Many teachers of pupils in grades K-12 have had little or no formal geography training. More importantly, they are even more unlikely to be aware of the methodology of geography, which, in fact, is the essence of the subject. This understanding of the approach of geography is critical to knowing how to set objectives, in choosing content, and in deciding what teaching strategies to use.

It is reasonable to assume that anyone who is a geographer, or who teaches the subject, should be able to give a definition, or description, of geography and state how it influences the way he/she teaches and conducts research. The rejection of this position is the basic reason we geographers moan about how misunderstood our discipline and we are. It is the reason administrators in both the pre college and university institutions fail to support a subject that is one of the most critical to a good general education. We fail to let them know what geography is and how it is a unique subject that allows a student to be educated in a way no other discipline does.

The first objective in this article is to help classroom teachers who have been assigned, voluntarily or not, to teach a geography course, or those who feel they should infuse some geography in the courses they are already teaching. I will explain the position and give concrete examples of what is being professed. These examples will be activities and content that may be used in the classroom next week. The Geography for Life report is noted and it is shown how it may be utilized as a teacher aid and guide. Finally, this article is written as a point of discussion for academic colleagues who would wish to show how a different or modified approach would be more correct, or clear, to help teachers in their task of teaching geography.
When teaching geography, each objective chosen, all content and the selected teaching strategies are best understood and best utilized within the context of having a clear understanding of what geography is as a discipline. Too many people, even some teachers of geography, feel the discipline can be defined by its content. They describe, or define, geography as "the study of man and his environment", or as "the study of the world's regions ". While geography does study these topics, it is not what is studied, but how the data are studied that defines the discipline. This is a very important distinction. I repeat, this is a very important distinction. If we accept, by error, that the discipline can be defined by what is studied, it becomes an "all things to all people" exercise. It professes to examine subject matter that is already covered by other disciplines. More important to the teaching of geography, it does not identify a unique approach to thinking about, or learning about, the world.

In light of the above I maintain that geographers must accept, and teach, the understanding that geography is the unique discipline that examines the earth from the spatial point of view. After all, geo-graphy as it comes from the Greek, means "earth writing". The broader ideas of " writing about the earth", "earth study or description" and other variations can be accepted but each one must include the idea of the "spatial" approach as geography's exclusive domain. In itself, even that definition doesn't meet the need for a clear, usable explanation of what geography is because the term spatial is not understood by most people. Of more importance to the teacher is the fact that such a definition does not help geography teachers understand how to develop lesson plans to help students "think geographically".

Logically, it takes several explanatory steps to adequately get a handle on a useable definition of geography. First, we must explain what the "spatial approach" is. It is the study of phenomena by looking at their areal distribution and interaction. The next reasonable question could be, "What does that mean?"

An analysis of the areal distribution of a phenomena means that geographers examine the location and distribution of phenomena in space, or place, by means of identifying their density, pattern, diffusion and dispersion (Figure 1). Density is the number of phenomena in a unit of area. Pattern is the discernable locational arrangement of the thing being studied and diffusion is the movement of phenomena through space over time. Finally, dispersion is the measurable distance one, or more, phenomena is from one or more reference points, or the extent of the spread of a feature within an area. To study the spatial interaction of data, the second aspect of spatial analysis, requires us to analyze the relationships of phenomena within a single place and to gain an understanding of the more general relationships of places themselves.

It is learning how to think in terms of areal distribution (density, pattern, diffusion and dispersion) and the relationship of phenomena in place and the interaction of places that is geography. Interesting to me is the fact that few geographers would disagree with this idea. Certainly, none of the ideas are new, or unique to my way of thinking. Historians and philosophers of geography have long discussed, and agreed upon these ideas. The National Academy of Sciences publication, The Science of Geography gives geography's organizing concept as "spatial distributions and space relations". Geographers, at their peril, do not communicate this theoretical framework to other educators either at the K-12 or university levels.

Good geography teaching involves having the students "think geographically" and become active in the learning process. Of course these ideas are very, very old but are often referred to as the "new" geography. When teachers understand the theoretical framework of geography it aids them in achieving the goal of student involvement. What follows are brief examples of using the "geographic approach" to study data.

A reasonable geographic study for our purpose could be an analysis of selected aspects of the population of Florida. First, the geographer would map her/his data. Then, she/he would look at the density of population at different scales in order to find important information about state, county or regional characteristics. Exact densities can be determined for individual counties and for the state from population census materials and from tables that give the area of each county. Estimates of density must be made for areas within a county. This exercise can use a dot map (see Figure 2) or other information gained from the local planning office, the Atlas of Florida, or information from a source such as the Florida Department of Community Affairs. Such a map would suggest a discussion of the importance of the uneven spatial distribution of population, or other phenomena. This type of question is a primary task of the geographer. An understanding of the density of an area suggests to the teacher questions of infrastructure, support systems and the impact of population pressure on the physical and cultural environment.

