering, for shifting agriculture, for
forestry, and for plantation agriculture.
Fourth, students will examine how places are interdependent and the
implications of that interdependence. For example, students will be able to
examine the interdependence of Japan and the United States and have some idea
how it affects the daily lives of American and Japanese families.
Fifth, students will learn to use the concept of region to make general
statements about reality. For example, students will identify areas of the world
where cutting forests for firewood is a major energy resource; they will be able
to describe and evaluate the human and environmental features found in those
parts of the world; and they will be able to relate them to the consequences of
In attaining all of these goals, students will be able to use maps to ask and
answer questions about important issues. For example, students will be able to
examine maps dealing with population, land use, land forms, and vegetation to
make inferences about the distribution of drought in Africa.
Geographic literacy involves certain themes and skills discussed in this
digest. Students can use their knowledge and skills to enhance comprehension of
the world and to think more effectively about it.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Bennett, William J. FIRST LESSONS: A REPORT ON ELEMENTARY EDUCATION IN
AMERICA. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, 1986. ED 270 236.
Birdsall, Stephen S. "America's Geographic Illiteracy." FOCUS 36 (Summer
Gardner, David. "Geography in the School Curriculum." ANNALS (March 1986):
Joint Committee on Geographic Education of the National Council for
Geographic Education and Association of American Geographers. GUIDELINES FOR
GEOGRAPHIC EDUCATION: ELEMENTARY AND SECONDARY SCHOOLS. Washington, DC: The
Association of American Geographers, 1984. ED 252 453.
Lanegran, David. "Strengthening Geographic Education." THE PROFESSIONAL
GEOGRAPHER 38 (February 1986): 71.
Manson, Gary. "Notes on the Status of Geography in American Schools." JOURNAL
OF GEOGRAPHY 80 (December 1981): 244.
Meredith, Sydney J. IMPROVEMENT IN GEOGRAPHY EDUCATION. ERIC Digest No. 22
(November 1985). ED 264 164.
Natoli, Salvatore J. "The Importance of Redundancy and Eternal Vigilance."
THE PROFESSIONAL GEOGRAPHER 38 (February 1986): 75-76.
Stoltman, Joseph and J. Kelli Sweet. "The Michigan Experience in Geographical
Education." THE PROFESSIONAL GEOGRAPHER 38 (February 1986): 73-74.