Correcting our worldview

IN FOCUS

Though experts say many factors led to Americans' lack of geography knowledge - curriculum, dominance of English - teachers and firms are trying to help lost U.S. citizens find their way

In Focus -- Education

November 29, 2007|By Stevenson Swanson | Stevenson Swanson,THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE

NEW YORK -- When it comes to geography, Americans can't tell Kyrgyzstan from Kansas.

That's the conventional wisdom when it comes to the state of our knowledge about the states and our limited worldview of the world.

But rather than just shrug and accept that bleak assessment, several groups of educators and at least one entrepreneur are trying to do something about it.

The National Geographic Society launched a five-year multimedia campaign called My Wonderful World, aimed at improving the geographic knowledge of students ages 8 to 17.

A national group of geography educators is lobbying Congress to provide funding for geography instruction to correct what they see as a decline in the teaching of geography as a result of the priorities of the No Child Left Behind Act.

And then there's Roger Andresen, a former fiber-optics engineer who five years ago founded an Atlanta company called A Broader View to make puzzles and other products that make geography accessible to the general public.

"Geography is a wonderful discipline to help us understand a wide variety of issues, such as international security, international resources, and international business," said Andresen, 34, whose company has five full-time employees and has notched up sales of 800,000 items, including its signature product, the 600-piece Geography Puzzle. "Understanding the world is increasingly important, and understanding geography is fundamental to understanding the world."

In addition, his company runs an online contest that challenges visitors to identify 10 random countries in 2 minutes. Since starting the contest in 2003, geographyzone.com has registered more than 2.1 million contestants from 192 countries.

Andresen was inspired to quit his engineering job and start his own company in 2002, when he read the results of a multinational survey of 18-to-24-year-olds that found that American young adults placed next to last in geographic knowledge. Mexico came in last of the nine nations in the survey; Sweden was first.

A follow-up survey in 2006 was hardly more encouraging. The study, by the National Geographic Society and Roper Public Affairs, found that six in 10 of the young adults surveyed could not find Iraq on a map of the Middle East, and although the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians had been in the headlines their entire lives, 75 percent could not locate Israel.

"We were surprised in the 2006 survey to see that, notwithstanding the fact that there have been these cataclysmic events in the world, there was still this lack of awareness of where these places were," said Terry Garcia, the National Geographic executive in charge of the organization's My Wonderful World campaign. "It shows how difficult this problem is, but also how critical it is to address it."

Designed to raise awareness of the importance of geography, My Wonderful World provides tools and techniques on its Web site for parents to make geography engaging for children, as well as classroom materials for teachers and links to geography games.

Educators attribute the problem they call "geographic illiteracy" to a combination of factors. As a large country separated from most of the world by two oceans, the United States has not had to concern itself as much with such fine points as knowing that Guinea is a country in Africa and that New Guinea is an island north of Australia.

Also, with English as the dominant language of international business and culture, it's easier for Americans - as well as Canadians and Britons, who also rank low in geographic knowledge - to overlook the fact that the world is made of multiple cultures.

"We tend not to give as much importance to other cultures and languages as we might otherwise," Garcia said. "We don't travel outside our own country as much as people in other countries. We don't speak multiple languages as people in Europe commonly do."

In recent years, another factor has been the priorities of the No Child Left Behind Act, aimed at improving academic performance in U.S. schools. The law's testing requirements stress reading and mathematics. Although geography is listed as one of nine key subject areas in the law, it is the only subject that is not provided with teaching funds under the act.

"With No Child Left Behind, it's geography that's being left behind," said Kimberly Crews, executive director of the National Council for Geographic Education, a professional organization that works to improve the teaching of geography. "Especially in the last five or six years, we've witnessed a decline in the teaching of geography."

The council is lobbying Congress to pass pending legislation that would provide $15 million a year to fund college and university programs to train elementary and secondary instructors to teach geography, either as a stand-alone subject or as a topic that is woven into other subjects, such as social studies or science.

In Illinois, geography is usually incorporated in social studies classes, so an important step to increasing students' knowledge is to make teachers aware of the potential for geography to enliven their classes, according to Judy Bock, president of the Geography Society of Chicago.

"It's more than maps," Bock said. "People kind of water it down to maps and don't look at the power that geography provides to understand connections."

Stevenson Swanson writes for The Chicago Tribune.

Geographic funding

A group of educators wants Congress to provide funding for geography instruction to correct what they see as a decline in the teaching of geography.

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