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Geographic Skills and Perspectives 414
Geographic Skills and Perspectives


Geographic skills provide the necessary tools and techniques for us to think geographically.  They are central to geography’s distinctive approach to understanding physical and human patterns and processes on Earth.  We use geographic skills when we make decisions important to our well-being—where to buy or rent a home; where to get a job; how to get to work or to a friend’s house; where to shop, vacation, or go to school.  All of these decisions involve the ability to acquire, arrange, and use geographic information.  Daily decisions and community activities are linked to thinking systematically about environmental and societal issues.  Community decisions relating to problems of air, water, and land pollution or locational issues, such as where to place industries, schools, and residential areas, also require the skillful use of geographic information.  Business and government decisions, from the best site for a supermarket or a regional airport to issues of resource use, or international trade, involve the analysis of geographic data.

Geographic skills help us to make reasoned political decisions.  Whether the issues involve the evaluation of foreign affairs and international economic policy or local zoning and land use, the skills enable us to collect and analyze information, come to an informed conclusion, and make reasoned decisions on a course of action.  Geographic skills also aid in the development and presentation of effective, persuasive arguments for and against matters of public policy.


The geographic skills that a geographically informed person should have consist of five sets adapted from the Guidelines for Geographic Education: Elementary and Secondary Schools, prepared by the Joint Committee on Geographic Education and published in 1984 by the Association of American Geographers and the National Council for Geographic Education:


Following is a brief explanation of the principles underlying the five skill sets:


Successful geographic inquiry involves the ability and willingness to ask, speculate on, and answer questions about why things are where they are and how they got there.  Students need to be able to pose questions about their surrounding: Where is something located? Why is it there? With what is it associated? What are the consequences of its location and associations? What is this place like?

Students should be asked to speculate about possible answers to questions because speculation leads to the development of hypotheses that link the asking and answering stages of the process.  Hypotheses guide the search for information.

Geography is distinguished by the kinds of questions it asks—the “where” and “why there” of a problem.  It is important that students develop and practice the skills of asking such questions for themselves.  The task can be approached by giving students practice in distinguishing geographic from nongeographic  questions and by presenting students with issues and asking them to develop geographic questions.  At higher grade levels students can identify geographic problems and ways in which an application of geography can help solve problems or resolve issues.


 Geographic information is information about locations, the physical and human characteristics of those locations, and the geographic activities and conditions of the people who live in those places.  To answer geographic questions, students should start by gathering information from a variety of sources in a variety of ways.  They should read and interpret all kinds of maps.  They should compile and use primary and secondary information to prepare quantitative and qualitative descriptions.  They should collect data from interviews, fieldwork, reference material, and library research.

The skills involved in acquiring geographic information include locating and collecting data, observing and systematically recording information, reading and interpreting maps and other graphic representations of spaces and places, interviewing, and using statistical methods. 

Primary sources of information, especially the result of fieldwork performed by the students, are important in geographic inquiry.  Fieldwork involves students conducting research in the community by distributing questionnaires, taking photographs, recording observations, interviewing citizens, and collecting samples.  Fieldwork helps arouse the students’ curiosity and makes the study of geography more enjoyable and relevant.  It fosters active learning by enabling students to observe, ask questions, identify problems, and hone their perceptions of physical features and human activities with the world in which they live.

Secondary sources of information include texts, maps, statistics, photographs, multimedia, computer databases, newspapers, telephone directories, and government publications.

Tertiary sources such as encyclopedias report information compiled from secondary sources and are important in some research situations.


Once collected, the geographic information should be organized and displayed in ways that help analysis and interpretation.  Data should be arranged systematically.  Different types of data should be separated and classified in visual, graphic forms: photographs, aerial photos, graphs, cross sections, climagraphs, diagrams, tables, cartograms, and maps.  Written information from documents or interviews should be organized into pertinent quotes or tabular form.

There are many ways to organize geographic information.  Maps play a central role in geographic inquiry, but there are other ways to translate data into visual form, such as by using graphs of all kinds, tables, spreadsheets, and time lines.  Such visuals are especially useful when accompanied by clear oral or written summaries.  Creativity and skill are needed to arrange geographic information effectively.  Decisions about design, color, graphics, scale, and clarity are important in developing the kinds of maps, graphs, and charts that best reflect the data.

Geography has been called “the art of the mappable”.  Making maps should be a common activity for all students; they should read (decode) maps to collect information and analyze geographic patterns and make (encode) maps to organize information.  Making maps can mean using sketch maps to make a point in an essay or record field observations.  It can mean using symbols to map data on the location of world resources or producing a county-level map of income in a state.  It can even mean mapping the distribution of fire-ant mounds in a field or trash on a school playground.  For students, making maps should become as common, natural, and easy as writing a paragraph.  They should be skilled in interpreting and creating map symbols, finding locations on maps using a variety of reference systems, orienting maps and finding directions, using scales to determine distance, and thinking critically about information on maps.



