Human Systems

We are back with day four of the Geography Standards which brings us to the humans. Element 4: Human Systems contains 5 standards on its own, which makes sense since the standards are focused on K-12 education, which includes Geography in Social Studies. This generally covers history, political and economic geography, and other humanities content. Here are the 5 standards of Element 4.

9) The Characteristics, Distribution, and Migration of Human Population on Earth’s Surface

10) The Characteristics, Distribution, and Complexity of Earth’s Cultural Mosaics

11) The Patterns and Networks of Economic Interdependence on Earth’s Surface

12) The Processes, Patterns, and Functions of Human Settlement

13) How the Forces of Cooperation and Conflict Among People Influence the Division and Control of Earth’s Surface

Quite a bit to go through in just one column so I am just going to touch on them briefly (and hopefully finish by the time we land in Chicago). Standard 9 is fairly broad and actually encompasses aspects of each of the other 4 standards in this element, especially with its focus on characteristics, distribution and migration of human populations. These processes play crucial roles in determining the cultural, social, economic and political make up of our world, where as Standard 10 begins to narrow it down a bit with a focus on cultures. How cultures are formed, the impact they have on how we live and interact, and the relationships between cultures are often thought of as the focus of Anthropology, but the spatial patterns and impacts of cultures are more important aspects of understanding our human species and are squarely within the realm of Geography.

One of my standard answers for “what is Geography” is to talk about it as a series of connections that go beyond location to show larger relationships that include spatial patterns of human and physical systems. Standard 11 focuses on those relationships as networks of economic interdependence. While this network has always been important, the trend towards globalization has brought it to the fore as we no longer have the weeks or months that it used to take to exchange goods over long distances. Instead we live in a world where information is exchanged in seconds and materials can make it around the world in a day or possibly even less.

Standards 12 and 13 are often interrelated. Standard 12’s focus on human settlement considers how and why people put down roots in places. Standard 13 looks at the interactions between groups that determine how the world is divided, primarily politically, but also culturally and economically. Where people settle often defines the boundaries and interactions between groups. While often these interactions lead to cooperation and positive benefits, in some cases, disputes arise due to conflicts in various beliefs.

This was definitely a dash through these 5 standards, but they truly do lay the basis for a lot of what is taught in middle schools and high schools in Social Studies classes in the US.

Physical Systems

Day three, time to get physical with the next two standards which fall under Element 3, Physical Geography. This element covers quite a bit – everything from climatology to geomorphology is fair game for Physical Geography. While only two US Geography standards are specifically Physical Geography, these are essential parts of Geography and we shouldn’t underestimate Physical Geography’s importance to our understanding of the world.

7 ) The Physical Processes That Shape the Patterns of Earth’s Surface

8 ) The Characteristics and Spatial Distribution of Ecosystems on Earth’s Surface

The Earth is a dynamic environment which is made up of a number of elements. National Geographic’s Xpeditions page lies out four categories:

“those operating in the atmosphere (i.e., climate and meteorology), those operating in the lithosphere (e.g., plate tectonics, erosion, and soil formation), those operating in the hydrosphere (e.g., the circulation of the oceans and the hydrologic cycle), and those operating in the biosphere (e.g., plant and animal communities and ecosystems).”

It is important to understand the interactions between these categories in order to appreciate their impact on the world around us. Examples of the more extreme end of these impacts include earthquakes which originate in the lithosphere, hurricanes and typhoons which are tied to both the atmosphere and the hydrosphere, and wild fires which come out the biosphere. Other examples have a less ominous aspect such as having an idea of what areas are the best for skiers, knowing where not to build a house (stay out of the flood plains), and even knowing what areas are best for growing strawberries. As GI Joe said, “knowing is half the battle” and by knowing about the physical processes that impact the Earth and the people that inhabit its surface, we can better understand the world we live in and even help make it better.

Standard 8 looks at specific types of physical regions on the the Earth’s surface. Ecosystems are diverse assemblages of plants and animals that share an environment. These assemblages evolve from a distinct mixture of climate, terrain, soils, etc… and are relatively stable unless impacted by a significant external force such as drought or fires. Human effects on ecosystems can also be far-reaching and it is important for students to understand the reciprocal nature of the human/environment interaction. While we have often discussed the importance of sustainability in terms of the impact of human actions on resources that we need, but sustainability is just as important to maintaining the balance within existing ecosystems.

While Physical Geography may not often get the attention that Human Geography or GIS do, it is still an essential component in the discipline of Geography as a whole, and it is important that we promote it as well.

Geography charities

Does anyone know of any Geography related charities? The only response I received the first time I asked was GIS:Yes which can’t be the only one out there. Do we have any organizations, charities, or foundations that are our there to help spread the word about Geography and spatial thinking? I will offer up another couple like Service at Sea and the National Geographic Society. Please post comments with any other Geography related charities that you can think of.

