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May 3, 2006 2:26 pm


Why Johnny Can't Navigate



This depressing story from National Geographic tallies with my own classroom experience teaching moral and political philosophy at seven institutions in the last twelve years:
Young adults in the United States fail to understand the world and their place in it, according to a survey-based report on geographic literacy released today.

Take Iraq, for example. Despite nearly constant news coverage since the war there began in 2003, 63 percent of Americans aged 18 to 24 failed to correctly locate the country on a map of the Middle East. Seventy percent could not find Iran or Israel.

Nine in ten couldn't find Afghanistan on a map of Asia.

And 54 percent were unaware that Sudan is a country in Africa.

Remember the December 2004 tsunami and the widespread images of devastation in Indonesia?
Three-quarters of respondents failed to find that country on a map. And three-quarters were unaware that a majority of Indonesia's population is Muslim, making it the largest Muslim country in the world.
Oddly, however, the National Geographic report doesn't quite tally with the findings of the Geography Assessment of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, according to which 71% of American twelfth-graders perform"at or above basic" proficiency in geography.

The sample for the 2001 NAEP report consisted of 25,000 students for all three grades reported-on (fourth, eighth, twelfth), selected from 1,100 public and private schools. I'm no statistician, but that strikes me as a large and representative sample. As a former NAEP scoring leader (in US history), I happen to know first-hand that NAEP exams are scored under highly uniform and controlled conditions. So the NAEP data seem pretty robust.

I see that people at Liberty & Power are having a minor ideological tussle about the National Geographic report—specifically, over the causal role of the public schools in generating students' ignorance of geography. But it seems to me that there is a methodologically prior question worth asking, namely: how do we reconcile the preceding two sets of findings, each apparently as real as the other?

Another anomaly: in 2002, after the release of the 2001 NAEP geography report, National Geographic praised American students for their improvement in geography. Well, NAEP hasn't done a geography assessment since 2001, and the 2001 assessment indicated that scores had been flat between 1994 and 2001, so it's unclear to me what's going on. What justified hope in 2002 but justifies alarm in 2006? Was there a sudden and precipitous reversal to geographical ignorance between 2002 and the present?

I had an interesting conversation with my Theory & Practice co-blogger Carrie-Ann Biondi yesterday about the report, and we mused more or less inconclusively about the causal explanation for such widespread ignorance.

I don't know the answer, but I'd venture this hypothesis. Maybe part of the explanation for student ignorance is the absence of any cogent explanation for why they are ignorant. That sounds paradoxical, but I don't intend it to be. What I mean is this: If we can't explain why students are as ignorant as they are, we can't offer cogent prescriptions to resolve the problem. Since we lack cogent explanations, we lack cogent prescriptions. Naturally, in the absence of cogent prescriptions, the problems go unresolved.

Of course, so long as the task of causal explanation is confounded by peoples' insistence on manipulating statistics to confirm false ideologies--liberal, libertarian, conservative, Progressive, leftist, multicultural, National Geographic-ist, whatever--we'll never explain or resolve anything.

I'm reminded here of a famous saying of Spinoza's:"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." How many participants in contemporary debates about educational policy could truthfully agree with that sentiment? Maybe the ones who can't are the biggest part of the problem.





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Tonja Christine Fleischer - 1/20/2008

Just because Reading and Math are the hot topic for getting children ahead, doesn't mean we stop teaching the geographical area that other countries are to the United States. But we also don't teach our children to be leaders either. When I was a student in the 70's we had to know where the other countries where compared to the United States. We used to have a blast comparing the economy, size, and what type of government they had. Children have an easier time now to find out where other countries are then we did growing up, but they are not pushed to do so. Reading and Math can come into effect in Geographical lesson plans.


Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Of course I'm onto something. Unfortunately, the one thing I'm not onto is the actual explanation. But then, I'm a philosopher, so I have an excuse.


Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Thanks, that was a really important contribution.


Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Actually, I was taught geography in that way for precisely two years: in fourth grade, at St Cloud School in West Orange, New Jersey, by Mrs Glickman, and in sixth grade at the same school by Mr Estilow. It's the only school-taught geography I remember being taught, and the content of which I remember. The next time I had to learn geography like that was in college for courses on ancient Near East history. As for grades 7-12, I didn't learn a thing.

