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Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Can You Find Your Way From Here To Here?

This is a map of England. Not much of a map, more of a colour-cutout. A map would provide some sort of information beyond the outline of a nation. It is somehow taken as given that I know this is a map of England. The story this is taken from instructs the reader that five cities are to be identified within it.
Identify the following cities on the map below: Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, Norwich and Kingston upon Hull.
Right. I can do that. I'm not entirely sure about Norwich and Kingston. I know one is in the broads and the other is further north on the east coast. Turns out I'm close enough in locating both. (Note that the instruction says to identify, rather than locate. I think there's a semantic mistake there.)

I had Norwich a bit further south and west. But I was further afield in my location of Birmingham. Here's why: I don't know the outline of the Welsh border so well, nor Birmingham's location relative to it, so, on this map, I placed the city further to the north, in a location more consistent with Stoke-on-Trent.

Having learnt my lesson, I have another point to make: maps like this are pretty useless at helping people address the geographical deficiencies they're accused of having. Furthermore, my two road atlases fail to render the national borders at all. So it's not like I have a handy reference to turn to that helps to reinforce my vague notion of where I am.

One problem with map literacy, then, is the crapness of maps in relation to questions like the one above. The map above is a case in point. Can you locate Lincoln, Nottingham, and Newbury on this map? Probably not, given that there's no grid reference. This, then, is a crap map. But that's an incidental issue in relation to poor geo-literacy. I did okay in locating the five cities, but if I hadn't done so well, I'd be putting it down to the wider irrelevance of maps and geographical relationships. Bluntly, not many people need to know where they are in the nation. They're locals, first and foremost, and hardly need to look at a map in order to get from place to place. If they drive, there are roadsigns. If they travel by train, coach or plane, they have not got to think about navigation and relative position one whit. They don't need a map, they don't need to know relative locations.

On that basis, I want to ask two questions.
  1. What kinds of things do people pay attention to?
  2. What might boost their recognition of relative locations in a national context?

I ask the first question because I am sure that people have very well-developed spatial and navigational skills, but that those are not what's being tested above. Someone is asking the wrong question and inferring that there's an absence of geo-literacy. It's a biased test. Ask a different question and I bet you'll get a much higher level of knowledge.

I ask the second question as a follow-on. What questions do we need to ask in order to reveal the geographical literacy of people on the street?

If we're interested in geographical literacy, it might do to start thinking about literacy in different ways. Maps like the one above have little, if anything, to do with geography. Geographical literacy starts with the way you - as an individual - understand your location, your place in space, the way that space is organised, and how you make your way in relation to it. Literacy is also about the ability to articulate what you know, so I'd also be looking at ways people express their spatial knowledge.


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