Geographic Literacy

"Geographic literacy" is one of SpherAware's stated missions.  That idea is completely natural to a life-long cartophile but the term may actually be a little fuzzy for others.  Literacy is (literally) the ability to read and write proficiently.  Geography is a body of knowledge about the Earth and its restless inhabitants.  The ability to simply read and write that knowledge is not sufficient, however, to be fully literate.  Geography is dimensional and space and time are essential qualities that often elude those who only look at search results or rely on a GPS device to find their way around.

The electronic age seems to have created an empidemic of geographic ignorance.  We are certainly reading cell phones and responding to spatial information, but almost as automatons.  Longer journeys are also a look-up exercise.  Once you have selected and boarded the correct flight, travel becomes an exercise in patience as you are hurled through the atmosphere in a hermetically sealed tin can.  Upon arrival, you magically find yourself in a new, disconnected reality.  It's no wonder there is a growing disconnect with our planet.

The National Geographic Society has begun to champion geo-literacy which it defines as an "understanding of how the world works that all members of modern society need."  Even that is a bit confusing.  They use the concept of interactions, interconnections and implications to foster a "geographic understanding and reasoning to make far-reaching decisions in the 21st century."

ESRI, the giant purveyor of GIS software, supports this notion and contents that the modern citizen needs to do geography by which they mean acquire the ability to "conduct basic geographic analysis in order to make sound personal, political, and professional decisions."

I completely agree with those sentiments, but still find them lacking a substantive suggestion for how those abilities should arise.  A great many geographic facts can be learned without ever seeing how they all fit together.  On the other hand, actually experiencing the silimarlities, differences and relationships between places can teach one quite a lot about geographic connections, interactions and implications on any scale.  Unfortunately, many kids today don't have the freedom to explore and learn the landscape as nature intended.

From "The Family Circus" by Bil Keane

While there's no substitute for real-world experience, visual and interactive learning can breathe life into geography more readily than almost any other subject.  Studies have shown that visual/spatial learning is more effective for more people than absorbing auditory or textual information.  Maps have always been an essential tool in teaching geography but they often rely on a companion narrative or symbolic legends to make connections.  They present information to the viewer; they don't often engage the viewer in the process of creating or re-creating that information.  That experiential component is where literacy really kicks in.  It's reading and writing information that counts. 

Short of doing some actual cartography, map puzzles are an excellent way to form the subliminal geospatial connections that are the foundation for an enriched understanding of our world.  This is far from a new idea.  John Spilsbury gets credit for inventing the geographic jigsaw puzzle in 1766.  He called his invention "Dissected Maps" and they were wildly popular.


One of Spilsbury's "Dissected Maps"

Spilsbury lived in the age of global exploration and rapidly expanding knowledge.  Everyone was intrigued.  Even though we are now blessed by a web of instantaneous communication and know the location of every earthy feature with sub-meter accuracy, the world is still a big place.  It is now even more important for humans to be well informed about it, too.  Maybe Mr. Spilsbury was onto something...

PuzzleMap is the same basic idea updated for the online mapping system we so commonly use today.  It's a map puzzle that lets you pan around and zoom in and out.  It also supports the attachment of any kind of information to the individual pieces.  Facts, documents, images and links to other online content all become a part of the puzzle.  Using these connections as clues to the solution almost subconsciously instills both spatial and contextual knowledge about the world.  This enables geographic literacy to piggyback on a puzzle theme that may appeal to a completely different interest like nature, entertainment, lifestyle and commerical products.  That's the kind of bonus this planet could really use! 

There will soon be some new PuzzleMap examples on this site that demonstrate even more possibilites.  While working on them, I have not only learned some new geography but have found myself thinking about the steps needed to achieve geographic literacy.  I will expand upon those ideas in my next post.

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Posted in Activity, Geography on Jul 31, 2017