A second activity might involve the application of the pattern test. Once data is mapped, it is usually enlightening to identify patterns of spatial arrangement. The organization of phenomena may be linear, circular, rectangular, or in a star pattern. Other patterns are possible and if there is no discernable organization, the math term random is applied. This exercise, applied to Florida's population , would show that four linear bars, or bands of population exist. One band extends from Jacksonville south to the Keys, another from western Pasco County south to Naples, another from Pensacola east to Port Saint Joe and a final band from St. Petersburg northeast to Volusia County (see Figure 3). An analysis of these patterns shows, among other things that people are dispersed unevenly statewide, and they congregate close to the high energy coasts and to Interstate Four. This information invites a number of teaching activities such as asking, and answering, the questions about the significance of the patterns observed, why people live where they do and why there are so many relatively unoccupied areas of the state. Relationships of roads, natural environments, cultural amenities, etc. could be examined. Students could be encouraged to rearrange the population on a blank map of Florida and defend the population supporting potential of the newly occupied areas.

Maintaining the population of Florida as our topic, maps, research projects and other activities could measure the movement over time (diffusion) of people throughout the state from the 1500's. Students would find the early nodes of population at St. Augustine, Pensacola and Key West. Then, as military forts were built, followed by the building of roads, ports on rivers and railroads the population moved south generally along the coastlines. Maps (see figures 4&5 as examples) of the spread of roads, railroads, canals and other phenomena could be studied to answer questions such as, "Did the building of these structures follow the diffusion of population or precede, and therefore, cause it?" Figure 4 shows the early spread, or diffusion of railroads through out the state by time period. Classroom activities could be based on student research identifying the reasons why the railroads were built and how they were used. Students could role play a group of regional planners during the period of the rail expansion to speculate on the impact of the change in transportation opportunities.

The overseas railroad story is a good geographic study of human's efforts to use technology to modify the natural environment and to shorten the time-distance ratio between Miami, Key West and, finally Havana, Cuba. Every Florida school library would have several references on this subject. Figure 5 indicates human effort to modify the natural environment. From materials available from the South Florida Water Management District education office, reports can be made on the impacts of the canals on many subjects, such as: impact on Florida's economy; on the agricultural interests; on the Everglades; and, on the south Florida water supply. Each of the methodological aspects of geography would be applied in the spatial analysis of a topic such as this.

Dispersion is a final concept of areal distribution that a teacher could use to involve his/her students in geographic thinking. Again, using the dot map analyzing the dispersion of people from certain points such as a port, or from highways and roads, or from the coastline, encourages spatial thinking, teaching and learning.
Figure 6 shows the location of water wells (pumps) in the Soho district of London (1854). This diffusion map was drawn by Dr. John Snow. The dots represent a cholera death. The pump at Lexinton and Broad Streets was identified as the well that was the source of the disease, as stated in the de Blij-Murphy text. At Dr. Snow's request, the handle was taken off that pump and the number of new cases fell to almost zero.
Activities are suggested by examining the dispersion of phenomena such as using local data to see what the building of a new school has on the community. Many articles have been written about the effect Disney World, Universal Studios and the other entertainment enterprises have had on the diffusion of population and economic activity in central Florida. Planners from city and county governments, as well as from regional planning councils and water management districts will be happy to work with teachers through their education offices.

Spatial interaction as a methodological concept also suggests teaching activities. Spatial relationships have already been referred to as activities have been developed to understand areal distribution. As noted in the definition of geography, the first activities could have the students research and discuss the relationship between and among phenomena in place. For example, the location of a major shopping center is related to factors such as relatively level land that is not subject to flooding, a site that is not too expensive, good access roads and reasonably near to a large population with a certain level of disposable, or discretionary income.

For more advanced classes, the understanding of the importance of advanced legal, banking and communications infrastructure to a mature economic system is necessary to a discussion of developing nations. Relationships and interaction of phenomena are a part of virtually every exercise of analysis. In teaching geography, we want to focus on the spatial aspect of this common exercise.

In physical geography, the relationships and interaction of base rock, vegetation, climate and animal activity provides an understanding of soil development. When any of the components of soil development is changed, for example more or less rainfall, the soil type changes. In each of these examples we see the relationships of factors which are different from place to place. However, students should seek to identify interactions which would let us note similarities from which generalizations and principles can be developed.

