A recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says that most American eighth graders are “not proficient” in geography.

Specifically, these students had not demonstrated solid competence in the subject, and the proficiency levels of eighth grade students have shown no improvement since 1994 (see figure). Geography is generally taught as part of social studies, but data show that more than half of eighth grade teachers reported spending a small portion (10 percent or less) of their social studies instruction time on geography. Further, according to a study by an academic organization, a majority of states do not require geography courses in middle school or high school.

So, why did the GAO (a well known source of reseach on teaching and learning)1 undertake this study? As you might expect, the student deficiencies in this particular subject are tied to economic issues.

Geography–the study of places and the relationship between people and their environment–is present across many facets of modern life, from tracking lost cell phones to monitoring disease outbreaks like Ebola. The growing use of geographic information and location-based technology across multiple sectors of the American economy has prompted questions about whether K-12 students’ skills and exposure to geography are adequate for current and future workforce needs.

They do make a good point, however, about how the interconnected nature of the world will impact the lives of students, as well as their parents. Unfortunately, even when geographic topics are included in the curriculum, kids rarely learn about tracking lost cell phones or Ebola.

The approach taken is far too often based on memorization. We still ask kids to collect and repeat lists of state capitols, African countries, and bodies of water – in Virginia, elementary students learn about the state by “locating and describing”, the five regions, important river features, and the bordering states – even though those facts can easily be retrieved in seconds on their phones.

That’s true even in Fairfax County Schools’ (aka the overly-large school district, my former employer) where one of the six major goals of the superintendent’s Portrait of a Graduate plan declares that students will become “ethical and global citizens”.

Maybe students are “not proficient” in the geographic understanding they’ll need to meet that standard because they have very little interest in a world consisting of a list of facts. If kids are actually going to understand the larger world they live in, we need to do a better job of helping them connect to the people and issues out there.