Geography education: A silent crisis

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Work market is in need of professionals with geographical skills.

Photo: Bigstock.

Which subject do teachers consider the most necessary in middle school and high school? It would have to be those that help the students prepare for college: Math, literature, philosophy, biology, chemistry... geography?

The latter would be our first pick for the top ten subjects we think students need to be ready for the work market, but our assessment would be wrong. According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of geography specialists is projected to grow 29 percent from 2014 to 2024, much faster than the average 11 percent growth for all occupations.

The demand for jobs that rely on geospatial analysis, like road maintenance, response to natural disaster, the tracking of endangered species, urban planning, reforestation and more will exponentially increase thanks to the raising awareness towards issues like sustainability and the environment.

This is good news for the planet, but it’s alarming for the educators with the task of raising the bar and produce professionals with the right skills to do those jobs.

A matter of location

73% of eighth graders in the US didn’t achieve proficiency in geography, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2014. Until 2013 only 17 stated included geography as a mandatory subject in middle school and only ten states required to pass the subject to graduate from high school. In 2018, a survey that had the participation of 1000 Americans, revealed that more than 50% was unable to identify countries like Croatia, Nigeria, and Venezuela on a blank map.

England also has a problem with geography proficiency, a study by British Airways informed that at least every one in five English people thinks that Great Britain is a continent.

This knowledge deficiency extends around the world. If we want to beat it, we have to rethink how we teach geography and get the students engaged to it.

Beyond the theory

Mexico has produced multiple medalists and has a strong presence in the Geography Olympics, one of the most renowned world competitions on the subject. This country has worked hard to understand the particular problems of teaching geography to the young.

Even if the curriculum for elementary school is as essential as just learning to locate countries, states, and cities on a map, researchers and academics are advocating for the necessity to take geography teaching to a higher level.

According to the Secretary of Public Education (SEP), the curriculum cannot be limited to basic geography; otherwise, students will be ill-prepared for any job that requires geospatial skills.

Teachers need to draw clear objectives that go beyond just learning names and locations on paper. The key to improve geography knowledge in students we need to include all the elements necessary to put geography in context. That way we ensure its understanding and memorization.

As officials in the SEP argued as far back as 2002:

To encourage students to take on the learning of geographic space, the teacher needs to use strategies with active elements that involve them in their learning process.

Neither the problem nor the solutions are new, but the weak spot in the learning and teaching of geography remains, we’re still lost in uncharted territory. The only way to solve this educational crisis is to make use of teaching approaches that help enable them to understand the physical, spatial and social elements put geography in contexts and gives it sense, that is undoubtedly the best route.