Social Education 58(4) 1994, pp. 211-218
National Council for the Social Studies

An Elaboration of the Fundamental
Themes in Geography

Richard G. Boehm and
James F. Petersen

The 1984 publication of the Joint Committee on Geographic Education's Guidelines for Geographic Education was a landmark event in the national reform movement in geography education. That document contains a scope and sequence in geography with suggested learning outcomes for grades K-12. It also contains a section that outlines basic social studies skills and suggests strategies teachers can use to analyze geographic information that students, in turn, can use to ask about and eventually find solutions to social questions or problems.
The most enduring contribution of the Guidelines has been the articulation of the five fundamental themes of geography: 1) location; 2) place; 3) relationships within places (human-environmental interaction); 4) relationships between places (movement); and 5) regions. The five themes have become an integral element of social studies education, appearing in all geography textbooks and most social studies programs as a context for geographic education. They also serve as the content organizer for geography education in the schools and for in-service teacher training in the National Geographic Society's system of statewide alliances. Widespread acceptance of the five themes by teachers has been crucial to reestablishing geography either as a free-standing course or as an integral part of recently revised social studies curricula, for example, the California History and Social Science Framework (California State Board of Education 1987) and the "Texas Essential Elements" in the social studies (Texas Education Agency 1984).

The Guidelines were written for a general audience, although their implicit structure was specifically designed for teachers. Effective classroom application, however, often depends on the strength of the teacher's geography background. Application of the fundamental themes-i.e., the content of geography outlined in the Guidelines-is uneven in classroom practice. Too often teachers have used the five themes in an overly simple manner or even erroneously. An intensive program of summer institutes sponsored by the National Geographic Society's Geography Education Program currently aims to develop both teaching skills and geography content knowledge among in-service teachers. A focus of this training program is the proper classroom application of the five fundamental themes.

This article discusses the rationale for the five themes, their proper use, and how they might be misused. We elaborate on each theme to illustrate how a geographer might define each theme and then suggest a strengthened geography content that teachers can weave into a geography course or a social studies program. This elaboration is designed to suggest an abundance of ways for teaching geography either as a stand-alone course or with history, civics, economics, art, science, and literature. We will also argue for the importance of geography as the spatial and human-environmental subject in the schools.

The Five Themes: What They Are
The developers of the five themes conceived them as a vehicle to convey the core ideas of geography to the general public. Geography is an eclectic subject that ranges from the physical sciences through the social sciences to the arts and humanities. Geographic illiteracy in this country, as indicated in the early 1980s by nationwide reports of low scores on simple tests, could be attributed to the fact that most teachers asked to teach geography were unprepared for the assignment. Teaching an unfamiliar subject is always difficult, and teachers felt much more comfortable with history or civics, subjects in which most social studies teachers have had better preparation than in geography.

The fundamental themes structure provides an alternative to the detrimental, but unfortunately persistent, habit of teaching geography through rote memorization. These memorization methods usually stress trivial information about places that have little meaning in the real world other than "Who can remember the most facts?" Teachers who relied on textbooks, atlases, and wall maps for their background of geography employed these superficial and subsequently ephemeral forms of learning. This method of teaching geography often ignores or even inhibits higher-level thinking and the development of generalizations dealing with spatial distributions and associations.

The five themes should lead students through levels of abstraction from the simple to the complex. The first two themes, location and place information, represent the same type of building blocks that students encounter in foreign language vocabulary study, spelling tests in English, or multiplication tables in arithmetic. Once students have an adequate background in basic concepts and knowledge, they can and should proceed to the increasingly complex, sophisticated, issues-oriented geography that the other three themes suggest.

The &Mac222;ve themes convey a strong message: it is not acceptable to stop teaching geography after teaching only location and place. In history classes, geography is often taught as a listing of locations on a map or perhaps some mention of places with historical significance. This approach generally ignores the rich, robust, and elegant geography of the present. The Guidelines stress these higher level concepts of geography. Students should learn about the critical interface between physical and human environments. As they understand the complexities of human movement and interaction on the Earth, they will then begin to understand the dynamism of the geographical factors that create regional mosaics on our planet.

Finally, the structure of the five themes is broad enough to encompass most other conceptual ideas or issues through which one might learn geography. For example, teachers can organize the concepts of population pressure and human use of resources using the &Mac222;ve themes. They can also use the fundamental themes to make sense of seemingly dichotomous worlds. They can address the developing world versus the developed world, command economies versus demand economies, or perhaps eastern versus western hemispheres.

The Five Themes: What They Are Not
Understanding the &Mac222;ve themes also demands an awareness of what they are not. This is particularly true because the ease of acceptance and the simplicity of the themes may be misleading and can lead to their incorrect use based on a misunderstanding of their intended purpose.

