Is There a Geography Gap in Homeschool Education and Curriculum?
Embarking on a quest to create a homeschool (or any school) map-based curriculum has led me to consider whether or not there’s a geography gap in homeschool curriculum. I mean this in two ways:
Is there a gap in homeschoolers teaching geography to their children?
Is there a gap in the availability of quality geography material and/or curriculum for homeschoolers?
I’d love to hear your thoughts and invite you to explore what I’ve discovered so far.
Some of My Geography Background
This exploration begins with a little about myself. I am one of those weirdos. I declared a major when I entered college. I graduated in that same major that I declared. And I work in the field of the major that I declared. Like I said, I'm one odd duck in that way.
I'm sure you can guess what my chosen major was. :) Yep. Geography. And why? Perhaps it was because my distaste for 9th grade biology class discouraged me from becoming a zoologist. More likely it was the years of exposure I had to geography education both at school and at home.
I wasn't homeschooled, but I did receive a fairly rich geography education. In third grade, all students were provided a free world map to take home (I still have it!). Geography-specific courses were mandatory in 7th and 9th grades. In 8th grade, I decided to enter the school's geography bee—and I won! And while I wasn't homeschooled, I came from a home that valued education, curiosity, and learning. We were subscribers to National Geographic Magazine and I pored over its pages—mostly its pictures and maps. We were regular road trippers, and I developed a love for exploring via the road atlas and matching it up to what I saw out the window. And as a Boy Scout, learning map reading and analysis skills were critical for my hikes and adventures at Philmont Scout Ranch. The occurrence of when we found ourselves lost and off the map is a story for another day.
Geography naturally enters how I view the world and help in homeschooling our children. When I meet you, probably the first question I'll ask is, "Where are you from?" Connecting people to place is natural to me. We've driven through Elyria, Ohio, many times on I-80. Each time I say, "Hey! This is where my college roommate was from!" And we look around and get a sense of his hometown. Well, as much of Elyria as you can from the Ohio Turnpike.
When the idea of creating a map-based curriculum aide arose, it made me wonder: Is there a geography gap in homeschool curriculum? And if there is, why?
In my exploration, I started with the two most available resources I knew of: my wife and Google. :D
How My Wife Helped Me Understand Chunking and Geography Gaps
I asked my wife her thoughts about whether or not there is a geography gap in homeschool curriculum. And even though our home is full of geography, I think she felt a little defensive for the collective homeschool parent. She said, "We want to cover our bases" and make sure the basics are taken care of—reading, writing, math. "Geography is a . . ." She cut off and glanced at me as if to mean, I think you know where I’m going with this. "Geography is a 'soft' science. You know, it's important . . . but it's not."
I agree to a point. I don’t know where the division arose between “hard sciences” (physics, chemistry, biology, etc.) and “soft sciences” (geography, psychology, sociology, etc.). The trick with geography is that it’s the bridge between the divisions. Physical geography has deep connections with physics, geology, and meteorology. Human geography dives into political science, sociology, and archaeology. Therein may lay part of the geography gap problem—geography is everywhere (pardon the pun)!
As a visual designer, I value the basic design practice of chunking. Our brains comprehend information better when it is chunked into manageable pieces. Think about phone numbers. If I told you my childhood phone number was 6353550630, you’d have very little chance of remembering it. There’s a reason we break this long string of numbers into groups—(635) 355-0630. It’s not for the phone company to make better connections. It’s for us to remember it better.
We chunk in education as well. Perhaps you’ve heard yourself say this: “Okay, Sally. Did you do your writing exercise? Good. How about math—did you finish that? Great! Now let’s do science.” We’ve chunked the huge idea of learning into bite-size pieces that are easier to remember. We happen to call them subjects. I am sure you’ve figured out by now that the lines between subjects are blurry—oftentimes very blurry.
Geography, the Magic Door
My wife alerted me to a wonderful section of Julie Bogart’s book The Brave Learner: Finding Everyday Magic in Homeschool, Learning, and Life. Chapter 3 is all about what Julie calls Magic Doors, or portals of learning that your child is eager to jump into. We sometimes lament that our child is interested in anything but the subjects we think they should be learning about. That thought leads to fears that our child will never reach the academic achievement we think they should. (That in and of itself is an assumption worth checking. But let’s stay with Julie.) She emphasizes that everything can be taught through anything. Make a list of subjects you think your child should be learning and also list your child’s interests, no matter how mundane they might seem to us. You can then map out how that topic is a magic door into a myriad of subjects.
One example Julie uses is of a child whose passion is piano. If your list of subjects includes reading, writing, math, history, science, philosophy, religion, foreign language, art, music, social science, and physical education, you can map how piano leads to learning in all of those. An interest in piano can lead to discovery about physics: how the keys and pedals work or how vibration and sound work (and how Beethoven could still write music even though he was deaf).
