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Why Are American Students Failing at Geography?

Aug 16, 2011

The Department of Education recently tested fourth, eighth and twelfth graders' knowledge of grade-appropriate geography. Only 20% of American twelfth graders were shown to be 'proficient' in geography based on this assessment. Study.com's own Elspeth Green, former geography bee champ, looks at the possible reasons for this decline in performance.

Where in the World is...Anything?

The New York Times recently reported that fewer than one third of American students are 'proficient' in geography, according to scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress administered in 2010. Disturbingly, high school seniors actually performed worse than eighth- and fourth-graders. This suggests not only a lack of emphasis on geographical literacy in post-elementary school curricula, but also that early instruction, for whatever reason, doesn't stick.

The million dollar question would appear to be 'why?' But really, it's not that complicated. Lurking amid the shock statistics frequently reported from a 2006 National Geographic study--63% of young Americans can't find Iraq on a map! 50% can't find New York!--are a few key percentages that explain it all: Fewer than 30% of young Americans think it is necessary to know where countries featured in the news are located, and fewer than 20% own a world map. It seems that geographical literacy declines through high school because nobody cares. So it's no wonder young Americans are bad at geography. It would be better to ask: why do they find geography so painfully irrelevant?

Globe and books

Too Much Technology?

My first instinct is to blame technology--a common tactic when scolding the young. It makes a certain amount of intuitive sense that a generation raised on 'search' rather than 'memorize' would have trouble keeping countries straight in their heads. But the National Geographic data at first seems to contradict this assumption: young adults who used the Internet as a source of global news scored better than their offline counterparts, even when controlling for confounding factors such as age and education level. Technology use does not appear negatively affect geographical knowledge; on the contrary, it seems to enhance it. I'm sure anyone who's visited the quiz site Sporcle will readily agree.

However, as anyone who has taken an introductory psychology course will tell you (repeatedly), 'correlation is not causation.' Though looking at news online may augment geographical knowledge, the kind of person to seek it out is likely motivated by a similar curiosity about the world as the person who is interested in geography. The Internet yields a wealth of information--arguably more varied and thorough than a book, journal, or atlas--but only to those who look for it.

Keeping Geography Relevant

It is easy to find anything you want, but also to find only what you need. A good friend of mine with a terrible sense of direction relies on her GPS to get to the grocery store; it's easy to imagine that in an earlier time she would have been forced to learn street names out of necessity. A device like a GPS--or a site like Wikipedia--allows its users to triage their informational needs so effectively that they find the answer to one question without reading anything to stimulate another. Incidental exposure to information becomes much less common. As the reader of print journalism traverses figures and articles laid next to each other by an editor, he discovers information he may not have set out to find.

In this light, it is not at all surprising that geography is a fading discipline. Apart from those who read atlases for fun, geography is always incidental. That is not to say it is unimportant, but rather--natural disasters excluded--that it more often provides the context and the backdrop for world events than the events themselves. An understanding of this context is crucial for making sense of both history and current news. A classic example presents itself in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. A full 75% of respondents in the 2006 survey could not find Israel on a map; this matters, because seeing how it was carved out of predominantly Muslim territory goes a long way toward explaining its contemporary problems. The Internet doesn't prevent students from accessing this information. Wikipedia will explain it all--but only if you choose to read beneath the main section, and click on links, and explore. Technology, for better and worse, allows our natural curiosities to determine our depth of knowledge.


Elspeth Green is a graduate of Stanford University and former participant in geography bees.

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