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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

What is the Right Question to Further Geography Education?

Sociologist Judith Adler of Memorial University (Newfoundland and Labrador) got famous, or infamous, on January 15. Her discussion of her college students' inability to locate countries on the map in an essay on the CBC.ca website (or perhaps it first appeared in the National Post, I can't tell) prompted the usual response. "We need more geography." "Students need to memorize things."

Then there was a thoughtful essay from Esri's Joseph Kerski arguing that perhaps we are asking the wrong question. His argument, as I understand it, is that we should not be asking students to locate counties as part of teaching and learning geography. Instead, we should be asking them to think about the how and why, and perhaps the "so what" of geography.
The real tragedy is not that students don’t know where the Atlantic Ocean is, but how oceans function, why oceans are important to the health and climate of the planet, how oceans support economies, about coral reefs and other ocean life, about threats to the ocean, and so on. The tragedy is that very little of what I consider to be true geoliteracy is being rigorously taught and engaged with around the world: Core geographic content (such as sustainability, biodiversity, climate, natural hazards, energy, and water), the spatial perspective (such as holistic, critical, and spatial thinking about scale, processes, and relationships) and geographic skills (such as working with imagery, GIS, GPS, databases, and mobile applications). While there are many fine exceptions, we need a much greater global adoption, beginning with valuing geography and geospatial as fundamental to every student’s 21st Century education.
I agree. My editorial in Directions Magazine this week argues that learning "where everything is" should not be the goal of, nor nor  definition of, our discipline.

What should that goal and definition be? I'm still working on that, but I'm sure it revolves around "doing geography" and using its principles to understand the world around us. Let me give you an example from my own life and my own geography.

Over the weekend a friend asked: "Why is the Walgreens going in right across the street from the CVS in Porter Square [Cambridge, MA]? They sell the same things!" I noted that just one "square" away, in Davis Square, Somerville, the CVS went in across the street from the Rite Aid, yet another pharmacy.

I'd noticed the groundbreaking for the new store and pondered the same question. I'm not a business geographer, so I did some research and found two very different explanations.

One, via Lakeview News, is from an article about a Michigan version of the same exact question, just with CVS following Walgreens. It suggests the paired locations are not really about the local geography, but perhaps some distant market area.
“Walgreens has a reputation for spotting the best locations while CVS/pharmacy always follows and copies them,” said Ahmed Maamoun, an assistant professor of Marketing in the Labovitz School of Business & Economics at the University of Minnesota Duluth. 
Maamoun said that the strategy of similar businesses clustering together is a common phenomenon.“The strategy aims at making it more difficult for the competitor to gain market share, revenues, or profits that could be used to undermine the other rival in other markets,” Maamoun said.
It is found not only among drug store chains but also other retail formats such as Wal-Mart and Target, Sam’s Club and Costco, Home Depot and Lowe’s, Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts.
The other argument, and this is the one I remember from geography class, was about a rising tide raising all boats. If someone is looking for a car, they'll travel farther and be more likely to look at/buy a car at the dealer next door, than to travel miles to that other dealer. Hence many cities have a version of the "auto-mile" and the strip of fast food joints. Here's one of the papers that does the math to support that argument.

I think my friend's question is a better one to ask (and explore) to expand geographic thinking than "Where is the Atlantic Ocean?"