Mar. 1, 1999 ATHENS, Ohio -- Ever wonder why so many American students can't find Vietnam on the map or are hard-pressed to explain why the District of Columbia isn't a state?
It may be because they don't like geography and sometimes aren't exposed to an active learning environment when they study geography in school, says an Ohio University researcher who has examined students' attitudes toward the subject.
The state of geographic literacy in America received widespread national media attention in 1989 when a worldwide Gallup poll reported that Americans ages 18 to 24 performed the poorest of any nation when asked to identify locations on a world map. Participants averaged only 6.9 correct answers to 16 questions. Fourteen percent couldn't identify the location of the United States on a map.
In a recently published study, Associate Professor of Geography Dorothy Sack and her colleagues surveyed students in grades four through six in San Marcos, Texas, and found that many children considered geography their least favorite subject out of six school subjects. The study was done in 1983 and 1993, with researchers surveying 889 students in the first study and 539 students in the second. More than half of the students in each year rated geography their least or second-least favorite subject.
Researchers also found that some of the San Marcos teachers had no college-level training in geography. Forty-one percent of teachers in 1983 and 26 percent in 1993 didn't take college courses in the subject. Sack says educators who aren't trained in geography probably find it more difficult to teach the subject in a way that makes it enticing to students.
"If teachers don't have college-level training in geography, they may end up relying on more passive teaching techniques, such as rote memorization of state capitals, which might have been how they were taught geography in grade school," Sack says. "Geographic illiteracy is a problem that only can be tackled by making the subject more interesting to students. It is important to train educators about the diverse content of geography and teaching methods that involve active student participation."
Such teaching methods include taking children on field trips and developing hands-on activities related to the world's cultures, regions, people and environment. In the study, Sack found that students tended to rate geography more favorably in classes where these types of active teaching methods were used.
"I think geography is something that people develop a stronger interest in with age and experience," Sack says. "The teachers in this study, for example, rated geography much more favorably than their students did. This makes it doubly important to keep students' attitudes positive about the subject. Negative experiences in youth could have a lifelong impact on a person's attitudes toward geography."
Since the mid-1980s, professional societies, such as the National Geographic Society, the National Council for Geographic Education and the Association of American Geographers, have developed intensive training sessions for educators to help them improve the way they teach geography. But, Sack says, more needs to be done to expand geography in the curriculum.
Sack's survey was published recently in the Journal of Geography. James Petersen, geography professor at Southwest Texas State University, co-authored the research. Sack holds an appointment in the College of Arts and Sciences.
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