I’m wondering: what is the best way to teach geography?  I’ve started a system with H. (age 5) which seems to be working reasonably well, but I wonder if, perhaps, we should be doing some other things.  Also, there are aspects of my current plan that make me wonder if I’m proposing to start something that might end up being too difficult (or expensive).  Anyway, let me start with the goal of teaching geography.

Basically, I think most public elementary schools don’t teach nearly enough geography or history.  Both tend to be pitched at a too-basic level, and I find the leading method of both subjects–to start “close to home” and then move “out” in terms of things that are farther away or more remote in time.  By contrast, we’ve studied the whole world since H. was a baby, and the first area of history that we’ve studied in much depth has been ancient history, not U.S. history.  If all the time wasted in schools–spent on keeping kids in line, bureaucratic nonsense, busywork, needless review, supposedly-fun and educational “projects” that are anything but–were instead spent reading books and studying maps and globes, kids could learn five times as much history and geography as they learn.

I admit that I haven’t quite wrapped my mind around the purpose of studying geography.  The little that I have written about this question (to myself) has convinced me that it is actually very deep.  It is clearly not just so that one knows about places where one might travel or do trade; it is hardly as if a person who never traveled or did business with foreigners has wasted his time in studying geography.  But those are some reasons, sure.

The most fundamental reason to study geography, in any event, is rooted in the purpose of primary and secondary education: to come to as sophisticated and complete an understanding of the universe, both human and natural, as possible in the time one has before one goes off to college or starts in the work world.  Geography is concerned with particular facts (as opposed to general facts) about the “places” in the world as it is now all around us (rather than as it was in the past).  It is probably best viewed as a subject of secondary importance, because surely what happens in places is more important than the places themselves, and laws, principles, concepts, and patterns are often more important to learn than particular facts.

Still, I say that geography is under-emphasized in schools mainly because a broader understanding of history, politics, and humanity generally is greatly aided by a more in-depth study of geography.  How would our political discourse and decisionmaking about radical Islamic terrorism be improved if most citizens knew a lot more than they do about all the various players in the Middle East?  Part of the reason history is so boring for so many people is that they haven’t got the first clue about what various foreign places discussed in history books are like.  Studying geography provides a framework that crucially supports interest in history–which is, I maintain, one of the very most important subjects for primary and secondary students to study.  I am very sure that if we had not studied geography as much as we had, before starting to read about ancient history, this talk of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome simply wouldn’t make as much sense.  But since H. was very familiar with the globe and maps of the area by the time we started in earnest, we had a “geographical context” that history colored in.

I could go on for a long time in that vein but let me get down to the main subject–the method of teaching geography.

In just the last week or two we started reading 2-4 pages of various geography books (including children’s learning atlases) after lunch.  We’ve tried to do this daily and without taking too long, in the same way that we do a similar 2-4 pages of history daily before our bedtime reading.  Doing it daily and in small amounts has made history more interesting and easier to study–so much so that H. has often chosen history books to read during his afternoon reading hour over fiction (chapter books).

I just happened to pick up a general introduction to South America the last time I was at Half-Price Books so we started with that.  Then a little later I found this children’s teaching atlas, which is an edition of a Parragon atlas.  (Parragon is, I find, one of the better children’s publishers.)  I was looking for a book that could work as a “backbone” of our study of geography–something that has a lot of reasonably well-written prose about the countries, not just lists of facts.  This seemed to fit the bill.  So the idea is, we’ll first read a general introductory book about a continent, then we’ll start going through the section of the teaching atlas, and while or after we do that, we’ll read a book about each country.

Actually, when I come to the last part, that’s where I get a little confused.  We surely don’t want or need to read a book about every country in the world, do we?  Even if we put aside island nations and tiny countries like Bhutan, I guess there would still be 100 countries.  If we spend a week on each book, that’s 100 weeks–a two-year study.  But, of course, some countries are more important and deserve a lot more treatment.  If we’re doing a whole book about Bolivia, shouldn’t it be five books about Brazil?

And there’s another problem.  Most kids’ books about countries are deadly boring.  I mean, I don’t know how the writers and editors of these books got their jobs.  Maybe it’s not their fault, though, in a way; the school district mandates study of geography, which is naturally divided into countries (among other things), and teachers can’t be expected to get too creative when it comes to books about places.  Thus the dreaded 4th grade report about the country you’ve been assigned, using three library books, all of which are equally dull.

Sadly, the library books haven’t much improved since I was a kid (I know, I’ve looked).  There is a nice series, however, that is better than what I remembered: True Books.  We’ve read the ones about North Korea (I think it was included in a Scholastic box I got for $1 a book), Russia, and Ireland, and also about other non-geography subjects.  The series is unusually well-written.  The series’ geography books are as good as I’ve found, but they’re still kind of boring.

The trouble with books about geography for children, I find, is that they don’t show enough of an effort to escape the just-list-out-the-facts mentality that so sorely afflicts Wikipedia-land.  A good non-fiction book about any subject finds a conceptually coherent place for every fact.  You don’t start writing about geography with a set outline, similar for every country (which True Books admirably doesn’t do, unlike many other series).  You pick out the most important fact, explain it and use it tie together various other less important facts.  This is what people often mean when they speak of writing with “the context” in mind.  If I were writing about Brazil, for example, I would probably begin with Columbus, the Treaty of Tordesillas, and what meridian lines are, explaining why Brazil speaks Portuguese, and also why the country includes the Amazon and huge amounts of rain forest.  (If you think it’s impossible to introduce such subjects to young children in a non-boring, non-threatening way, you’re wrong.  You just have to fill in the blanks.  If a 2nd grader can’t be expected to know what “Portuguese” means, the first step is to show Portugal on a map and say a few things about the language.)  That would segue naturally to the Amazon River, which I would explain as a result of the Andes and the climate.  This leads nicely into a discussion of the jungle, etc.  I actually started writing some of a text about the southwest U.S., which would introduce and explain some important facts about cities in places like Arizona and Texas based on climate.

When you place facts into a context in this way, it becomes much easier to understand and remember them.  It the student can actually understand an explanation, it becomes much easier for them not just to remember the facts explained (why they speak Portuguese in Brazil, for instance) but actually take some interest in them.  The more that various facts are “connected together” and make clever re-appearances, the more interesting and “story like” the book is.

Anyway, that’s all I’ll write about now. I  didn’t talk about other sorts of work–with globes, Google Earth, drawing maps, etc.  I’ll have to save that for later.