Incidentally, my grade school was a public school, but my junior high and high school was a private prep school, so contrary to the debate over at L&P it's an oversimplification to blame geographic ignorance so patly on public schools. A lot depends on the assumptions and experiences of teachers, and how much freedom good teachers have to teach well in a given institution. That's not something easily measured by statistical surveys a la National Geographic's or even NAEP.


Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Having now had more of a chance to look at the National Geographic report, I have a bit more in the way of an explanation of the discrepancy between the National Geographic report and the NAEP report.

One is that the NAEP sample is just bigger: 9,000 12th graders (NAEP) versus 500+ 18-24 year-olds (NG).

A second is that the NAEP test was done on school time under test conditions. The NG report is the result of a census-like survey conducted over winter break.

There are probably many more differences than that, but both differences would tend to depress results on the NG report.

The first suggests that the results are not quite as good a basis for generalizing. The second suggests that the NG respondents may have had less motivation to answer carefully or accurately than the NAEP ones.

Actually, one problem with NAEP reporting (apparently now under study) is that since NAEP tests don't function as gatekeeping devices (as do the SAT or GRE), good performance is not rewarded--so there is no incentive for it. Students are being asked to spend a relatively long period of time taking an exam without expectation of a payoff. Some students perhaps still take the exams seriously, but I find it hard to believe that all do, and from my experiences in scoring the US history exam, I know that we had to discard many off-topic or non-responsive answers.

But NAEP at least takes place in school, and thus replicates an exam setting. The NG survey is much lower stakes than that. The survey taker promises that the questionnaire only takes 15 minutes, that don't worry--people get lots of stuff wrong, and that the point is to "have fun." It's not clear to me that this is the right way of getting 18-24 year olds on winter break to focus on geography even if they have the relevant knowledge. It takes effort to focus the mind and call forth one's knowledge, and where no incentive is present, I am not sure the average person will do so in such a setting.

A final point: unlike NAEP, NG is not a disinterested party as regards the findings. NAEP doesn't profit as an organization whether student scores go up or down. Its sole function is reporting. But NG depends for its existence on geography education (it has a geography education program partnered with the public schools), so it has an organizational stake in sensationalizing student ignorance. This doesn't mean that students aren't deeply ignorant, but it's still a fact worth acknowledging.


Oscar Chamberlain - 5/15/2006

Some years back, a friend of mine in Albuquerque sent a letter to close an old savings account in Salt Lake City and to transfer the balance to her. The bank refused, because she lived in New Mexico, which they said was outside the United States.

The scary thing is that this argument went on for multiple rounds until she got it straightened out.


Jason KEuter - 5/12/2006

My sister in law doesn't know Mexico is south of California...and I believe she has driven to Mexico a few times....THROUGH CALIFORNIA!


Darren Michael Peterson - 5/12/2006

Ms. Biondi,
I agree that memorization is a poor way to learn and is good for retaining information for about as long as it takes to put the answer on a scantron. It also does not integrate the information, but stores it as discrete bits of information.

I am a firm believer in the constructivist approach to learning. Building from what a student might already know, making the information relevant to their lives and bring as many different aspects of the information as possible is better for real understanding.

Possibly having students do a family tree or biography of their ancestors place of origin and year of arrival in America... or hopefully with Native Americans a study of the area they might have originally lived and how they came to be where they are.

Each student maps out their ancestors journey on the same map while taking note of where others in their classroom might have originated and a discussion of the culture of each country.

Geography, or for that matter, any subject should not be taught as a single subject that is absolutely defined and segregated. They should be reinforcing of each other... math and geography into history and history and geography into math. As imaginative as the teacher can make it.

Unfortunately, too many people become teachers so they can teach a single subject. Also, because so many enter college and then the teaching profession straight our of high school, many of them do not have life experiences that help them make these types of connections... or they do not feel sufficiently prepared to go outside of their speciality.

While many organizations, like National Geographic, may be able to identify the problem, they may not have the best solution to the problem. I am not saying NG in particular, just that being a master mathematician does not a master teacher make.

