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Beyond the Geography Bee

Monday, January 28th 2013
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Summary:

When was the last time you read about geography in the traditional media? Executive Editor Adena Schutzberg reads about it quite a bit, especially stories about local Geography Bees. The events and their coverage reinforce old ideas about the discipline, rather than showcasing its valuable use in today’s world.

I’m a serial news searcher. It’s my job to keep up with the news about GIS, geospatial technology, GPS, remote sensing, location-based services and related topics. But every now and then I break down and search the news for articles about geography, the discipline in which I hold two degrees.

When reading about geospatial technology news I get excited, jazzed and thoughtful. When I read about geography news I get depressed. Outside of a handful of analytical articles from the Atlantic Cities blog or efforts in local reporting like New Jersey Spotlight or the odd book review or interview with Jared Diamond or Simon Garfield, it’s all about Geography Bees.
 
It’s mid-January as I write this essay. Google News reports it found 523 articles, in the last week, about the announcement of, or the winner of, this or that Bee. This week marks the end of the qualifying period for school Bee events. The news stories, mostly from local papers, profile the event (how many students, in which grades, how they studied, what questions were hard), introduce the winner, and detail the next step in the competition. Martians reading our local papers would assume that geography is a game schoolchildren play, with the highest achievement being attendance at the National Geography Bee. They’d see geography as akin to the U.S. Super Bowl, only with far fewer sponsors and no pay at all for the middle school-sized players.
 
I understand why the local paper and local schools want to highlight their events. I applaud the paper for wanting to promote student achievements other than those found on the football or soccer field. I appreciate that the school cares enough about geography to participate in the event (and has the $100 registration fee to do so). Of course, pictures of smiling children with maps and medals make for eye-catching online or print features. Finally, we adults are always impressed to learn of children who know more than we do about geography. 
 
Sadly, though, these articles about the Geography Bees and the children’s encyclopedic knowledge do not help highlight the important role geography and related technical and spatial skills play in the students’ and parents’ everyday lives. Nor does the coverage explore the way the participants’ cities, states or territories, and country are organized (or not) or how they work together with other cities/states/countries (or not). Instead, the Bee reinforces geography as mostly memorization. I know the questions are getting better, with more of them based on map interpretation, physical geography and the like, but too few address the role of geography in today’s world. Those that do rarely make it into the paper.
 
The Geography Bee homepage includes these two resources for those planning to study for the Bee:
  1. “...The National Geographic Bee Ultimate Fact Book: Countries A-Z, chock-full of all the facts kids need to know to become a geography expert.”
  2. “Simply memorizing terms and place locations can be tedious and even boring. One solution is to make the task fun with an atlas-based scavenger game.”
Sigh.
 
How might the National Geographic Society get at the compelling applications of geography? I suggest a National Geography Fair, akin to a National Science Fair. The students could pick a current geographic problem (local or regional, alone or in groups) explore it, offer analysis and even suggest one or more ways to address it. I’d be happy to be a judge and I’d be far more likely to tune in to the finals on TV where some hip geography teacher interviewed each of the presenters. 
 
I know this sort of teaching and learning is more complex than memorization and that grading the projects and selecting winners would be harder than the current tests used in the Bee. Still, project-based learning is the “in thing”; perhaps project-based competition will be, too? And, in the real world we do projects, not tests!
 
It’s not lost on me that quiz-show host Alex Trebek hosts the National Geography Bee finals on TV. We need to rebrand geography from a category in a quiz show to an activity that people do.

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