Monday, November 22, 2010

Geography Themes and Frameworks

I belong to two groups that seem to have a constant need to explain themselves: Unitarian-Universalists and geographers. I'm not sure which is more anxious to be convey its essence in the form of lists. For example, UUs have no creed, but we could not help writing down our non-creed as Seven Principles, which in turn draw on (about) six kinds of sources. Simply to call it a "free religion" is too simple.

Similarly, geography could be described simply as "Geography is what geographers do." And in fact, I have seen as much variety in the practice of geography (from studies of snow or mud to studies of graffiti or lawn ornaments to studies of trade agreements or electoral strategies) as I have in the practice of the UU faith.

When pressed to elaborate, I might try to describe the geographic imagination or sense of place. In some ways this entire blog is meant to exemplify those concepts, by applying a geographic perspective to a very wide range of stories, and a major section of my own home page includes a few special examples of "what geographers do."

To give a bit more shape to the discipline,  I start small, with what I call geography's Three Questions:
  • Where is it?
  • Why is it there?
  • So what?
I think that all geographic work addresses one or more of these, about one or more things that vary across the earth's surface. I have also frequently cited Pattison's four traditions, first offered to teachers a half-century ago. As an educator of geographers and of fellow geographic educators, however, this is far from satisfying, and it certainly does not satisfy the managerialist style of today's education bureaucracies. I have therefore had to delve into the more structured ways of describing, defining, and even defending the geographic perspective by enumerating its parts.

It is good to start with the five themes, before moving on to the eighteen standards (falling into six elements) which are the distillation of the work of several committees and even committees of committees. 

Each of the 18 standards is associated with a list of specific tools and approaches with which a "geographically informed person" should be familiar at each of three benchmark stages: 4th grade, 8th grade, and 12th grade. These benchmarks are described in detail in the book Geography for Life, which has sold over 100,000 copies since 1994, but which has not yet pushed back the frontiers of geographic ignorance

In Massachusetts, for example, geography is usually taught only at the 6th or 7th grade level. A teacher even told me once that her lesson -- which was about the geography of water resources -- was not geography because of the grade level at which she was teaching it. The limitation to one grade -- and the lack of certification in geography for many teachers at that grade -- have created special challenges for geographic education in Massachusetts. The main one is that many students arrive in seventh grade without the tools they need to study geography, but then are driven through an entire curriculum in one year, often by teachers who have minimal background in geography themselves. Then, they will typically not have a geography class again until college, if ever.

Our department is working with geography educators statewide -- through the Massachusetts Geographic Alliance -- to improve upon this rather dire situation. First, we provide direct outreach to K-12 students (especially middle school) through Project EarthView, an inflatable globe classroom we take to a different school almost every week. Second, we provide seminars and graduate courses for in-service teachers to improve their understanding of geography. Third, we provide two courses at the undergraduate level as part of our BA in geography. At the moment, this is available to students majoring in elementary, special, or early-childhood education. My friend Vernon teaches a course focused on teaching methods and materials, and I teach one based on the frameworks. Eventually, we hope to offer a graduate certificate as well. 

In my frameworks class, I am fortunate that National Geographic Society has made it easy for me to find examples that fit the frameworks, through its Xpeditions program, which is an online version of the Geography for Life program. Teachers from all over the United States can submit lesson plans to a database that is searchable by grade level and geographic standard. This provides  a wealth of opportunities for my students to understand how to bring geographic concepts to bear in a wide variety of circumstances.

National Geographic's curriculum work compliments its advocacy in the My Wonderful World campaign that it leads in partnership with other geography educators.

Meanwhile, at BSU and Massachusetts Geographic Alliance, we are dedicated to a campaign to restore licensure at the high-school level. No amount of self-study and weekend seminars (even our superb ones) can equal the preparation of a full degree in geography. Learning about the world is both essential and fun, and students are eager to learn more. It is the adults who are failing at geographic education, not the children. In sharing EarthView with over 20,000 students in the past couple of years, I have literally seen thousands of young people who are thrilled to learn geography and want to learn more. In Massachusetts, the state education bureaucracy has gone out of its way to limit these opportunities, but the students and teachers are keeping us focused on the goal of a sound geography education for everyone in the Commonwealth, and we will succeed!
High School student leaders from all over Massachusetts
party with EarthView at Middleborough High School

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