If you are an elementary school teacher, or perhaps a secondary school humanities teacher, you probably have a map somewhere in your classroom. Whether it is a map of your state on the wall or a globe on top of the bookcase in the corner, maps are ubiquitous decorations in the common classroom, as dependable as the chalkboard or colorful bulletin borders.
However, in most classrooms, maps are just that: decorations. With rising technology in GPS, online mapping tools, and smartphones, map-reading skills are going the way of cursive handwriting. Why integrate maps into our lesson plans or teach students how to read a map when our iPhones will give us turn-by-turn directions from wherever we happen to be? Aside from the slight chance of getting lost in the woods, we may argue that technology has replaced the need for learning about maps at all. True, we want our students to be able to identify their state in the country, and their country in the world, but that is usually where the place of maps in the classroom ends.
The fact is, maps provide students with much more than just an idea of where they are on the globe. At the very basic level, map-reading gives students a sense of perspective. Kindergarten students begin by placing themselves within a map of a classroom, giving them an idea of where they are relative to their friends, the teacher, the bathroom. This kind of perspective provides children with a larger sense of the world around them and what their place in it is, rather than an ego-centric focus. Older students gain a different type of perspective when using maps. Climate and environmental maps teach students what "footprint" they are causing where they live. As Henricus Peters, a teacher and board member of the National Association of Environmental Education in the UK says, "Bring back environmental education, including map skills, I say!" He believes that there is no way to separate one from the other.
Another way maps give students perspective is in grounding their lessons in reality. We as teachers know how difficult it is to teach students skills unless they can see the relation to the real world; maps help us do that in every discipline. Miranda Picaya Whittle uses maps in her middle school math classes to teach skills from geometry to world problems to average speed and distance. Students are much more involved in the lessons when they are given tools they recognize, such as maps of their own towns or neighborhoods. They can also use what they have learned immediately, such as designing the best bus route to the mall or the quickest driving route to the beach.
Maps introduce elementary school students to abstract thinking. All maps include symbols, from street signs and drawings of houses on the simplest of maps to legends indicating water levels, mountain ranges, and soil content on complex environmental maps. Teaching students to interpret these signs is an integral skill that translates to abstract interpretive abilities in all disciplines later on. Instructors may even use street signs for early reading introduction.
At a deeper level, psychological researchers Verdi and Kulhavy (2002) recommend using maps to develop students' understanding of both feature information and structural information. Feature information refers to the symbolic information presented on the map, while structural information refers to how the map is drawn and put together. Feature information allows students to connect with prior knowledge and build analysis skills about the map. Students are asked to interpret information on the map and prioritize its importance. Structural information, on the other hand, develops students' spatial skills and ability to create mnemonic pictures of relation of distance and perspective.
Ironically, Verdi and Kulhavy found that teaching students the map associated with a text (such as a map of India with the novel Nectar in a Sieve) before the text itself is of utmost importance. This is counterintuitive to most teachers-they often teach the text first and then the associating map. By giving the students the map first to study, students create what Verdi and Kulhavy call "economical intact images" in their minds that they then apply to the text, driving deeper analysis and understanding of the text. Thus, not only are the maps supplementary, they are the force of cognitive understanding. So much for classroom "decorations"!
For teachers who want to use a variety of maps in their curriculum, the North Carolina Maps project is a wonderful resource. Teachers can find hundreds of maps of North Carolina, including "nontraditional" colonial, district, and county maps (which Verdi and Kulhavy encourage highly). The site also includes resources for teachers and students to use and lesson plans. Happy mapping!
Moyers, S. (1993). Map skills with meaning. Instructor (10495851), 103(4), 62.
Peters, H. (2007). Bring back map skills. Geographical, 79(5), 107-108.
Swartz, E. (2002). Mapping all the way. Teaching Pre K-8, 33(2), 64.
Verdi, M. P., & Kulhavy, R. W. (2002). Learning with maps and texts: An overview. Educational Psychology Review, 14(1), 27-46.
Whittle, M. P. (2007). Meaningful maths: Teaching map skills. Australian Primary Mathematics Classroom, 12(3), 30-32.