Should We Still Be Teaching Cartography to our Students?

Many years ago, in schools around the world, students learned about how maps are made, various map parts, how to read a map, and how to draw maps.  Teachers spent weeks teaching their students all about cartography as they would need to one day learn how to navigate around the world using maps and atlases.  It was a vital skill once upon a time.  Then technology revolutionized maps and cartography and rendered paper maps and atlases almost absolute.  People use their phones and GPS units to navigate the world.  If someone wants to find out how to travel from here to Boston, MA, they whip out their phone and an app tells them exactly what to do.  People rarely use paper maps anymore because of these technological changes.  So, I’m forced to wonder if teaching students about maps and mapping is necessary.  Should we spend time teaching students all about cartography or skip it?  Is cartography still an important life skill?

In the sixth grade Humanities class, we teach a short unit on mapping and cartography under the guise of teaching students about the idea of perspective.  While we focus on how inaccurate flat maps are, we do cover map parts and atlas use.  We want the students to understand how GPS systems work and how they locate specific places on Earth.  To do this, we teach the students about lines of latitude and longitude and map projections.  However, our main focus is on helping students learn to interpret the world around them.  We want the students to understand the idea of perspective, how their perspective is greatly influenced by their prior knowledge, and how sometimes, what they learned about a topic may be inaccurate.  We want to help our students broaden their perspective about the world around them.  We want to squash stereotypical views our students have about various topics or parts of the world.  We want to challenge our students to utilize a growth mindset when learning new material or a different way of looking at something they already know.  Teaching students how inaccurate flat maps are, is one easy way to introduce the concept of perspective before we dig into our first culture and region study.  Although we know that students will most likely never use maps or atlases again in their lives, they will need to be aware of their perspective and how it can skew how they learn new material or view the world.  Mapping and cartography is the vehicle we use to teach our students about perspective.  So, while many students no longer learn about maps and cartography in school anymore, our sixth grade students learn all about maps as they pertain to perspective.  It puts the idea of how they view the world on a level they can understand, using maps as a tangible symbol.

Is there another way we could teach our students about the idea of perspective and how important it is to be aware of how their perspective forms and changes?  Do we still need to teach students about atlases and map parts or should we stick to just teaching students about how inaccurate flat maps are?  What really matters to our students?  What will help them live meaningful lives in a global society?  Mapping, being able to read a map, and understanding cartography will probably not help our students live more effective lives after school.  So, do we drop the mapping portion of our perspective unit or keep it for next year?  What makes the most sense?

David Walbert, author of many articles on helping teachers learn how to teach various historical concepts, tells us that being able to effectively read maps is a crucial step in helping students develop their visual literacy skills.  Students need to learn how to “read” and interpret pictures, diagrams, and images they are constantly bombarded with.  Much learning comes from pictures, and so, if students don’t know how to properly intake information visually, they will miss a lot of learning opportunities facing them daily.  Teaching students how to interpret, read, and analyze maps is the first step in helping students develop their visual literacy skills.  So, while it may no longer be necessary to teach a full, lengthy unit on mapping and cartography, teaching the basics of map reading is still needed to help our students learn and grow.


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