Geography is a magic door. Maybe the ultimate magic door. I wonder if its prevalence throughout all learning has made it susceptible to disappearing altogether—or at best reduced it to rote memorization of facts—when we chunk our learning into distinct subjects.
Numerical Evidence From Google of a Geography Gap
My wife helped me understand that geography is there to be grasped and can be easily incorporated because of its natural bridging qualities, but the nature of chunking subjects pushes it way down the list. Now let’s see what light Google could shed on the question at hand.
Do a basic search of "______ homeschool curriculum" and you get the following number of hits:
Art - 41.5 million
Science - 40.5 million
Reading - 39.4 million
Writing - 37.6 million
English - 31.5 million
History - 23.9 million
Language Arts - 21.2 million
Social Studies - 14.6 million
I guess these are what you might consider the "core" subjects. But even social studies, where geography would tend to be lumped, is way down on the list. When you start getting more specific, you see a pretty big drop-off in numbers.
Biology - 10.0 million
Geography - 9.1 million
Chemistry - 6.7 million
Physics - 5.2 million
Algebra - 3.0 million
Geometry - 2.6 million
Now granted, geography is on the high end of the specific-subject list. But guess what? Every other one of those subjects—except maybe Algebra—is a high school subject! Geography is a fundamental subject that carries from elementary grades through high school. Evidence of a geography gap? Maybe, but not conclusive.
Other Evidence of a Geography Gap
Let's look at Khan Academy, a great resource for online learning. Our children have used plenty of its content for math and science subjects. Their course list is pretty comprehensive, including many AP courses. But examine the list. Math, science, art and humanities, reading and language arts, and even a dedicated economics section. Do you see any geography? Nope. Evidence of a geography gap? Getting stronger, but still not conclusive.
I’ve seen and used a variety of well-known homeschool curricula that employ geographic thought, but the consistent problem I observe is a lack of quality, inspiring maps. Maps are geography’s most basic education tool. Have you had the experience of getting lost in a map? Just staring and staring and not realizing how long you’ve been looking at all the details to be found? And then you’re asking questions—why is this that way? Or why is that this way? So many things you want to know! Pull on those threads and you uncover history, science, sociology, politics, and so many connections. Maps are tools to greater discovery, but they’re not being utilized as such in the curricula I’ve experienced in our 10 years of homeschooling. They seem to be an afterthought. Almost as if you pounded a nail into wood with your shoe or your fist only to think afterward, That would have been a lot easier if I'd had a hammer. The case for a geography gap increases.
Expanding our view from homeschool curriculum to a national education standards perspective, geography remained, as of 2014, the only “core” subject without federal funding since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001 (“Status of Geography Education in the United States,” National Geographic Society Education Foundation, 2014, vi).And while federal funding does not create homeschool curriculum, its presence—or not—can certainly be a bellwether of attitude.
Some Good Things for Geography
While I find evidence for a geography gap in homeschool education and curriculum, the data is not all negative. AP Human Geography was introduced in 2001 and the number of students taking it has steadily increased. Many schools nationwide are beginning to get into the more technical and analytical world of geographic information systems (GIS). Trends at the college level (a little dated—2007—but I think still relevant) uncover some encouraging overall data. Geography had started to establish itself as a serious academic discipline in the early 20th Century, but by the 1970s and into the 1980s, premier universities across the country—Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Columbia, Northwestern—had disbanded their geography programs. The period 1990 to 2005 saw growth in the number of programs and graduates, and Dr. Alexander Murphy of the University of Oregon attributes it to five reasons:
A heightened general sense that geography is relevant to the issues of the day,
A greater awareness and appreciation of geography among scholars in other disciplines,
An explosion of interest in GIScience and GIS,
An expanding job market for individuals with geographic training, and
The emergence of a more analytically sophisticated geography in some primary and secondary schools.
To sum up, I’ll be the first to admit that I've presented largely circumstantial evidence for a geography gap in homeschool education. Hard quantitative or qualitative data supporting this theory would take much more digging. Perhaps geographic education is a case of something hiding in plain sight—something so prevalent it's invisible. It certainly feels like there’s a gap in effective geographic tools, and a lot of homeschoolers are using shoes instead of hammers. What do you think?
Other posts you may like:
Recommended resources for teaching geography in your home.
The first update on the map-based geography curriculum aide project.
Survey on map use in 26 homeschool environments and how it could be improved with map-based curriculum aides.
Handouts, slides, and info on two geography-packed presentations at the 2017 LDSHE conference: "How Maps Lie" and "Without Geography, You're Nowhere".