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.

When combined, these three components provide an individual with the knowledge and skills to recognize decisions as being far reaching and make them systematically. Of course, this does not mean that everyone will make the same decisions. There will always be differences of opinion about the likelihood of various consequences and how to value different outcomes.

Because these goals no longer fit neatly within the traditional conception of geography, we have coined a new term for them, which I’ve used in this column before. We call this combination of systems thinking, geographic reasoning, and evidence-based decision making geo-literacy.

Clearly, having a geo-literate populace is valuable for more than just caring for the planet. It is valuable for economic competitiveness, national security, and personal well-being, to name a few, and we have allies in our educational reform initiatives who are motivated by these concerns more than concern for the well-being of the planet. However, geo-literacy is a priority for National Geographic’s education programs because of our particular concern for environmental and cultural conservation.

So as I enter this back-to-school season, I am pleased to have a set of clear, coherent, and focused goals to guide our efforts. On the other hand, I am acutely aware that the components of geo-literacy cross traditional curricular boundaries and call for knowledge and skills that have not been part of any curriculum before. That gives the idea of back-to-school a new meaning. As I enter the school year with more clearly defined and articulated goals, I am also aware that over the next few years, we will have to go back to school in the design of the K-12 curriculum.

Back to School with Geo-Literacy

Daniel C. Edelson, Ph.D.

Executive Director of the Education Foundation and Vice President of Education Programs, National Geographic Society

What is Geo-Literacy?
Read more about what it means to be geo-literate, and follow the geo-literacy movement in social media: Twitter, ArcNews, and Facebook.

geographic reasoning

process of making informed, logical decisions based on an accurate understanding of the human and natural world around you.


study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.


the understanding of human and natural systems, geographic reasoning, and systematic decision-making.

human system

complex, related sets of information and interactions that are created and maintained by people and organizations.

natural system

complex, related sets of information and interactions that occur in nature.


process of comprehending and communicating complex, related sets of information and interactions.


This article first appeared in the "GeoLearning" column in ArcNews, a news magazine published for the Esri user community and for others interested in mapping and geographic information system (GIS) technology.