Why learn geography?

Over the weekend I met up with a group of friends who host an education-themed discussion salon. Some of them are teachers, others just interested in the subject, and all of them are very smart. (It also turned out, though we didn’t plan it this way, that they’re all quantitatively-minded, specializing in math, computer science, or statistics. This is nice because it means that whenever someone proposes an idea, someone else will inevitably say, “Let’s see, how would we test that?” and we end up in a discussion of control groups and confounding factors.)

Afterwards, I pinged Jesse on Gchat to hash out one of the more interesting questions that came up during the salon: Should students have to memorize geographical facts? Our conversation, edited somewhat for clarity, is below.


Julia: Last night at the education salon we were talking about whether students should have to memorize geography – you know, identifying countries on a map, knowing capital cities, etc. It’s definitely one of those things where, when news articles are lamenting how ignorant Americans are, they cite polls in which (e.g.) 2/3 of Americans can’t identify Iraq on a map. But even though that triggers this knee-jerk “What a travesty!” response, on second thought I’m not convinced it’s such a bad thing.

Jesse: Well, not knowing where things are makes it tougher to notice regional patterns. You’re not going to pick up on the common features that form a shared culture in the South if you hear about something that happened in a particular state and you don’t know whether it’s in the South or Midwest.

Julia: But it’s so easy to look up. If people hear about some place mentioned in the news, they can literally just google it, right?

Jesse: I expect they often won’t… though I’m surprisingly ok with that.

Julia: Yeah. One thing we talked about in the salon was how the most effective thing for schools to instill in their students are meta-skills: instead of making them memorize vocabulary lists, get them in the habit of looking up words they don’t know. And instead of making them memorize maps, get them in the habit of looking up unfamiliar place names.

The deeper issue here, though, is how much relevant knowledge you actually get about a situation or event, from knowing where it’s located relative to other places. Take the Iraq case. There are certainly relevant facts you need to know about Iraq in order to understand world politics: it’s in the Middle East, it’s Shiite Muslim, it has oil, etc. But how much additional important knowledge do you get by being able to locate it on a map?

Jesse: I’m sure we could come up with some elaborate example in which it’s essential to understand geographical features – access to water, relation to mountains, etc. But the fact that it’s a stretch to think of examples indicates to me that those cases are rare enough to warrant just looking up places on a map as needed. The kind of useful knowledge you were describing in the Iraq case sounds like it can be picked up through history classes, current events, simple interaction in society, etc.

Julia: That’s what I was envisioning, yeah. My general principle with education is that it’s always better to learn “motivated” facts than unmotivated facts. By which I mean: if it’s clear to you why the fact you’re learning is important or useful, then you’re going to be more interested, more willing to learn, and more likely to remember it. So the ideal way of learning geography, in my opinion, is simply on an as-needed basis, contextually, in other classes.

For example, if you’re learning about the Roman Empire, you need to learn what regions it covered in order to appreciate what a huge undertaking it was, and in order to understand the spread of Roman infrastructure and ideas. Or if you’re learning about WWII, you need to know which countries bordered each other, because it’s relevant to understanding the war. But you wouldn’t take a separate geography unit in which you’re memorizing maps.

Jesse: I’m trying to think of other times we encourage rote memorization. Just thinking ‘aloud’ – take the multiplication tables. Yes, they’re easily calculated or looked up, but we consider it valuable to learn them by heart. That’s because we use multiplication at that scale (through 12×12) so much that it’s impractical to look up answers all the time. To what extent does that apply to geography?

…I would say, a very small extent.

Julia: Although… there is one point someone made which I think might be a good one: That having a visual framework in which to store information is a really effective way of remembering it. So, if you hear something about a civil war in Burma, and you can place that on your mental map of the world, you’re more likely to remember that knowledge than if you didn’t have the mental map.

Jesse: Ah, this makes me think of your ‘Memory Palaces‘ post

Julia: Yes! That’s what I thought of too.

