Social Education 58(4), pp. 206-210
National Council for the Social Studies
Change in geography education on a national scale requires structure and resources equal to the task.
-Robert W. Morrill, 1991-1992
The Guidelines for Geographic Education: Elementary and Secondary Schools (Joint Committee on Geographic Education, Association of American Geographers and the National Council for Geographic Education 1984) marked the formal development of a plan for reforming curricula in school geography. The Guidelines provided the first clear content and skills framework for K-12 geography in the history of the discipline as the five fundamental themes in geography: 1) location; 2) place; 3) relationships within places or human-environmental relations; 4) movement (or relationships between places); and 5) regions.
The Guidelines also includes a scope and sequence for teaching and learning in grades K-6 by outlining concepts and learning outcomes according to grade level. For grades 7-12, the Guidelines suggests a sequence of geography course work with a short description of each course. A set of secondary-level learning outcomes outlines the skills development that students will find necessary for learning geography. Although many of these are generic skills (gathering data, asking questions, analyzing), when applied in a geographical context, they can encourage geography students to stress higher-level thinking and to use the scientific method for solving geographical problems.1
Geographers, the education community, and the general public greeted the Guidelines with enthusiasm. The four leading geography associations in the United States-the Association of American Geographers (AAG), the National Council for Geographic Education (NCGE), the American Geographical Society (AGS), and the National Geographic Society (NGS)-endorsed the Guidelines. The first printing of 10,000 copies was followed by a reprinting within two months. Today more than 100,000 copies have been distributed and formal translations have appeared in Japanese (Nakayama 1991) and Arabic (Saudi Geographical Society 1992). We might attribute the widespread distribution to their broad acceptance, and suggest that, because of the Guidelines, other countries are beginning to look to the United States for leadership in geography learning. This report will examine the events leading to publication of the Guidelines, reflect on a subsequent decade of their use, and consider their influence on geographic education.
Evolution of the Guidelines for Geographic Education
During the early 1980s, widely publicized tests indicated that American schoolchildren had an embarrassingly poor knowledge of geography. The tests largely asked questions about place names and locations, so it is unclear if this limited knowledge of places also indicated a poor understanding of more complex geographical relationships. The tests, however, suggested an overall deficiency in geographical knowledge by U.S. students because their performance compared unfavorably with students in other countries who took the same tests. The Global Understanding Project's2 testing of geographical relationships, as well as overwhelming anecdotal evidence from hundreds of college geography, history, and international relations teachers, suggested that American students from kindergarten through graduate school were geographically incompetent. This deficiency coincided with the revelation that Americans' low level of global awareness and knowledge of the interdependence of nations had significant negative economic and political consequences. Compelling arguments existed for action to increase geography's role in the educational system (see President's Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies 1979a and b).
A memorandum from the Educational Affairs Director of the AAG (Natoli 1982) to the Executive Committees of the AAG and NCGE quoted Manson's (1981) contention that a steady decline of student enrollment in geography courses indicated a failure of our major geographical organizations to formulate objectives for geographic education in the United States. The memo continued:
Lacking such unified objectives and clear ideas about what people should know about things geographic, we continue to be appalled by the horror stories of the public's geographical illiteracy. It is erroneous to attribute the decline of geographic education to one or two simple failures by the profession, yet there is considerable merit for professional geographers to state forthrightly and clearly the objectives for geographic education. (Natoli 1982)
Geographers had long been aware of the dif&Mac222;culties involved with effectively convincing school decision-makers of the value of geography for citizenship and education in general. Their decisions to eliminate geography as a required college course for prospective elementary or social studies teachers is evidence of their innocence of its value. Yet, the fact that schools have either ignored or treated geography unkindly for most of the history of public education in the United States did not deter persistent efforts by the NCGE, the AAG, the AGS, and the NGS to raise geographical awareness in schools. These efforts, however, had almost no effect on the way that teachers presented geography in their classrooms. Articles in scholarly geographical journals did not reach the appropriate audiences and the geography being taught had failed to pass the test of social, political, or economic utility for citizens in a democracy (Libbee and Stoltman 1988, 22-28).
In 1981, the AAG commissioned a report noting a lack of involvement by geographers in preparing background papers of the Carter Commission on foreign languages and international studies. Geography and International Knowledge (Committee on Geography and International Knowledge 1982) set forth some ideas about what college students and well-informed citizens should know about geography. Geographers had a strong interest in finding remedies for an unconscionable situation. It was a propitious time to develop forthright and clearly stated objectives for geography.
