Though educational standards are maintained at a state level in the United States, most states use national standards in preparing curricula. When it comes to geography classes in elementary schools, educators rely on the National Geography Standards, developed in the 1990s by the American Geographical Society, the Association of American Geographers, the National Council for Geographic Education and the National Geographic Society. The guidelines were published in a book called “Geography for Life.”
The National Geography Standards in “Geography for Life” are organized around six essential elements, which replaced the “Five Themes of Geography” used by educators prior to 1994. The six elements are “the world in spatial terms, places and regions, physical systems, human systems, environment and society and the uses of geography.” Not all of these elements are covered in elementary school education, though most elementary school geography courses lay the foundation for understanding geography’s six elements.
The six elements of geography are made up of 18 standards for geography education and further focus geography education. The standards are clearly outlined in “Geography for Life,” and educators expect all students to have an understanding of all 18 standards by the end of high school. In elementary school, geography study often doesn’t begin until third grade, so the four years of elementary education don’t touch on all 18 standards.
Early Grade Geography
In grades three and four, students learn how basic geography tools like maps, compasses and GPS are used to organize information about people, places and the environment. Students also learn how to locate physical places and regions defined by either physical characteristics, such as mountains and oceans, and human features, such as cities and states. Students begin studying population, culture, settlement, economic activities and political activities and the effects of physical systems within a community, such as the way some areas are better for farming and some for logging.
Grades Five and Six
By the end of elementary school, students build on the knowledge from grades three and four, using geography tools to interpret information about people, places and the environment, perhaps by making maps or reading distance between places on a map. Instead of identifying regions, students learn how to describe regions based on physical characteristics and learn about the physical processes that shape the Earth’s surface, such as tectonic plates and weather systems. Their understanding of the effects of physical systems on a community becomes regionalized, with greater specificity in the local region.
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