The other aspect of spatial interaction shows us that there are very important relationships between and among places. These can be seen in the interaction of cities and the towns or suburbs were workers live, work, shop and worship. It includes the many functions, sometimes referred to as the cultural infrastructure, like banking, newspapers, telephone, hospital etc. services the larger place provides for the smaller. The teacher can have maps, diagrams, and aerial photography exercises, as well as role playing activities in the classroom to study spatial interaction content.

Spatial interaction also covers the smaller scale relationships seen in intercourse among nations, or the effects of the Pacific el Nino and hurricanes along the Atlantic seaboard. Everywhere there are spatial relationships to be analyzed and understood. This is a important aspect of spatial planning at scales from the large, therefore local, to the small, or international scale.
The importance to the teacher of knowing what geography is, is that the definition itself provides the teacher with teaching/learning activities to utilize. Whenever a teacher makes up a lesson plan, she/he should seek to involve the students in thinking or taking an active part in the geographic activities (geography methods of analysis) noted above. Certainly, every lesson will not involve all or even most of these methodologies. Most lessons may focus on just one. But over a period of time a teacher should try to use each method of geographic analysis.

Now, since it has not been mentioned to this point, it is important to recognize that much of the school geography teacher's lesson will be descriptive. It will describe facts and figures about places. This is acceptable to a degree. Good place description is a desirable geography skill. Students should be given a model, or frame of reference for studying a place. Properly described, of course, the writer will not just list facts about a place. A model for studying a place can be obtained from the Florida Geographic Alliance office.(address below)

Students should be able to decide what cultural and physical factors are important and give a place its unique personality rather than trying to describe whatever comes to mind. If they can do this it will show that they can use the various analytical aspects of geography and their place description, or problem analysis, will exhibit the fact that they can "think geographically".

Briefly, I would now like to mention the national standards report on geography, GEOGRAPHY FOR LIFE, and make a few comments about how that report and this article relate. First, I want to go on record as a supporter of the report. However, I feel it is necessary to point out a couple of characteristics of the report that I feel will make it more useful to the classroom teacher. First, the eighteen topics, called standards, are not really eighteen standards. They are a list of topics which the development committee felt covers the entire range of content of the discipline of geography. I feel they did a good job. The list can be used as a standard, or measure, to evaluate a school curriculum to see if an adequate coverage of content under each topic has been achieved. Individual teachers should use the report to see if their class topics adequately cover the part of geography content for which they are responsible.

Several of the other strengths of the report are: the discussion of each of the eighteen topics as subject matter in Chapter 4; the discussion of each of the eighteen "standards" by grade level groupings,K-4,5-8,9-12 in chapters 5-7; and, specific evaluative standards are given in the Conclusions against which parents can measure their children's achievement. Basically, I think the report and this article are in agreement regarding what the content of geography is and how it should be taught. My feeling is that a stronger statement should have been made that geography is a methodologically defined subject. The spatial methodologies are described throughout the report and the suggested teaching strategies do encourage students to "think geographically". A list of these teaching methods can be seen in the accompanying Table One. This is a good list of activities for getting students involved in geography learning.


Trace the spread
List or compile
Develop and test
Read and summarize
Compare hypotheses
Construct diagrams and tables
Make relationships
Identify, locate
Give examples
Use tables
Predict, infer, speculate
Write a story, play or diary
Create maps, collage
Make a model, poster, etc.
Rank, categorize
Conduct interviews
Collect samples or data
Draw conclusions
Analysis of similarities
Role play
Analysis of differences
Develop maps, ideas, criteria, etc.
Interpret maps and airphotos
Table 1. Selected Teaching Strategies Taken From Geography for Life.

I hope that teachers from K through graduate school will think more about the definition of geography. I hope they will let their students experience that definition through their classroom activity and move on out into society with the ability to practice applied, If not professional, geography in their daily living. Finally, I hope geographers and geography teachers will not let this discussion die. I would like to see many geography lessons developed and placed in Geographic Alliance web sites in order to help make the teacher's job a bit easier.


1. THE SCIENCE OF GEOGRAPHY. National Academy of Sciences. Publication 1277. 1965. P.1.

2. Geography Education Standards Project. GEOGRAPHY FOR LIFE. 1994. National Geographic Research and Exploration. (pub.)

3. Florida Geographic Alliance. Room 2200, University Center, Florida State University. Tallahassee, Florida 32306-2641. Phone: 850-644-6564. Fax-850-644-7360. E-mail-