A New, Global View of Geography the `Name That State Capital' Approach Is Giving Way to One That Is `Inquiry Based' Series: National Geography Week

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AT Selvidge Middle School in Ballwin, Mo., seventh-graders are making papier-mache globes showing the seven continents and four oceans along with major cities, rivers, and mountains.

Yet the goal of this world geography class is not to memorize where major cities and other landmarks fall on the globe, says geography teacher John Lucas.

"A lot of people get very upset if a student can't pinpoint exactly where Paris is," says Mr. Lucas, a large, gregarious man who is the school's teacher of the year. "But given the coordinates, my students can locate it in a heartbeat. And that's the important thing."

Here, and in school districts across the country, geography education is moving away from the traditional "name that state capital" approach to a richer mix of knowledge.

In this suburban St. Louis school district, all seventh-graders are required to take geography. They spend half the year on "physical geography," learning what falls where on the globe, and the other half on "human geography," the study of governmental and religious patterns around the world, for example.

"When my students leave this course, I want them to know how to get around on a globe and interpret a map," Lucas says. "But I also want them to understand that people are a product of their environment."

A nationwide resurgence of interest in geography began in the early 1980s. An increasing number of school districts and states are making the subject a curriculum requirement, particularly at the middle-school or junior-high level.

"The United States woke up about 12 to 15 years ago and realized that the economy had been internationalized," says Ruth Shirey, executive director of the National Council for Geographic Education. "What happened in other countries mattered to us in economic terms in ways that had never been true before. The resurgence of geography is rooted in that realization."

International surveys also raised awareness about the need for improved geography education in the US. In 1989, a Gallup survey ranked Americans aged 18 to 24 last in geographic knowledge, compared with their international counterparts. In 1990, only 50 percent of 12th graders knew that the Panama Canal cuts sailing time between New York and San Francisco.

Major geography organizations have dedicated themselves recently to improving geography education. Geography was one of the five original subjects included in the federal "Goals 2000: Educate America Act."

"That gave the discipline incredible visibility," says Roger Downs, a professor of geography at Pennsylvania State University, "because we were on a par with history, and science, and math."

Gilbert Grosvenor, president of the National Geographic Society, has taken a lead role in supporting training for geography teachers. The Geographic Society helps fund geography alliances in every state to provide geography materials and training workshops for teachers.

For many years, geography was lumped in with social studies. …