Jesse: I think that’s correct, but is it worth it learning the entire map ahead of time? Especially for places that are likely to come up in discussion and in the news, a map will form through interaction with the news and the urge to look it up. I don’t think it’s worth the prep time – considering how unlikely it is to be remembered without use, I suspect the time could be better spent doing other things.

That said, I have to say that video games like Medieval: Total War and Rome: Total War taught me more about those geographic regions than any class. If we ever decided that the map-facts are important, games are the way I’d do it.

Julia: Interesting… what is it about the game format that works so well?

Jesse: I think it’s just the motivated learning – there’s a reason to care which city is Milan vs. Venice. When a message pops up that your army in Venice is under attack, you care where that is in relation to the rest of the region.

Computer Learns to Tell Dirty Jokes

Finally, a computer capable of passing MY Turing test. Two computer scientists at the University of Washington are creating an algorithm teaching a computer to make “That’s what she said” jokes:

They then evaluated nouns, adjectives and verbs with a “sexiness” function to determine whether a sentence is a potential TWSS. Examples of nouns with a high sexiness function are “rod” and “meat”, while raunchy adjectives are “hot” and “wet”.

Their automated system, known as Double Entendre via Noun Transfer or DEviaNT, rates sentences for their TWSS potential by looking for particular elements such as nouns that can be interpreted in multiple ways. The researchers trained DEviaNT by gathering jokes from twssstories.com and non-TWSS text from sites such as wikiquote.org.

First, the name is outstanding. They report 70% accuracy, but they expect the number to improve with more data to draw on. Of course, 70% success isn’t that bad considering how often my friends make questionable TWSS jokes. (Hint: if you have to explain the context in which she said it, you’ve probably failed.)

In case this isn’t your particular style of humor, they’re hoping it’ll be able to learn new types of humor based on the metaphor mapping.

Suddenly “I can’t let you do that, Dave” has a whole new meaning…

The historian’s fallacy

Historians’ Fallacies has a bunch of good examples of hindsight bias in writing history. Writing history, we often make events seem really significant if they turned out to play an important role in the course of history, but often those events went largely unnoticed at the time. Art historian Bernard Berenson summed up this fallacious way of thinking nicely: “Significant events are those events that have contributed to making us what we are today.”

For example, even though historians often describe the buildup to WWI as a series of “mounting tensions” and “escalating crises,” the war was actually much more of a surprise than we think. As Nicholas Nassim Taleb describes in The Black Swan, historian Niall Ferguson demonstrated this cleverly by examining the prices of imperial bonds — imperial bond prices normally decline if investors anticipate a war, because wars cause deficits, but they show no such decline in the months before WWI.

You can also see the historian’s fallacy sometimes in the way historians write about a historical figure’s behavior and motivations as if he knew the role he played in history. (For example, writing about John Adams as if he thought of himself as a Founding Father, and interpreting his speeches and letters as if he knew how the Republic would develop.) But I kind of like the way some historians have found to compensate: the “fog-of-war” technique, in which they give their readers only as much information about the unfolding situation as the historical figure himself knew at that time.

The reversible reference

A nice tip from Historians’ Fallacies: Watch out for pseudo-evidence, facts that are being used to support a claim but which could just as easily have been used to support that claim’s inverse. The book gives the example of one historian who made the claim that the early American colonists regularly threw trash on their streets. How do we know this? Well, the historian argues: New Amsterdam passed a law against littering in 1657, which was enforced on at least one person; and the city instituted weekly trash removal in 1670.
Notes Fischer: “Each of these impressionistic snippets of pseudo-factual information is consistent with a thesis that (1) the streets of New Amsterdam were knee-deep in trash, or (2) the streets of New Amsterdam were kept spotlessly clean by the tidy dutch inhabitants, by means of laws which were enforced and by regular trash removal; or (3) any statement between these two extremes.”


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