The AAG and NCGE Executive Committees in 1982 approved the organization of the Joint Committee on Geographic Education. The Committee's original charge was to prepare a framework for secondary school geography based on the discipline's discrete subject matter. The Joint Committee, however, expanded its mission to include elementary school geography. Geography in the elementary school was problematic because of its ambiguous identification with both social studies and science, although it was often barely identifiable in either. Committee members were selected on the basis of their knowledge of geography, geographic education, the way schools operate, and their acquaintance with social studies curricula.3
The committee perceived its task as greater than simply developing guidelines within the six-month deadline set by the NCGE and AAG. This task was only one of the goals mentioned in Natoli's (1982, 4-10) memorandum that the AAG/NCGE Executive Committee approved. To wit:
This last criterion was important because many teachers with the responsibility for teaching geography in the United States have had little or no formal training in the subject. Lack of an adequate (or any) background in geography left teachers unprepared to cope with the subject matter and they did not understand the basic methodologies of the discipline (Cirrincione and Farrell 1988, 11-21). The schools and the public often perceived geography as trivial, esoteric, or only as a pleasant avocation for armchair travelers. The Joint Committee designed the Guidelines to address these problems and perceptions by stating how geographers organize knowledge and addressing concerns for those who have limited understanding of the subject, including teachers, learners, and the public. More than 100 professional geographers and a cross-section of other professionals and laypersons critically reviewed the Guidelines before the publication's release.
Logical Progression of the Five Themes
The &Mac222;ve fundamental themes of geography have a logical progression. The themes begin with location because spatial knowledge in geography generally originates with fixing phenomena in space, i.e., locating them on the Earth's surface in absolute or relative terms. Place is the first logical progression from location and, in effect, elaborates on location, bestowing it with physical, cultural, and perceptual characteristics that give it distinctive or unique properties. Relationships within places (commonly referred to as human-environmental interactions) follows, in the logical progression, with the geographical idea that places have locations within physical and cultural environments and interact with those environments, thus setting up the forces for movement. Movement constitutes the cultural and physical relationships between and among places, i.e., spatial interactions. The logical extension of these spatial relationships is the concept of regions: distinctive areas on the Earth's surface with physical, cultural, or perceptual characteristics that distinguish them from other regions. Regions may operate at any scale. Like the other logically derived themes, regions are not static but change over time in response to both internal and external forces.
After completing the Guidelines, the Joint Committee submitted recommendations for learning outcomes (standards), materials evaluation, and materials development in its report to the AAG and NCGE in April 1984. Today, most of the committee's recommendations are under way. Publications include two documents that elaborate specifically on the content and pedagogy of the fundamental themes-one for grades K-6 (GENIP 1987) and the other for grades 7-12 (GENIP 1989). The NCGE Position Paper, The Role of Geography in Pre-Service Teacher Preparation: Geography in the Social Studies (1991), and the NCGE Advanced Professional Certification in Geography (1992) also meet some of the committee's goals. Publications from many other sources, including GENIP (Geographic Education National Implementation Project), NCGE, AAG, AGS, NGS, the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), and the NGS state geography alliances also support the spirit and organization of the Guidelines. In addition, the National Geographic Society produced a map of the United States demonstrating the five fundamental themes as "Maps, the Landscape, and the Fundamental Themes in Geography" (GENIP/NGS, 1986). The Society distributed one million copies of this map to schools throughout the United States.
A Foundation for Curricular Change
The five themes have become a foundation for curricular change in geography in dozens of states by satisfying an urgent need for a recognizable structure of the core of geography that teachers could use at any grade level. The fundamental themes are widely expansive and should seldom be studied either individually or in isolation; rather, they should be integrative (Boehm and Petersen 1994). Thatcher (1985) has noted that "One area that has great potential for strengthening the integrative aspects of education is geography." Teachers who follow the spirit of the fundamental themes and the Guidelines will no longer perceive or approach geography as an amorphous collection of place name bees or gazetteer-like map work.
Textbook publishers have responded to the Guidelines by including the fundamental themes as content organizers in new geography books. Subsequent use of the five themes by teachers, textbook publishers, map producers, and developers of curricular materials in geography and the social studies is evidence of the themes' value and utility.