Instead, input and cooperation creating the standards and best teaching methods should be a cooperative endeavor.


Darren Michael Peterson - 5/10/2006

I have completed my teaching courses and awaiting my chance to student teach so I may get my teaching license. While I have taken many classes on reading and the teaching of math, there is little or no real preparation of teaching geography, social sciences or physical science. One semester of teaching social sciences (to include of course, geography) was required.

What I want people to stop and think about is whether or not this phenomena is really anything new? Does it relate directly to the state of our schools, or just that the questions are being asked now?

While I agree with a lot of the underpinnings of today's teaching methods, teachers are not prepared to really teach these things. So much time is wasted on esoteric, philosophical softness. I am a liberal by the way, but I also get tired of the touchy feely stuff!

Look at the curriculum for the attainment of a teaching license. You will see very little that has to do with actually teaching a particular subject. Like a typical liberal arts or undergraduate degree it is believed that they will create "well rounded" teachers grounded in the methods of knowledge and teaching.

Then, when you combine that with the self-centeredness of American culture it is rather easy to see why many teachers, parents and students do not believe it is important or relevant to know where any other country is! Why bother? They are told that America is the center of the universe and all others are second rate and "foreigners" with un-American ways.

President Bush and the NCLB Act has made reading and math the priority. With the high stakes involved, many schools and teachers are doing what it takes to jump through the hoops to be accountable in the manner determined by politicans, not by educators. Where do you think the effort is spent.

If your job evaluation is based on only one aspect of your job, regardless of how important the rest of your job is... where do you put your effort?


Oscar Chamberlain - 5/5/2006

Thank you for the additional information. It is always good to look at these studies carefully.

On the anecdotal level:

I do a little map testing in my US survey, and when I teach the Reconstruction to present half, the maps all involved foreign policy.

My results--which I have not analyzed statistically-- suggest that most people are pretty good, but a disconcertingly large minority do have problems. Furthermore more students had trouble with my Middle East map than ones of Europe or East Asia and the Pacific.

That does suggest that war coverage has done little to improve geographical knowledge.


Carrie-Ann Biondi - 5/4/2006


Oscar's speculation is perhaps part of the story. Certainly, if skills in map reading are not developed, then individuals will be less likely to be able to identify a country. However, a big part of map reading skills is first distinguishing land masses from water, and then identifying continents, and then memorizing countries within continents. The media reporting on foreign affairs (both on television and in print) impedes such memorization, since they typically depict countries out of geographic context by depicting a cookie-cutter-shape of the country floating in space (or, at most, one or two bordering countries). This hardly helps children (or adults, for that matter) to visualize "places in the news" in actual physical space.

These facts take me to the question, "If reading maps is largely about memorizing, then why isn't the solution simply lots of repetitive practice or pneumonic devices and the provision of a map and/or globe for every child?" This would be easy and relatively cheap, and I suppose could kinda-sorta "solve" the problem.

I say "kinda-sorta" solve the problem, because I suspect that even such cheap tricks would not be especially long-lasting. What would "imprint" a map of the world in individuals' minds is to memorize the location of countries on a world map while they study history and politics. Bringing these places to life by means of cognitive understanding of their context and role in human history and current events would likely lead to long-lasting recollection of the simple fact of their location in the world. I imagine a child tracing his finger along the African coastline on a relief map, following the journey of some explorer, and being asked by his teacher every inch or so what happened there 500 years ago, 100 years ago, and last month. But such imaginings would require the teachers of children to understand the context necessary to impart this, and this might be where the real challenge lies . . .


Oscar Chamberlain - 5/3/2006

One starting point might be to survey people for map reading skills. One could test to see how much more likely people with strong map reading skills are to know the location of countries as opposed to people with poorer map skills.

That would be step one for seeing if the problem comes more from a lack of skill in reading and remembering maps or if it comes from lack of exposure to political maps.


Oscar Chamberlain - 5/3/2006

"Maybe part of the explanation for student ignorance is the absence of any cogent explanation for why they are ignorant."

I think you may be on to something. I have heard lots of laments but few explanations and none of those actually researched.