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.

9 Responses to Why learn geography?

  1. Scott says:

    I can see the limited value in rotely learning nouns over and over, but there is something dismaying when my girlfriend’s daughter can’t even find England on a map while in high school. I personally learned World Geography as a 7th grader, and it has paid off more than almost any other class. There was lots of place-naming, which has helped me understand world events better. Lots of obscure stuff was taught, but I’ve forgotten much of what I haven’t used, so only the very useful facts were kept.

    In addition, there was a healthy addition of cultural geography. That class was my first exposure to many religions, culture, histories, and political systems. It wasn’t just “x is the capital of y”, which I’m sure helped keep my interest.

  2. Steve says:

    So… How would you test this?

  3. Max says:

    Learning anything, from geography to piano, involves memorization and practice until it becomes intuitive and you don’t have to think about it as much.
    Take the Iraq case. Why does Turkey worry about Kurds? Why is the Sunni Triangle important? Why was the Gulf War called the Gulf War? How did Kuwait and Turkey help the coalition? These things should automatically bring up a mental picture, just as a piano chord is immediately familiar to a piano player.

  4. Max says:

    By the way, 3/4 of Americans can’t identify Israel on a map, which probably means they don’t picture it as a tiny state surrounded by Arab states

    • Jesse Galef says:

      What’s gained by knowing that the nation is tiny?

      Knowing that a nation is small geographically is sometimes a good indication of how powerful/influential it is – but not so much with Israel. They’re disproportionately important economically, militarily, and politically.

      Is there a benefit to looking at a map rather than finding out in various media stories that they’re surrounded by Arab states?

      • Max says:

        A person who mistakes, say, Libya for Israel would have a distorted view of the situation there, don’t you think?
        A picture is worth a thousand words. It shows not only the relative area, but also the narrowest point, the length of the border, the number of neighbors, etc.
        When you travel to an unfamiliar place, would you rather have a map or a description in words?

  5. Kevin says:

    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.

    I think that principle is very, very important in the modern world. With the Internet making access to information nearly ubiquitous (and smartphones, netbooks, etc. making access to the Internet nearly ubiquitous), being able to process information is a more important skill than simply having somewhat-arbitrary chunks of it stored in “local memory,” i.e. the brain. This is a significant change from most of the last century (and previous centuries), where much data was only available to varying degrees at libraries. In that system, a fair amount of effort was required to acquire new facts, so simply memorizing those facts that the local education system decided were worthwhile, supposedly based on whatever basic global and parochial concerns were most important, was often the better option for many people. This is no longer a good model for education, but the system is taking a while to catch up, and even when teachers stop emphasizing the memorization of facts, they often don’t fully take the next step toward stressing the ability to find and then understand new information.

    With the increasing influence of Moore’s law and related exponential phenomena on society, meta-skills are what enable us to adapt to rapidly-changing paradigms. It’s the difference between giving people fish and teaching them to fish. One group of educators who have put a lot of effort into public outreach about this is Shift Happens.

    To steer this comment back on topic a little, I think the problem with people’s lack of geographic knowledge is that they’re comfortable with their ignorance. Not knowing something becomes almost a badge of honor, a signal that the person is too “cool” to care about such things. If we can successfully instill the mindset that finding a gap in one’s knowledge is an opportunity to improve oneself, I think that problem will no longer be so important. A big part of that is making sure that people know how to take advantage of such opportunities, which requires meta-skills as discussed; another big part, though, is making sure that they have the desire to do so.

  6. Cory Albrecht says:

    I think your father put it best over on Facebook – that it gives one a framework in which to place historical and modern events with cultures and societies. If you’ll pardon the Canadian pique, there’s also something to be said for knowing a little about one’s neighbours so as to not appear like an ignorant git on assuming that they are exactly like ones own nation in values, governmental systems or what have you. …and exhale… 🙂

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