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Geo-Education: Essential Preparation for an Interconnected World

hotographs by Jodi Cobb, National Geographic; Emory Kristof, National Geographic; Mark Thiessen, National Geographic

National Geographic has adopted the term geo-education to describe education about our world. A well-rounded geo-education provides young people with a fundamental understanding of how the human and natural worlds work at local, regional, and global scales.

We view a well-rounded geo-education as essential preparation for life in the modern world because it provides young people with the knowledge and skills they need to make important decisions in their personal, professional, and civic lives.

Essential preparation for the modern world
Geo-education prepares people to make choices in their personal lives about how to live and interact with others in our complex, modern world.

It prepares people to make important decisions in their professional lives about resources and systems, and it prepares them to work effectively across cultural and geographic boundaries.

Geo-education also prepares young people to deal with the challenges that they will face in their civic lives, as our society wrestles with globalization, military conflicts, community development, environmental threats, depletion of natural resources, and other issues.

The components of a geo-education
A complete geo-education involves both in-school and out-of-school learning. In school, geo-education takes place across many subjects in the traditional curriculum. Outside of school, geo-education takes place through guided experience in both the human and natural worlds.

The outcomes of a geo-education
A successful geo-education provides learners with a combination of understanding, attitudes, and abilities that they will need throughout their lives. At National Geographic we use the term geo-literacy to describe the goals of a well-rounded geo-education. A geo-literate person possesses:

1. Understanding of how our world’s social, physical, and living systems function and interact
2. Knowledge of our world’s diverse cultures, economic, technological, and political systems, ecosystems, and physical systems;
3. Appreciation for other perspectives and for our world’s cultural and natural resources;
4. The ability to communicate and collaborate effectively across cultural and geographic boundaries;
5. The ability to analyze situations using the tools and perspectives of different disciplines;
6. The ability to reason about the consequences of actions in our interconnected world.

The importance of geo-education
Geo-education is critically important for learners and for society.

From the perspective of the individual learner, a geo-education is critical preparation for careers in modern workplaces, which are increasingly multilingual and multinational, where supply chains, production facilities, and marketplaces are global, and where sustainable business practices are key to cost containment.

From the perspective of our society, providing a geo-education to our young people is essential to maintaining our economic competitiveness, protecting our national security, sustaining our natural resources, and preserving the quality of life in our local communities.

Reasons for concern about geo-education in the U.S. 
The National Geographic Society is concerned about geo-education in the U.S. because the school subjects and out-of-school learning experiences that make up a well-rounded geo-education are not receiving the attention that they deserve. 

In schools, the subjects that are critical to geo-education have been neglected in the educational reform efforts of recent decades. This is true across the curriculum. In the social studies, instructional time for all subjects has declined over the last decade, but the subjects that focus on international and cross-cultural issues, including geography, global studies, and world history, have fared particularly poorly. Even in science, which has been a focus of educational reform in recent years, earth science, environmental science, and ecology have received substantially less attention than other sciences. They are much less widely taught than traditional biology, chemistry and physics, and when they are taught, they are more likely to be taught by teachers without content background. 

Out of school, the experiences that are essential to a well-rounded geo-education are undervalued in today’s culture with its focus on academic achievement. Cultural exchange, time in nature, travel, and scientific fieldwork all continue to be regarded as enrichment for the few, rather than necessities for all. 

Our neglect of geo-education is having a measurable effect. Numerous surveys and assessments show that the performance of American students lags behind the rest of the world in the subjects that contribute to a geo-education. They show that we are not adequately preparing our young people for the global, social, and environmental challenges of the modern world. 

The components of a geo-education have not been the victim of any deliberate attempt to weaken them. Rather, priorities have simply been placed elsewhere, e.g., English language arts and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). However, the narrow focus on these other subjects has a real cost. By focusing exclusively on the preparation of technical workers, we are ignoring the unmet need for workers who are prepared for careers in global commerce, sustainability, national security, and planning. By focusing exclusively on workforce preparation, we are ignoring the need for citizens in a democratic society who understand the issues of the day. 

What can we do? 
National Geographic believes that it is time to make geo-education a national priority. We believe we need to make two key changes in the way we educate young people about their world. 

First, we need to begin paying more attention and allocating more resources to the components of geo-education. The quality of instructional materials and the availability of professional development opportunities for teachers in the geo-education subjects lag far behind those of other school subjects. Across the country, instructional time for the subjects that make up a geo-education has been cut to inadequate levels, and out of school geo-education programs are struggling to reach the students who need them most. So, we need to begin investing in these areas at a level that reflects their importance to our young peoples’ and our society’s future. 

Second, we need to re-design the geo-education curriculum, so that it is coordinated and coherent. Our system currently treats the subjects that contribute to geo-education as if they are unrelated. The curricula for these subjects are all designed, planned, and taught with little or no coordination across subjects. Just as STEM educators are re-designing science, technology, engineering, and math curricula to make connections across subjects, we should be planning and implementing a coordinated geo-education curriculum. In this coordinated curriculum, content will be sequenced and taught in a way that enables lessons from different subjects to build on each other. As a result, students will be able to make connections across subjects and settings and understand each individual subject better. They will also be able to combine the skills and understanding from those subjects into a coherent, well-rounded geo-education that is greater than the sum of its parts. 

Building a community of geo-educators 
As a first step toward improving geo-education in the U.S., National Geographic is establishing a community of geo-educators. We recognize that, while they have not yet heard the term geo-education, hundreds of thousands of educators are working every day to provide their students with the building blocks of a geo-education. These educators are making a critical contribution to our society, but all too often they are working on their own in a system that has placed its priorities elsewhere. To support these educators, we are launching a community that will bring them together to support and learn from each other. 

The Geo-Educator Community will bring educators together online and in person. It will provide a place for educators from diverse subjects, settings, and educational levels to come together over the challenges they face as geo-educators and the opportunities they see to improve geo-education. 

The need for a movement 
Providing a community for geo-educators will make a difference, but it is only a first step toward our goal of providing all young people with a well-rounded geo-education. Achieving that goal will require a broad-based social movement. 

At National Geographic, we believe the foundation for a geo-education movement already exists. All of the subjects and out-of-school learning experiences that are part of a well-rounded geo-education already have their own advocacy efforts, each making its case for resources in the face of a cacophony of educational reform debates. However, they all face the challenge that, in the competition with each other and with other educational causes, it is not possible to make an argument that is compelling enough to garner the resources that they require. 

We believe that by joining forces around common goals, these interests can create a strong enough argument and build a large enough constituency to get sufficient resources for them all. So, as National Geographic moves forward with our efforts to advance geo-education, we will be looking for others to join us in a movement to put the components of a geo-education in a place in the American educational system that reflects their true value to our young people and our society.

Learn More

View the Slideshow

National Geographic has adopted the term geo-education to describe experiences that help young people to understand their world. This slideshow describes the domain and scope of a well-rounded geo-education.

Watch the Video

Learn why a geo-education is critical preparation for the 21st century global interconnected economy.