Places and Regions

So, today I wanted to talk about the second element in the The US Geography Standards, Places and Regions (If you’d like to take a look at them yourself, The Standards were printed in 1994 under the title Geography for Life by Roger Downs). Place continues to be a central theme in Geography, and regional geography has been a focus of geographic studies since the early part of the twentieth century. Within the theme of Places and Regions, there are three standards:

4) The Physical and Human Characteristics of Places

5) That People Create Regions to Interpret Earth’s Complexity

6) How Culture and Experience Influence People’s Perceptions of Places and Regions

As we have talked about before on the podcast, place can be defined as a location that has some meaning and/or relevance to a person (people), but it is really much more than that. Standard 4 seeks to ensure that students understand the importance of place and how place impacts them through interaction or change. The make up of a place is just as important, with both physical and human elements key in understanding a place. Whether the place of interest is a house, a state, or even a planet, this multiscalar concept is part of our identity and worldview, and helps us make decisions and interpretations about the spaces we live in every day.

While place is often seen in terms of local and individual scales, the concept of region is generally used a identify an area (Standard 5). The definitions of regions are often subjective and may vary based on who is defining it. The area included in a region is usually distinct in some way such as ecological regions (desert, forest, grassland…), but can also be a social creation (MSAs, counties, ethnic regions). Thus, regions can be dynamic and are open for interpretation which sometimes make them challenging as units of study, however the notion of regions provide useful ways to abstract information about the world around to make it more usable and regions offer a structure to do just that. They allow us to compartmentalize spatial information in ways that allow us to analyze and understand more readily than considering an area as its component parts.

Standard 6, is much closer to home for me, as its goal is to show how cultural experiences influence perceptions. As an human geographer (who also has a degree in Anthropology) I seek the cultural impact in everything that I research, but I also try to consider how things might have a completely different meaning from a different cultural perspective. However, while culture has a very broad impact on how we look at the world around us, our personal experience also play a crucial role in how we understand the world. As each person has a different set of experiences, some that may overlap with others but many more that do not, we will often take different meanings and ideas away from an event. These differences in perception, both cultural and experiential, are what creates similarities and differences between people and groups. Understanding these similarities and differences can help us to face many of the challenges that arise in a global culture that may lead to strife and war.

A combination of the spatial concepts of Element 1 and human perception of space as outlined in Element 2 are the base that is built upon by the next four elements of the Geography Standards. Be sure to check back tomorrow for Element 3: Physical Systems.

World in Spatial Terms

While it is important to take a bit of time out each year to focus on Geography Awareness, there are 51 other weeks in the year where teachers must attempt to impart an understanding of Geography. An uphill battle to be sure. In the United States there is a set of Geography Standards which came out of the America 2000 – The National Education Goals. In 1994 the National Geography Standards were published made up of six elements (or themes) and eighteen standards. Over the course of the week we are going to handle one element per day of the standards. Today we are going to kick off with “Element 1: The World in Spatial Terms” which includes three standards:

1) How to Use Maps and Other Geographic Representations, Tools, and Technologies to Acquire, Process, and Report Information From a Spatial Perspective

2) How to Use Mental Maps to Organize Information About People, Places, and Environments in a Spatial Context

3) How to Analyze the Spatial Organization of People, Places, and Environments on Earth’s Surface

These three standards are the broadest and lay the groundwork for the other five elements.
I will begin at the beginning with my interpretation/reduction of Standard One which is to learn how to use spatial tools to share information. This is epitomized by work from Dibiase (1990) and MacEachren and Kraak. Dibiase offered up a 2D chart of spatial information which captures the progression from visual thinking to visual communication. This gradient provides a way to use maps and other spatial visualization methods to explore data and to present information. MacEachren and Kraak added an additional dimension which brings human interaction into the equation. As digital cartography, GIS, virtual globes, and other geovisualization tools become truly ubiquitous we can expect Standard One to be easier to teach in concept and practice through hands on examples.

Next up is Standard Two which, in my mind, is somewhat problematic. The goal here is to use spatial awareness to conceptually link information. However, while you can teach people to read a map to some extent, there will always be those individuals who are simply not spatial thinkers. Creating topological relationships of memories and thoughts is for the most part a subconscious action making it difficult to train those who are not prone to spatial thinking. For those that are, the world is of course a more enjoyable place ;-). Mental maps are the way we navigate, the way we connect to places and people, and allow us to make connections between objects.

To round out the first day is Standard Three, or as I like to call it, the standard of GIS. Spatial organization is the way that we understand the location of objects, even locations on our mental maps, in order to contextualize the world around us. As you might imagine spatial organization is what leads us to capture our data in databases and begin to analyze that data to learn about relationships like distance, linkage, and diffusion. These patterns, whether captured using a GIS or simply recognized by the human eye, allow us to make connections that aid us in day-to-day life and research alike.

There are several resources that I have consulted for this series, but I will just mention the National Geographic Society’s XPeditions which offers more descriptive overviews of the National Geography Standards and the National Council for Geographic Education Tutorial on Geography for Life which provides additional information about the standards.