The &Mac222;ve themes do not represent a "new geography" (see Harper 1990a and related commentary by Boehm 1990, Harper 1990b, Hill 1990, Lanegran and St. Peter 1990, Natoli 1990, and Petersen 1990 in the Journal of Geography) or even a new approach to geography. Rather, the themes are a structure that can accommodate virtually all conceptual frameworks currently in use by teachers of geography. The five themes were not intended to be the definitive and complete explanation of geography as a field of study. The fundamental themes are just that: themes for organizing the content of geography in a convenient, widely adaptable format. Geography, like many academic disciplines, defies simple definition.

The five themes do not represent a new geographical taxonomy. Although one could argue that location and place knowledge should logically precede human-environmental relations, movement, and regions, that is not always the best approach. Courses may begin with regions, and follow with student learning about location and place. Other approaches begin with another complicated concept, such as global interdependence, and then integrate regions, movement, and places. Each theme, as well as the overall framework of the &Mac222;ve themes, may be applied on a variety of scales, from local, to international, to global. Combined as a content organizer, the five themes demonstrate the coherent nature of geography through the exposition of its spatial dimensions.

The geographic (spatial) reality of the world is such that most geographic concerns, topics, and problems involve consideration of at least several, if not all, five themes. The five fundamental themes should not be taught separately, as distinct, mutually exclusive topics. Teaching location one day and movement the next ignores the highly integrative reality of geography that resists isolated segmentation or arbitrary division. The five themes, rather than being confining, should be expansive in their application. A simple statement of the five themes is not an end, but should be an invitation to examples and further study. The elaboration presented in this paper should illustrate this process.

Alternative Frameworks for Geography
The five themes provide a structure for geographic learning but not necessarily the only structure-although they are both explicit and implicit within the content of these structures. In 1992, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (National Assessment of Educational Progress 1992; Council of Chief State School Officers 1994) geography consensus group (with the five fundamental themes readily before them) chose to organize the content of geography into: 1) space and place; 2) environment and society; and 3) spatial dynamic and connections. That group identified the principal role of the five themes to be "for teaching," whereas the three content areas organized geographic content more realistically "for assessment." More recently, Geography for Life (forthcoming) lists and outlines eighteen content standards to divide the discipline into topics that teachers can use to evaluate whether American students are internationally competitive in geography knowledge and skills. Figure 1 compares these three structures for teaching geography.

These attempts to organize the content of geography differ, based on how one might wish to apply the subject matter. Throughout the national reform movement in geographic education, however, the five themes have persisted as the most widely accepted framework for teaching geography. The structure of the fundamental themes is in the hands and minds of the greatest number of teachers. This framework has been used in all of the National Geographic Society-sponsored state alliance teacher training institutes, which have reached more than 70,000 teachers in the last eight years.

An Elaboration of the Five Fundamental Themes
An understanding of the themes' rationale and purpose can be followed by an elaboration of each theme to focus on the eclectic and integrative nature of geography. A common question teachers ask is: "What is the difference between location and place?" Another common statement by teachers is: "Today I plan to teach place and on Friday, movement." Both of these problematic situations reflect a poor understanding of the nature and purpose of the five themes. They were developed as a framework for teaching and contain an expansive geographical content, but teachers must use them correctly. The fundamental themes are not a series of discrete subdivisions of geography or a sequence of mutually exclusive teaching units. We should not be teaching the five themes; rather, we should be using the five themes to teach geography.

Tables 1-5 on the following pages provide an extensive elaboration of each theme. From these, it should be apparent that geographical problems generally involve all five themes, and the rich content of geography becomes available to students and teachers of geography, social studies, and related subjects.

The five fundamental themes of geography offer a useful content organizer for teachers of geography and social studies. They represent a teaching framework that is simple, straightforward, and currently in wide use in textbooks and other teaching materials. Like so many basic concepts, the five themes are subject to numerous possibilities for misuse and misinterpretation. An understanding of why the themes were conceived and their intended purpose will facilitate their proper use. Furthermore, an elaboration provides an extensive explanation of each theme for full, correct, and effective classroom application. The five fundamental themes of geography are a powerful teaching tool. If used properly, they will help to ensure the return of quality geography to schools in the United States.

Table 1


Position on the Earth's Surface. Location is the most basic of the fundamental themes. Every geographical feature has a unique location-its global address. A number of geographic factors interact to give significance to a location. A rich geography lies beyond location, yet the concept of location is crucial to geographical understanding. Location is a basic prerequisite to higher level geography, just as addition and subtraction are to advanced mathematical understanding and competency.

Using Grids

Different Types of Maps and Globes
Map Projections
Earth-Sun Relations
Relative location is a way of expressing a location in relation to another site. For example, Peoria, Illinois, is 125 miles southwest of Chicago, or Australia is in the southern hemisphere, or the Rocky Mountains are between Denver, Colorado, and Salt Lake City, Utah, or Canada is north of the United States.

