Teaching the tool of the trade: an exploration of teachers' beliefs, knowledge, and practices about maps



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Texas A&M University


Maps are the integral tool of geography. The importance of maps to geographic literacy is reflected in the National Geography Standards (Geography Education Implementation Project 1994): the first essential element, the World in Spatial Terms, details the significance of map comprehension to spatial thinking. Despite that centrality, there is little research which tells us how maps are used in the classroom. This study considers Texas teachers' instructional practices with regards to maps. The following questions are addressed: (1) what are teachers' beliefs and knowledge about maps; (2) what are teachers' practices regarding their use; and, (3) to what extent do teachers understand the curricular requirements related to maps? The study was conducted in two phases. During Phase I, a survey was completed by eighty-eight teacher-members of the Texas Alliance for Geographic Education. In Phase II, eleven teachers were selected from the pool of survey respondents for interviews and classroom observations. Data were analyzed using descriptive statistics and qualitative techniques. Analysis included evaluation of teachers' practices along a map skills continuum, which was adapted from National Assessment of Educational Progress' (NAEP) standards in geography, the National Geography Standards, and the state curriculum, the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS). The continuum evaluated teachers by grade (elementary, middle, or high school) and proficiency (basic, proficient, or advanced). Teachers in Phase II were representative of the grade and proficiency levels of the survey respondents. Results indicate that map instruction focuses on learning cartographic terminology, performing basic map tasks, and identifying locations. The more advanced tasks illustrated in the continuum are largely absent. The teachers in this study generally had a limited conceptualization of maps and their uses; that limited conceptualization constrained their practices and their understanding of the curricular requirements regarding map skills. Consequently, map instruction does not occur in the rich way conceptualized by the Standards, NAEP, or the TEKS. The implication is that teachers' conceptualization of maps must be improved. This goal could be accomplished by providing teachers with professional development experiences and curricular tools that will enhance their understanding of maps and their many uses.