I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why geography educators have to constantly justify geography’s importance to decision makers. In a previous post I shared a working definition of geography being an “…interdisciplinary method of observing and analyzing anything across Earth’s space.” To me, geography requires students to use all their knowledge to investigate the one, and currently only, world people live on. You cannot get more Project Based, Problem Based, Connected Learning, Vertically and Horizontally Aligned, *insert latest learning theory here* then geography. Geography is no easy task because, once again, geography is a perspective. One of my quick “checks for understanding questions” is for students to quickly write their description of the classroom. While there will be similarities among the 25 students in the room, no one description of the classroom will be identical. Again, there are 50 eyes perceiving the same place differently. Scale that up to 7+ billion people and all the places on Earth.
Another giant issue with students, and adults, is that the primary tool people use in observing the world is the always flawed map. In my opinion, our very own mental maps are so entrenched that our brains will flat out deceive us. Disclaimer…I am not a brain expert, but my brain has lied to me.
Above image/idea from National Geographics Channel Brain Games
One way to demonstrate our own ignorance to the Earth is using flawed maps. Many geography teachers start their “Map” unit with skills like cardinal directions, map legends, scale, title to maps, etc. I completely understand this approach, especially for younger grades. However, high school students tend to be more engaged with these map lessons when they buy into why these skills they have learned since kindergarten are important. Ideally, students will transfer this approach in critically observing maps, an implicit authority on truth in space, to any perceived authoritative source. Please do not get me wrong. I love maps and believe in their usefulness and a visualization tool; so much so that created a mapping website. But, every student should know maps limitations.
In the past I, like many geography teachers, started my map skills unit using the below West Wing clip. I still use this clip in class, but later in the lesson. To me, the clip takes too much thinking away from the students.
Now, students experience (observe) issues with the Mercator projection using geteach.com. Students themselves draw polygons around Greenland and drag the shape to equator. See Below Video
You can also use Google’s My Maps
http://thetruesize.com/ site is great too!
**You can use any of the three sites above. I use geteach.com because students will be using the site throughout the year and this activity gives them an opportunity to learn how to navigate the site.**
After demonstrating Greenland’s size, students are given to opportunity to draw polygons around anything and explore how the Mercator Map distorts size as objects move away from the equator. Hopefully, these observations are building curiosity and engagement for when they, or sometimes I, ask why? Why does Google use such an inaccurate map? (analysis) The responses often center around peoples familiarity with the Mercator projection and also on the purpose of Google Maps…primarily as a resource used for giving directions. That happens to coincide with why Mercator maps were created in the first place. (students had read about map projections before entering class and the direction comments often stems from that).
Once the students start asking why, again sometimes prompted by the teacher, the next question is always the “so what?” “why is it important?” “what are the implication?” It is at this point where I show the West Wing clip from above. Then highlight that maps are visualizations that are to help people make spatial decisions, but better spatial decisions are made when the user understands the advantageous and disadvantageous with a visual tool that has to generalize spatial information in order to make sense out of the complexities of places.
This year I added to this idea of critical observations and analysis of maps by including this warm-up to the the next day’s lesson via Google Classroom’s question function. Students were to read this article “All Maps Are Biased. Google Maps’ New Redesign Doesn’t Hide It.“, brought to my social feeds by Dr. Seth Dixon, and answer, “In what ways and why are all maps biased?” Students were very quick to point out Google’s commercial purpose of Google Maps being an advertising platform. However, they struggled connecting Google Maps to Google’s overall search strategy in selling advertisements. In other words, Google’s traditional search methods attempts to use key terms, past and present, to add context to the user in order to tailor advertisements. Google Maps does the same, but attempts to add spatial awareness to that context. Next question…”what are the implications?”
Again, there is nothing new or earth shattering to this activity/lesson. In fact, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of methods that can be used to get student thinking about sources and spatial distributions. Hopefully, this post provides an opportunity to pause and reflect on why geography is important in education.
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