Locations Have Geographical Explanations

The Importance of a Location Can Change with History
Table 2


Physical and Human Characteristics. Location tells us where, and place tells us what is there. All places have a set of distinctive characteristics, the features that make them different from or similar to other places. Geographers often divide these characteristics into physical and human phenomena that are spatial and can be mapped. Characteristics of place often can be explained by the human and physical processes that define the geographic patterns of our planet. The geography of a place is a mosaic of factors, including the patterns and processes that define the three remaining fundamental themes: human-environmental relations, movement, and regions.


Natural Vegetation (Flora)
Animal Life (Fauna)


Population Factors
Settlement Patterns
Economic Activities
Table 3

Human-Environmental Relations

Relationships Within Places. Spatial patterns and processes develop from the complex interactions and relationships that occur between humans and their physical environments. The geography of our planet is a dynamic system of interacting environmental factors, affected by both natural and human processes.
All environments offer geographical advantages and disadvantages as habitats for humans. How humans behave according to the advantages and limitations that an environment offers can greatly affect a landscape. Key sub-themes include:


Interrelationships Between Humans and Environments

The Role of Technology
The Problems of Technology
Environmental Hazards
Environmental Limits

Issues relating to management and protection of environmental resources

Different cultural attitudes about the environment and its resources
Table 4


Humans Interacting on the Earth. Regions and places are connected by movement or human interactions. Humans are increasing their levels of interaction, in communication, travel, and foreign exchange. Technology has allowed us to shrink space and distance. People migrate and travel out of curiosity, economic or social need, as a response to environmental change, or because they have been forced to move for other reasons. Physical processes are also expressions of movement-e.g., traveling weather patterns, ocean and wind currents, flowing water, plate tectonics, and vulcanism.


Transportation Modes

Movement in Everyday Life
History of Movement
Economic Stimulus for Movements
Energy and Mass Induced Movements
The economies of the world are interrelated, and nations depend on each other for:
Movement of Goods, Services, and Ideas
Foreign Trade
Common Markets
These provide simplifications that help us analyze how humans interact over space, and make rational predictions for how similar interactions will occur in the future. Examples include:

Gravity Models

Central Place Theory
Table 5


How They Form and Change. Regions are geographical tools. They are mental constructs designed to help us understand and organize the spatial characteristics of our planet. Regions may be larger than a continent or smaller than your neighborhood.
Regions can have sharp boundaries that are well defined (such as a state, e.g., California or Illinois), or may have gradational or indistinct boundaries (such as the Pacific Basin, the Great Plains, Silicon Valley, or the Kalahari Desert).
Many regions are familiar to us because of television or the newspapers, or because they are related to other subjects that we study. For the geographer, regions represent a core element of the discipline and are of fundamental importance.
We define our regions by stating criteria and then drawing boundaries. Regions may be based upon crops, types of agriculture, climate, landforms, vegetation, political boundaries, soils, religions, languages, cultures, and economic characteristics. Sub-themes include:

Uniform regions are defined by some uniform cultural or physical characteristic.

A functional region has a focal point (often a city) and is the organized space surrounding that central location.
Understanding regions can lead to understanding human diversity.
Boehm, Richard G. "Communication from Readers." Journal of Geography 89 (1990): 84.
California State Board of Education. California History and Social Science Framework. Sacramento, Calif.: State of California, 1987.
Council of Chief State School Officers. Geography Assessment Framework for the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress (Draft). Washington, D.C.: National Council for Geographic Education, 1994.
Geography Education Standards Project. Geography for Life. Washington, D.C.: National Council for Geographic Education, forthcoming.
Harper, Robert. "The New School Geography: A Critique." Journal of Geography 89 (1990a): 27-30.
-----. "Communication from Readers." Journal of Geography 89 (1990b): 134-135.
Hill, A. David. "Communication from Readers." Journal of Geography 89 (1990): 84-85.
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.
Lanegran, David, and Patrice St. Peter. "Communication from Readers." Journal of Geography 89 (1990): 85-86.
Ludwig, Gail S., et. al. Directions in Geography: A Guide for Teachers. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 1991.
National Assessment of Educational Progress Consensus Project. Geography Assessment Framework for the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Washington, D.C.: National Assessment Governing Board, 1992.
National Council on Education Standards and Testing. Raising Standards for American Education. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1992.
Natoli, Salvatore J. "Communication from Readers." Journal of Geography 89 (1990): 86-87.
Pattison, William D. "The Four Traditions of Geography." Journal of Geography 63 (1964): 211-216.
Petersen, James F. "Communication from Readers." Journal of Geography 89 (1990): 135-136.
Texas Education Agency. State Board of Education Rules for Curriculum: Principles, Standards, and Procedures for Accreditation of School Districts (Chapter 75, "Texas Essential Elements"). Austin, Tex.: State of Texas, 1984.

Dr. Richard G. Boehm is chair and professor and Dr. James F. Petersen is associate professor of geography, both in the department of geography and planning, Southwest Texas State University, San Marcos, Texas.