Analyzing geographic information involves seeking patterns, relationships, and connections.  As students analyze and interpret information, meaningful patterns or processes emerge.  Students can then synthesize their observations into a coherent explanation.  Students should note associations and similarities between areas, recognize patterns, and draw inferences from maps, graphs, diagrams, tables, and other sources.  Using simple statistics students can identify trends, relationships, and sequences.

Geographic analysis involves a variety of activities.  It is sometimes difficult to separate the processes involved in organizing geographic information from the procedures used in analyzing it.  The two processes go on simultaneously in many cases.  But in other instances, analysis follows the manipulation of raw data into an easily understood and usable form.  Students should scrutinize maps to discover and compare spatial patterns and relationships; study tables and graphs to determine trends and relationships between and among items; probe data through statistical methods to identify trends, sequences, correlations, and relationships; examine texts and documents to interpret, explain, and synthesize characteristics.  Together these analytical processes lead to answers to the questions that first prompted an inquiry and to development of geographic models and generalizations.  There are the analytical skills that all students need to develop.


Successful geographic inquiry culminates in the development of generalizations and conclusions based on the data collected, organized, and analyzed.  Skills associated  with answering geographic questions include the ability to make inferences based on information organized in graphic form (maps, tables, graphs) and in oral and written narratives.  These skills involve the ability to distinguish generalizations that apply at the global level (issues of scale are important in developing answers to geographic questions).

Generalizations are the culmination of the process of inquiry, and they help to codify understanding.  Developing generalizations requires that students use the information they have collected, processed, and analyzed to make general statements about geography.  At other times, however, students use the evidence they have acquired to make decisions, solve problems, or form judgements about a question, issue, or problem.

Geographic generalizations can be made using inductive reasoning or deductive reasoning.  Inductive reasoning requires students to synthesize geographic information to answer questions and reach conclusions.  Deductive reasoning requires students to identify relevant questions, collect and assess evidence, and decide whether the generalizations are appropriate by testing them against the real world.  Students should have experience in both approaches to learning.

Students should also be able to communicate clearly and effectively, especially as they learn to answer geographic questions.  It is a skill linked closely to good citizenship.  Students can develop a sense of civic responsibility  by disseminating the answers they have discovered in geographic inquiry.  They can display geographic information in many engaging and effective ways—for example, by using multimedia, such as combinations of pictures,  maps, graphs, and narratives, to present a story or illuminate a generalization.  Geographic information can also be presented through the use of poems, collages, plays, journals, and essays.  Every medium chosen to present geographic information to answer a question or address an issue or problem should stimulate inquiry and communicate clearly.  Choosing the best means of presenting answers to geographic questions is an important skill.

Students should also understand that there are alternative ways to reach generalizations and conclusions.  There are many types of knowledge, and many levels of reality and meaning.  Teachers should encourage students to develop multiple points of view and to seek multiple outcomes to problems.  This process should include collecting many kinds of data, including personal, subjective information, from a variety of sources.

The fifth skill set represents the last step in the process of geographic inquiry.  But it is not really the end, because the process usually begins again with new questions suggested by the conclusions and generalizations that have been developed.  These questions, often posed as hypotheses to be tested, provide a way to review generalizations.  Each question answered, decision reached, or problem solved leads to new issues and new problems.  Geographic learning is a continuous process that is both empowering and fascinating.


It is essential that students develop the skills that will enable them to observe patterns, associations, and spatial order.  Many of the skills that students are expected to learn involve the use of tools and technologies that are part of the process of geographic inquiry.  Maps are essential tools of geography because they assist in the visualization of space.

Other tools and technologies, such as satellite-produced images, graphs, sketches, diagrams, and photographs are also integral parts of geographic analysis.  The rate of growth of an urban area, for example, can be observed by comparing old and new photographs.  Large-scale land-use changes can be made clear by comparing images taken over a period of years.

A new and important tool in geographic analysis is the spatial database, or geographic information system (GIS).  Geographic information systems make the process of presenting and analyzing geographic information easier, so they accelerate geographic inquiry.  Spatial databases also can be developed in the classroom using paper and pencil.

Many of the capabilities that students need to develop geographic skills are termed critical thinking skills.  Such skills are not unique to geography and involve a number of generic thinking processes, such as knowing, inferring, analyzing, judging, hypothesizing, generalizing, predicting, and decision-making.  These have applications to all levels of geographic inquiry and constitute the bases on which students can build competencies in applying geographic skills to geographic inquiry.

