There’s more to geography than just 50 states and their capitals

When Kelly León heard rumblings her district, the Sweetwater Union High School District in Southern California, was thinking about ditching 9th grade geography several years ago, she felt she had a “professional obligation” to challenge the proposal and “fight for a well-rounded education” for her students.

León, named 2019 Teacher of the Year by the California Council for the Social Studies, pulled together a group of educators who worked with the California Geographic Alliance, based nearby at San Diego State University, to redesign the curriculum.

They proposed transforming it from the traditional course in which students studied physical geography, history and culture as discrete units for each region of the world, into an inquiry-based, community-focused course where students would actually leave the classroom to examine the links between people and their environment. The school board gave it the go-ahead.

Last year, two students studying the impact of pollution in the San Diego Bay and its beaches, met with the mayor and other officials and proposed ideas for how students could help to fix the problem. The course also explores how geography impacts people around the globe. After a visitor from Uganda described how people in his village walked miles for clean water, the students tried carrying bottled water and learned just how heavy it can be. 

“For them to have to carry five gallons — we could barely manage two. It was really shocking to us,” one student told researchers at SDSU.

The course is a hit with students and teachers, but the 40,000-student district’s experience with geography is an anomaly. In much of the country, K-12 geography is the neglected stepchild. 

More than labeling countries on a blank map

As of 2019, just 20 states require some geography for high school graduation, according to the Education Commission of the States, but most of them give districts wide latitude to decide what to cover and how to teach it. For example, North Dakota and Oklahoma say only that geography “may” be included in social studies requirements, while in Texas, Virginia and New Hampshire, students can meet the requirement with either geography or world history.

Often geography is folded into one of the other disciplines making up social studies — civics/government, history or economics. Only six states require students to take a standalone geography class to graduate. 

A key challenge, said León, is “the public doesn’t understand geography and that trickles down to our policymakers and the people who are ultimately put in charge of making these decisions.”

Geography often evokes middle school memories of identifying countries on a blank map, naming the longest river in Asia or memorizing the 50 state capitals — the sort of game-show knowledge that takes a minute to find online. 

But geography is really “the study of places and the relationships between people and their environments,” explains National Geographic.

“Geography seeks to understand where things are found, why they are there and how they develop and change over time.” Gilbert Grosvenor, former chairman and president of the National Geographic Society, said geography “allows us to analyze the past and anticipate the future.”

‘A historic time with unprecedented challenges’

In recent years, understanding the future has become part of dissecting the present.

“Understanding geography has never been more important,” Vicki Phillips, chief education officer at the National Geographic Society, wrote in an email. Faced with the interconnected challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, population growth and the effects of climate change, she said, “it’s critical that students understand not just where these issues are playing out but also why they’re happening, and the impacts they’re having.”

Technology has expanded geography’s ability to address these challenges. Researchers and scientists use geographic information systems — or GIS — to analyze, explain and seek solutions to these crises, as well as for making everyday decisions, such as configuring transit routes, deciding where to build schools and parks, addressing homelessness and even locating missing cell phones. 

Geography education in the U.S., however, has been atrophying for years in public schools, often subsumed into other social studies courses and taught by teachers who may never have taken a standalone geography class in college. Students’ scores on geography as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress reflect that the subject is not a priority in many schools. 

On the 2018 geography results earlier this year, only 25% of 8th-graders reached the proficient level, while 29% scored below basic — worse than the previous test in 2014. Performance levels have been generally stagnant since the first geography assessment in 1994, when nearly a third of students in grades 4, 8 and 12 scored below basic and just over one in four students were proficient or higher. 

What gets tested gets taught

Last year, geography education also received another blow from an unexpected source. The National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP exams, prefaced its 2018 geography framework — as well as all previous versions — as “guided by the conviction that a broad knowledge of geography is an essential part of a full education.”

“This is particularly true at a time when the lives of nearly all our citizens are deeply affected by what happens throughout the world,” it warned.

It came as a surprise then, when NAGB announced last year it had eliminated geography (along with fine arts and economics and expansions in foreign language) from the testing schedule for the time being. 

“We were completely blindsided,” said Tina Heafner, president of the National Council for the Social Studies. “We had no idea that they were changing the assessment schedule.”

Lesley Muldoon, executive director of NAGB, said budget constraints forced the board to remove and scale back assessments in some subjects to focus more resources on reading and mathematics, the only two subjects Congress specifically mandated for NAEP testing. Muldoon tried to allay anticipated concerns about the message NAGB’s decision might send to state education departments. 

“The value of a particular subject should not and does not depend on whether NAEP measures it,” she said in a written statement

Not all geographers share that confidence. They fear by eliminating it from NAEP testing, states and districts will have even less incentive to include geography in an already overcrowded curriculum.

Thomas Herman, a geography professor at SDSU and executive director of the California Geographic Alliance, warned the decision “is essentially pulling out one of the last footholds on this slippery slope whereby geography might simply lose traction and lose its spot in the curriculum.”

Thomas Herman, in the hat, leads 9th graders from Bonita Vista High School on a geography field project to document unique uses of space, diverse food landscapes and other cultural markers in San Diego’s City Heights neighborhood.

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Reversing geography’s vanishing act

There are still, however, pockets of growing interest in the subject. The Advanced Placement Human Geography course is one example. The number of high school students completing the exam surged from 3,272 when it was first offered in 2001 to 233,817 in 2019, making it one of the fastest growing AP subjects.

In Salem City Schools, a K-12 district in Virginia, every student takes geography in 8th grade and must pass an end-of-course exam to be eligible for an advanced diploma. However, while the content is the same, instruction varies between teachers.

Judith Painter, who just completed her 28th year teaching, says she has taught every social studies subject, but geography is her “first love.” Painter was only required to take two geography courses to earn her credential and is quick to acknowledge “it certainly doesn’t prepare you to teach geography.”

Painter has made up for that, however, by taking advantage of professional development opportunities, particularly through the National Geographic Society, which selected her as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow two years ago.

Judith Painter during her Antarctica expedition.

Judith Painter


She spent 16 days on an expedition to Antarctica, exploring and learning new ways to engage her students through field-based experiences. Afterward, Painter wrote and received a grant for a program she called Beyond the Walls to take students hiking, canoeing, fishing and exploring the world around them in other ways. 

In one project, students surveyed their neighborhood green spaces, created a heat map showing how many there are and where they are located, and then analyzed the data to decide whether they should ask the city council to designate more open space areas. 

Painter is a fan of various websites that provide free resources for teachers, including the National Geographic Society’s Educator Network, and she is a frequent contributor to iNaturalist, where she and other teachers share ideas, curriculum and descriptions of their class field work.

A 2015 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office cited a lack of teacher preparation and PD, poor quality instructional materials and insufficient use of geographic technology in classrooms as key challenges to improving K-12 geography education.

“The sad reality is that geography is not a requirement in most preservice curricula,” said Charles Regan, executive director of the National Council for Geographic Education.

He notes a few places are taking the lead in strengthening preservice requirements. One exception is the University of South Carolina, which now requires geography in its teacher education program. But the campaign to enact change took 10 years, and Regan is concerned geography cannot wait that long. 

Instead, the NCGE has shifted its priorities to PD and is preparing to launch an online resource library with teacher-developed and classroom-tested lesson plans. Unless geography instruction is improved, said Regan, “the perception will carry on of ‘What are the 50 states and their capitals; what’s the longest river in Asia?’ And that’s the beginning and end of geography in many peoples’ minds.”

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