The extensive interest in the Guidelines and teachers' receptiveness to the five themes encouraged professional geographers to work toward institutionalizing reform in geographic education. Such change in the United States is elusive partly because of the great value that school districts place on their independence. As Robert W. Morrill has pointed out:
. . . with so many political units providing schooling and setting policies, it is extremely difficult to achieve comprehensive and positive change. Any single group urging nationwide improvement in a specific aspect of education faces a formidable array of decision-makers at all levels of the political hierarchy. (1991-1992, 1)
The wide adoption and use of the fundamental themes in geography was a notable step toward reestablishing geography both as a legitimate field of study and as an integral element in recently revised social studies curricula. The Guidelines have also influenced the Geography Assessment Framework for the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP Geography Consensus Project 1992) and the Geography Education Standards Project's Geography for Life (forthcoming).
The Role of GENIP
To achieve the goals outlined in the Joint Committee's report to the AAG and NCGE, representatives from major geographic organizations in the United States created the Geographic Education National Implementation Project (GENIP). GENIP is the first major cooperative effort toward a common goal by the four major geography organizations. The NCGE, the AAG, the AGS, and the NGS are the chief contributors to GENIP, and each organization has representatives on the Steering Committee. These organizations also provide some financial support for its work. This unprecedented cooperation indicates the profession's perception of the urgent need to improve the quality and to increase the quantity of geography education.
GENIP's mission is to advance the spirit of the Guidelines by developing teaching materials, reviewing teacher certification standards, developing institutes and workshops for teachers, creating a cadre of leaders and advocates among teachers, and advising groups who prepare diagnostic and competency tests in geography. GENIP is guided by the goals set forth by the Joint Committee's recommendations (1984).
Five major goals provide a blueprint for expediting reform in geographic education:
The Role of the National Geographic Society
At about the same time that GENIP was being formed, Gilbert M. Grosvenor, President and Chairman of the Board of the National Geographic Society, made a commitment of the resources of the Society to improving geographic education. He created the Geography Education Program (GEP) within the existing structure of the National Geographic Society. The GEP's main effort was to develop state-wide alliances for geographic education.
These alliances are partnerships between teachers and university geographers with mutual interests in improving geographic education. In 1986, charter alliances were established in Colorado, southern California, northern California, Oregon, Tennessee, New Jersey, Texas, and the District of Columbia. The NGS-supported alliances have embraced the five fundamental themes as a content structure in their summer institutes for teachers.
Development of in-service teacher training techniques is integral to the alliance-sponsored geography institutes with the expectation that participants will yield a multiplier effect by sharing both their knowledge and materials with other teachers in their home school districts. Today, 52 state alliances operate; these include Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and Ontario, Canada. The National Geographic Society provides almost $5 million annually to support its Geography Education Program, and the state alliances add significantly to that &Mac222;gure with funds raised locally. The National Geographic Society has also formed the NGS Education Foundation with the ultimate goal of raising a $60 million endowment that will perpetuate the Society's efforts in improving and supporting geographic education.
Unprecedented Cooperation Among Geography Organizations
Since 1984, all of the major geography organizations have actively participated in the reform and revitalization of geographic education. The NCGE and AAG initiated the movement through professional leadership, intellectual spirit, and by raising necessary funds from perennially scarce resources. GENIP operates to maintain communication and cooperation among the four organizations and serves as a clearinghouse for uniting projects with funding and the appropriate geographic educators. The National Geographic Society applied its considerable political, economic, and media acumen, as well as its staff and administrative support. The NGS also produced Directions in Geography (Ludwig et al. 1991), a geography teacher's handbook based on the five themes. The American Geographical Society offered support through materials and programs on geographic education. AGS publishes Focus magazine, a source of useful and current information on geographic topics and world regions. Recently, AGS has revived its "Around the World" program of regional studies supported by classroom activity kits for elementary and middle school students. In addition, the National Council for the Social Studies published Bulletin 81, Strengthening Geography in the Social Studies, edited by Salvatore J. Natoli (1988), a volume written by geographic educators that sets a context for strengthening geography in the social studies through background reports, theoretical frameworks, activities, strategies applying the five fundamental themes, and resources necessary for accomplishing the goal of the title.
The &Mac222;ve themes have also in&Mac222;uenced the development of educational media. Two major educational media productions from the Agency for Instructional Technology follow this conceptual framework: "Global Geography" (1988) and "Geography in U.S. History" (1991). A U.S. Bureau of the Census (1992) educational videotape, "Hitched to the Planet," clearly identifies the five themes as a content organizer to support student investigations of geography with census materials.
