What’s the value of geographic memorization? Practiced and applied, towards geoliteracy.

In my online Foundations of Spatial Thinking class, we’ve been discussing the relative merits of having students memorize places and locations. The 50 States, their capitals, countries around the world and their capital cities too. For me this type of “place name geography” is necessary but not sufficient. Yes, we should be expected to know these attributes of our own country, and (at least the general) global locations. We should begin to memorize them early, in elementary school, just the same way that by 3rd and 4th grade we are memorizing our multiplication tables, how to spell difficult words (handkerchief, neighborhood, independent, committee), and distinguishing among words commonly confused (their/there/they’re; its/it’s).

Mastering these basics are the building blocks for later “literacy” – in math, in writing, and in geographic thinking. The trick is that with our times tables and with spelling, we have countless opportunities to continue to practice and apply these basics, year after year. If we mistakenly calculate the product of 8×7, for example, we will reach the wrong solution in a math equation or hand somebody the wrong amount of change from a cash register, and we’ll be reminded of our error. When we misspell “disseminate” now, our computers will remind us by underlining the word with a squiggly red line.

But there are precious few opportunities to practice and apply the geographic knowledge that we manage to accrue during our early years. And if we never practice recalling and applying those “facts” again, they will, eventually, or even immediately, just slip from our mind, like all the other scraps of minutiae that our formal education presents us with. So isn’t it really part of a much bigger problem, really, that many later forget which one is Iraq and which one is Iran?

There are no “map” checkers built in to our computer programs.  Copy editors are paid to check for careless mistakes before written material goes to press, but there are no such skilled people employed by many media outlets. Mistakes are common (CNN and Fox both make fairly regular errors), and usually more amusing and inconvenient than damaging.  Of course it’s Apple’s maps that are the topic du jour.

So, memorization is necessary but not sufficient. Our geography education should not neglect this process, but it should also and then expect teachers, and students, to master this step and move beyond it to the applied knowledge part. Asking, understanding, and answering questions about our human and environmental interactions, without having to spend precious hours returning to the basics.

One more note on memorizing our States. Peter Gould and Rodney White, in their studies of our mental maps, found that some States are more difficult to learn than others. Shown below are the ones more likely to be confused, at least by college students in Pennsylvania in the early 1970s. Maybe these are the ones for which we just need to practice more. Just like to, two, and too.


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