November 11, 2019

Students need to be taught how to read maps… or do they? [Geography Awareness Week]

Posted by Laura Guertin

This is another example of a blog post I began years ago by placing the following tweet in a draft post – then not being inspired and forgetting about it:


Turns out that social media is generating a recent surge in posts on “map reading”, so it’s time revisit this topic and share what I’ve come across.

I started by going to the Washington Post article in the tweet above – which is a great story on how adults can visualize where they want to go and think of the landmarks they will pass, etc., yet kids don’t create a visual of a journey because they don’t need to and never had to.

But being able to read a map, and to orient your brain as to where you are and which direction you need to head is a very important skill. My older son knew enough about reading maps to navigate around Berlin and Hamburg when he was 15 years old. Try riding the BART train into San Francisco without being able to read the train route map and you might wind up riding for hours.  — Sherri Kuhn (Washington Post)


OK, maybe being able to get around on the BART isn’t reason enough to learn how to read a map (although, it will be helpful with the 2019 AGU Fall Meeting back in San Francisco this year!). What about all of those maps that meteorologists show on the news? Do you know where you live in relation to those satellite images that show a storm approaching, or a map of a flood zone, or an evacuation zone for a hurricane/tsunami warning?  Take a listen to this April 2019 WBUR segment titled “‘Could You Draw A Dot Within 50 Miles Of Your House?’: Why The U.S. May Have A Geography Literacy Problem” and see the issue through the eyes of a Birmingham weatherman.


But then, please continue by reading the article linked in this tweet as well, that says, “While meteorologists and emergency managers, who work with these maps every day, may find it alarming that many citizens cannot easily locate or name their county when provided no other information, the important thing to remember is that people do find ways to navigate through alternative cues, such as cities, roads and other landmarks.”


And here’s one I hadn’t heard before… is there a gender gap when it comes to reading a map? (*think of who engages in orientiering activities, who rides bicycles more, etc.)


So who are we to believe? Do we argue for Why Children Still Need to Read (and Draw) Maps (PBS, January 2016)? Do we need, as this New York Times (2017) article states, To Improve Your Sense of Direction, Lose the Technology? Do we believe we can be successful in improving the geographic literacy of first-year undergraduate students (see Journal of Geography, 2012). Is it true that Boys consistently perform better than girls of the same age on map drawing and map reading tasks (Geography, 1989)? And what do we mean by “geo-literacy” when we are using this term, anyway? (see ESRI, 2011).

Perhaps the place to start is by taking a step back, taking a deep breath, and then dive in to Geography Awareness Week. I’ve blogged previously about #GeoWeek, and this might be a good time to talk with colleagues, with students, and with children about their sense of space and place (especially if the battery dies in their cell phone… what would they do to get from Point A to Point B? What would each of us do?). I think I’ll go back and double-check that I have paper maps in my car…