Map companies such as Rand McNally, George Cram, and Nystrom, Inc. have produced and marketed an abundance of materials using the &Mac222;ve themes. Today, virtually all recent K-12 textbooks in geography and social studies incorporate the language of the &Mac222;ve themes, both in student editions and in teacher's ancillary materials. Workbooks in geographic skills development for the schools are also appearing that employ the five theme structure (e.g., Boehm, Bybee, and Petersen 1990). The fundamental themes are even appearing as a content organizer in introductory geography textbooks at the college level (e.g., Hardwick and Holtgrieve 1990).
The Guidelines and the five themes are also playing a prominent role in recent national assessment initiatives. Geography is one of the &Mac222;ve core subjects named in Goals 2000, the Educate America Act, a follow-up to the America 2000 Plan (United States Department of Education 1991), along with mathematics, science, English (language arts), and history. In 1991, the National Council for Chief State School Officers authorized a new geography assessment instrument under the aegis of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), often referred to as "the nation's report card." A group of professional geographers, geographic educators, teachers, school of&Mac222;cials, business persons, and political figures developed a consensus framework and assessment speci&Mac222;cations to appraise U.S. students' knowledge of geography at grades 4, 8, and 12 in 1994. As the NAEP process came to a close, the National Goals Panel and the Department of Education authorized work on a national assessment instrument designed to evaluate students at grades 4, 8, and 12 for world-class performance in geography and the other four core subjects. The &Mac222;ve themes form the basis for the content organization and shape of the conceptual framework for the National Goals and Standards in geography.
The National Standards Project has potential signi&Mac222;cance because some schools will respond by modifying their geography curricula to improve their students' performance on these voluntary national tests. Most schools, however, will examine the richness of geographic knowledge, skills, and attitudes portrayed in these standards and find them useful in practically every aspect of their social studies and science curricula.
It is premature to discuss whether the reform movement in geographic education will be successful. Educational reform efforts are often at the mercy of the politics of curriculum development and implementation, the conservatism of schools and parents when confronted with educational reform, and the reluctance of partners to share power and resources from one project or group to another. We have observed signi&Mac222;cant improvement, however, in the quality and quantity of geography education support materials available to classroom teachers, which should help them considerably in their efforts to improve their students' geographical knowledge levels. Yet teachers need to examine critically the many materials developed, for even if they seem to be based upon the fundamental themes, they may lack their contextual and conceptual signi&Mac222;cance. If the quality of teaching materials were to improve appreciably, we would claim success for the reform movement in geography.
In the decade since its publication, the Guidelines have proven surprisingly durable. They continue to offer an illuminating prologue to the richness of geographical knowledge. Educational change, however, requires more than a document for guidance. Public acceptance of the importance and value of geography as a theoretical and applied field is contingent upon a program of vigorous effort and shared responsibility by geography associations, the stewards of the discipline in the United States. These goals will continue to require a spirit of unity and mutual trust among the diverse practitioners of geography, as well as cooperative efforts among the various professional organizations that are necessary to achieve their implementation. All of these ingredients will be necessary to help geography meet its educational challenges now and in the future. If the planned reforms in geography learning are truly successful, the latter years of the twentieth century will be seen as a time of renaissance in geographic education (Nakayama 1991) and the Guidelines for Geographic Education as the magnum opus of the reform movement.
1Because existing textbooks and social studies curriculum guidelines considered map reading and interpretation skills rather than geographic content as geographers would, the committee agreed to include a section on "Skills for High School Geography Curricula" as well as learning outcomes from each of the five fundamental themes. Two GENIP-sponsored publications, K-6 Geography: Themes, Key Ideas, and Learning Opportunities (1987) and 7-12 Geography: Themes, Key Ideas, and Learning Opportunities (1989), published with funding from Rand McNally, elaborated on this portion of the Guidelines.
2Sponsored by Change Magazine with the test administered to first-year college students and seniors. The test, according to A. David Hill (1981), contained significant geographical concepts that identified serious deficiencies in geographical competencies among both entering and graduating college students and indicated that students enrolled in college geography courses fared no better than those who did not.
3The Joint Committee on Geographic Education of the AAG/NCGE was chaired by Salvatore J. Natoli, and included the following members: Richard G. Boehm, James B. Kracht, David A. Lanegran, Janice J. Monk, Robert W. Morrill.
Agency for Instructional Technology. "Geography in U.S. History." Video series. Bloomington, Ind.: Agency for Instructional Technology, 1991.
-----. "Global Geography." Video series. Bloomington, Ind.: Agency for Instructional Technology, 1988.
