Teaching Geography Literacy

Hello Colleagues,

In this article, Could You Draw A Dot Within 50 Miles Of Your House?': Why The U.S. May Have A Geography Literacy Problem I see some teaching and learning challenges and opportunities.

Challenge: James Spann, a weather forecaster in Alabama, "started to notice a few years ago that many people didn't understand their local maps. After posting weather maps to social media, he would see 20 to 30 comments from users expressing similar confusion. Their messages would start with the phrase, 'What about,' followed by the name of their town. ''This is a dangerous problem,' he says. 'A significant number of Americans live in tornado-prone areas, and others may be dealing with different environmental threats, like flooding, earthquakes or tsunamis.' "

Challenge: "A large part of the problem is smartphones, which have GPS systems that give turn-by-turn directions. 'People don’t need maps anymore,' he says. So, it is especially encouraging to him when he sees educators teaching children about basic geography."

Opportunity:  I'm not sure that the problem is the GPS apps; it may be that people don't know how to use them well to solve problems. Could technology be used, in schools and in adult basic skills programs, to teach geography (map) skills? Could this be done with smartphones as well as with computers? Have technology-related (computer and portable digital device) lesson plans suitable for adults been created? If so, where can we find them? How would you teach adult learners how to use their GPS to find a location that was fifty miles in any direction from their house? Fifty miles in a particular direction from their house? Could this be posed as a group problem-solving question where students work in pairs or small groups to solve this (important, possibly real-life) problem? Is this a good problem to pose to increase problem-solving in technology-rich environments, or what some people now include as an important part of digital literacy?

Another challenge and opportunity: Several years ago international adult literacy researcher Thomas Sticht, in an adult literacy workshop I attended, rightly pointed out that there were "two sides of the literacy coin," that in addition to teaching people how to read well, we needed to teach everyone how to write clearly. He added, probably facetiously to make his point, that no one should be awarded a colleague degree who couldn't write at the fifth grade level, by which I believe he meant who couldn't write in plain language. I mention this because part of the problem with the weather forecaster's survey might be how he constructed the question, "Could you draw a dot within 50 miles of your house?" Although it probably means at fifty miles, that isn't what it says; those would be correct who put the dot within a mile of their house, within five miles, ten miles, and so on. The weather forecaster perhaps should have asked the question differently, for example, "Here's where the tornado is located now (day and time, given); if you are located up to 50 miles from here, in any direction, you could be at risk." So then the task is to find out where you are located on the map, and how many miles that would be from where the tornado is now. This should be an easy problem for anyone to solve who knows how to find directions from one place to another on a GPS or a digital map.

Your thoughts?

David J. Rosen, Moderator

LINCS CoP Integrating Technology group