Absolute and Relative Location Teaching Ideas

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The idea of relative versus absolute location in geography can sometimes be difficult for students to grasp. In order to teach this concept of defining a location absolutely with latitude and longitude, versus in relation to another location, it’s helpful to use as many real-world activities as possible. Once students have to use absolute and relative terms to describe locations they’re familiar with, it becomes easier for them to grasp.

1 Map Work

Using a map with latitude and longitude on it is helpful for teaching absolute versus relative locations. First, have students chart the absolute locations of places on the map. Do this with at least three different locations. Afterward, have them describe where those locations are in relative terms. For example, “The island of Maui is Longitude: 154 degrees 40’ W to 162 W Latitude: 16 degrees 55’ N to 23 N. Maui is also south of Molokai, east of Lanai and Kahoolawe, but north of Hawaii." Discuss the process and if it was easier to take the measurements for location versus trying to describe the location relative to other landmarks and approximating distances.

2 Journey Map

Have students create a journey map, like the ones used by travelers long ago. These maps were crudely made and read from the starting point up. Have the students pick a location that will be familiar to their classmates then make a journey map, using relative locations for their classmates to figure out. It can be from their house to the school or from their house to the store, for example. They must create it using their memories and marking distances and locations in relative terms. Have them trade with classmates when their maps are complete and give them the homework assignment of trying to follow one another’s map. Have classmates critique one another’s maps and make notes of what was missing or anything grossly misrepresented in terms of landmarks. Talk about how a map with absolute locations would have made the journey much easier.

3 Where Am I?

Have students write down the specific address of three of their favorite places on one side of an index card. On the other side, have them write down a description of each place in relative terms. For example, “It’s across from the ice cream shop and kitty-corner from the library.” Then have the students pair up and first ask their partner to try and figure out the location based on the relative location description. If the classmate can’t determine what it is, his partner will tell him the exact address then see if he can figure it out. Afterward, discuss the results. Point out that sometimes relative locations can be easier to understand than absolute locations, depending on your familiarity with a place.

4 Lewis and Clark Expedition

Examine original maps from the Lewis and Clark expedition. Explain that part of the team's many duties was map making. Point out that the explorers created over 140 maps while on the expedition. Explain that most of the maps they used for reference came from traders, Native Americans and fur trappers. The information on them was based on relative location with very few points that were absolute. Have students imagine how difficult it must have been for them to work from such little information to create original maps with absolute locations. Point out that Lewis used the sun to measure latitude and that a chronometer, or clock, was used to determine longitude, as well as celestial observations. Review some of their maps, called compass traverse maps, and compare them to the journey maps used by religious travelers and early explorers. Talk about how distances were estimated with a compass and how they managed to measure distance traveled on water. Review with students the skills needed to create maps.

Andre Zollars started writing in 1999, when she worked in the editorial department at "The Missoulian." She has been published in "Endovascular Today," "High Country Angler," "Outside Bozeman" and "Western Ag Reporter." She also has written for online magazines New West, Hunting and Fishing USA. Zollars holds a Bachelor of Arts in international studies from the University of Washington.