Boehm, Richard G., L. Bybee, and James F. Petersen. Building Skills in Geography. Columbus, Ohio: Glencoe-Macmillan-McGraw-Hill, 1990.
Boehm, Richard G., and James F. Petersen. "An Elaboration of the Fundamental Themes in Geography." Social Education 58, no. 4 (1994)
Cirrincione, Joseph M., and Richard T. Farrell. "The Status of Geography in Middle/Junior and Senior High Schools." In Strengthening Geography in the Social Studies, edited by Salvatore J. Natoli. Washington, D.C.: National Council for the Social Studies, 1988.
Committee on Geography and International Knowledge, Association of American Geographers. Geography and International Knowledge. Washington, D.C.: Association of American Geographers, 1982.
GENIP/NGS. "Maps, the Landscape, and the Fundamental Themes in Geography." Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1986.
Geographic Education National Implementation Project (GENIP). K-6 Geography: Themes, Key Ideas, and Learning Opportunities. Washington, D.C.: GENIP, 1987.
Geographic Education National Implementation Project (GENIP). 7-12 Geography: Themes, Key Ideas, and Learning Opportunities. Washington, D.C.: GENIP, 1989.
Geography Education Standards Project/National Council for Geographic Education. Geography for Life. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, forthcoming.
Hardwick, Susan W., and Donald G. Holtgrieve. Patterns on Our Planet: Concepts and Themes in Geography. New York: Merrill Publishing, 1990.
Hill, A. David. "A Survey of Global Understanding of American College Students: A Report to Geographers." The Professional Geographer 33, no. 2 (May 1981): 237-245.
Joint Committee on Geographic Education. AAG/NCGE&Guidelines for Geographic Education: Elementary and Secondary Schools. Washington, D.C.: National Council for Geographic Education and Association of American Geographers, 1984.
Libbee, Michael, and Joseph Stoltman. "Geography within the Social Studies Curriculum." In Strengthening Geography in the Social Studies, edited by Salvatore J. Natoli. Washington, D.C.: National Council for the Social Studies, 1988.
Ludwig, Gail S., et al. Directions in Geography: A Guide for Teachers. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1991.
Manson, Gary. "Notes on the Status of Geography in American Schools." Journal of Geography 80 (December 1981): 244-248.
Morrill, Robert W. GENIP News, Fall/Winter 1991-1992: l.
NAEP Geography Consensus Project. Geography Assessment Framework for the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Washington, D.C.: National Assessment Governing Board, 1992.
Nakayama, Shuichi. Renaissance of Geographic Education in the United States of America. With full text of Guidelines for Geographic Education: Elementary and Secondary Schools. Tokyo: Kokon-Shoin Publishing House, 1991.
National Council for Geographic Education (NCGE). The Role of Geography in Pre-Service Teacher Preparation: Geography in the Social Studies (NCGE Position Paper). Indiana, Pa.: National Council for Geographic Education, 1991.
National Council for Geographic Education (NCGE). NCGE Advanced Professional Certification in Geography. Indiana, Pa.: National Council for Geographic Education, 1992.
Natoli, Salvatore J. "On Developing Guidelines for Teaching Geography in the Secondary Schools." Memorandum to the Members of the Joint Executive Committees of the AAG and NCGE, October 22, 1982
-----, ed. Strengthening Geography in the Social Studies, Bulletin No. 81. Washington, D.C.: National Council for the Social Studies, 1988.
President's Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies. Background Papers and Studies. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1979a.
-----. Strength Through Wisdom: A Critique of U.S. Capability. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1979b.
Saudi Geographical Society. Guidelines for Geographic Education: Elementary and Secondary Schools (Arabic Translation). Original by the Joint Committee of the AAG/NCGE. Washington, D.C.: National Council for Geographic Education and Association of American Geographers, 1992.
Thatcher, Peter S. "Learning to Cope with Multi-dimensional Problems." Social Education 49 (March 1985): 207-210.
United States Department of Education. America 2000: An Education Strategy. Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Education, 1991.
United States Bureau of the Census. "Hitched to the Planet: Census Bureau Data and Geographic Inquiry." Videotape. Washington, D.C.: United States Bureau of the Census, 1992.
Dr. James F. Petersen is associate professor of geography in the department of geography and planning, Southwest Texas State University, San Marcos, Texas. Dr. Salvatore J. Natoli is retired and was director of publications, National Council for the Social Studies. Dr. Richard G. Boehm is chair and professor, department of geography and planning, Southwest Texas State University, San Marcos, Texas.