Geographic skills develop over the entire course of the students’ school years, and for each of the three successive grade levels discussed.  Teachers and other curriculum developers will need to recognize that the students’ mastery of geographic skills must be sequenced effectively so that the students retain and build on their understanding.



A perspective is one point of view among many competing ways of interpreting the meanings of experiences, events, places, persons, cultures, and physical environments.  Having a perspective means looking at our world through a lens shaped by personal experience, selective information, and subjective evaluation.  A perspective provides a frame of reference for asking and answering questions, identifying and solving problems, and evaluating the consequences of alternative actions.  It is essential to be aware that many perspectives exist and that learning to understand the world from many points of view enhances our knowledge and skills.  It is also essential to realize that our perspectives incorporate all life experiences and draw upon knowledge from many fields of inquiry.  Therefore, people cannot be neatly boxed into specific perspective types regardless of their cultural experiences, ethnic backgrounds, age, gender, or any other characteristic.  Geographically informed people know how to contemplate, understand, and apply two specific geographic perspectives, along with complementary disciplinary and personal perspectives.

The two specific geographic perspectives are the spatial perspective and the ecological perspective.  Geographic perspectives bring societies and nature under the lens of geography for interpretation and explanation.  Geographic perspectives encompass understanding spatial patterns and processes on Earth and comprehending that Earth is composed of living and nonliving elements interacting in complex webs of relationships within nature and between nature and societies.  A fully developed set of geographic perspectives, therefore, requires the use of both spatial and ecological points of view.

Knowledge is one fabric woven from many distinctive fields of learning and is organized by different intellectual frameworks.  Although each field of study represents distinctive areas of inquiry, specialization, and perspectives, diverse sets of questions are needed to reveal the complexities of nature and societies.  Consequently, although spatial and ecological perspectives are hallmarks of the geographic way of looking at the world, additional perspectives are required for us to become fully informed.



As history is concerned with the temporal dimension of human experience (time and chronology), geography is concerned with the spatial dimension of human experience (space and place).  The space of Earth’s surface is the fundamental characteristic underpinning geography.  The essential issue of “whereness” - embodied in specific questions such as, Where is it? Why is it there? - helps humans to contemplate the context of spatial relationships in which the human story if played out.

Understanding spatial patterns and processes is essential to appreciating how people live on Earth.  People who approach knowing and doing with a habit of inquiring about whereness possess a spatial perspective.



Earth is composed of living and nonliving elements interacting in complex webs of ecological relationships which occur at multiple levels. Humans are part of the interacting and interdependent relationships in ecosystems and are one among many species that constitute the living part of Earth.  Human actions modify physical environments and the viability of ecosystems at local to global scales.  The survival of humans and other species requires a viable global ecosystem. 

Understanding Earth as a complex set of interacting living and nonliving elements is fundamental to knowing that human societies depend on diverse small and large ecosystems for food, water, and all other resources.  People who regularly inquire about connections and relationships among life forms, ecosystems, and human societies possess an ecological perspective.



Many perspectives supplement the two geographic perspectives and, when used appropriately, they can expand our understanding of spatial patterns and human-environmental interactions.  The geographic perspectives can be integrated with other disciplinary perspectives and with our own points of view to enrich and enlarge the understanding of people, places, and environments.  Two other perspectives are of particular value to students of geography: the historical perspective and the economic perspective



All human events and activities have historic and geographic aspects.  Central to historical inquiry are questions concerning chronology, the sequencing of events, relationships within and among societies over time, changes in cultures in various eras, and the changing relationships between civilizations and physical environments.  A historical perspective enriches the geographic perspective by adding the essential questions of When? Why then? and Why is the event significant? These questions complement the study of whereness and consequently promote a deepened understanding of past and contemporary events, how and why places and regions form and change, and variations in human use of environments in different cultures and eras.

Understanding temporal patterns is a vital dimension of comprehending human experiences on Earth.  People who ask questions about when events occurred and how events are related to each other over time use a historical perspective.



Economics focuses on how people produce and exchange goods and services to fulfill such need as food, shelter, transportation, and recreation.  Earning a living, developing and trading resources, and inventing, producing, and distributing products and services are central to economics.  Previously isolated economies are incorporated into the global economy through difficult transitions from subsistence to commercial activities.  Economic transformations promote an increasing interdependence among all societies and cultures on Earth.  Technological changes in transportation and communications accelerate and expand economic exchange between the peoples of the world.  Local economies may be drastically altered by decisions made in distant places.

Understanding the integration of local, regional, and national economies with the global economy is critical to knowing how people interact.  People who ask how diverse peoples earn a living and how peoples are connected through trade in goods and services apply an economic perspective.

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