Danny Edelson: Back to School with Geo-Literacy

Back to School with Geo-Literacy
(This article appeared in the fall edition of the ESRI publication, ArcNews Online. Please note that it is an archival piece, and excuse us for the late posting!)
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“Geo Learning”
by Daniel C. Edelson,
Vice President for Education
National Geographic Society

It is back-to-school season as I write this, and I’m thinking about goals for the next year. In education, as in many other domains, goals are everything. If you don’t have clear goals that you can communicate effectively, then you’re never going to make any progress.

When I started working at the National Geographic Society, I was immediately confronted with the challenge of clarifying and articulating the goals of our K-12 educational efforts. This process has taken some time. I’ve been here more than two years, and we’re still working on it, but it’s probably the most important work we’ll do.

National Geographic has been committed to improving K-12 geography education in the United States and Canada for decades. However, improving geography education is, at the same time, too broad and too narrow. Geography is boundless, so our first goal-setting challenge was to find a focus that is narrower than geography as a whole.


Using the broader National Geographic mission to inspire people to care about the planet as a guide, we are focusing our efforts on those aspects of geography that will prepare students to care for the planet. Specifically, we have chosen to focus on the geographic knowledge and skills that young people will need to make the decisions they will face throughout their lives that have consequences for the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants. We call these far-reaching decisions because–even though the decision makers may not realize it–the consequences of the decisions extend far beyond the individual and his or her location. Far-reaching decisions may be personal, professional, or civic. They may be routine or come once in a lifetime. They range from decisions about how to commute to work to whether to outsource your company’s manufacturing overseas to how to vote on a public referendum on immigration.

As we have investigated what people need to know to make far-reaching decisions, we have found that the knowledge and skills that they need go beyond geography. So we’ve found ourselves adjusting our scope to be more focused within geography and to extend beyond geography. In our current conception, our goals include three primary components: systems thinking, geographic reasoning, and evidence-based decision making.

  • Systems thinking: Scientists today view the world as a set of interconnected natural and human systems. These systems create, transform, and move resources. Natural systems include atmospheric, hydrologic, and ecological systems. Human systems include economic, political, and cultural systems. To be geo-literate, a person must be able to reason about how he or she depends on these different systems and how his or her actions can affect them.
  • Geographic reasoning: Most of geography is based on two key principles: (1) the characteristics of a particular location influence what can and does happen in that location and (2) every place on earth is connected to every other. To be geo-literate, a person must be able to reason about the characteristics of and about the connections between places to understand the implications of decisions.
  • Evidence-based decision making: Well-reasoned decisions involve a multistep reasoning process that includes both objective analysis of consequences and subjective weighing of trade-offs based on values. A person must be able to systematically analyze consequences of decisions and evaluate their pros and cons based on his or her values.

Read the conclusion of Back to School with Geo-Literacy in the fall edition of ESRI’s ArcNews Online.

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