Map reading skill at risk of being lost, Geography ‘more than just...

Map reading skill at risk of being lost, Geography ‘more than just location’


UK, 28 December 2006 – It may have seemed like an ideal Christmas gift for the sort of driver who does not normally like to ask for directions. But the proud new owners of in-car satellite navigation systems may like to think again. The devices use satellite technology and map data to direct drivers along the quickest route to their destination.

But while they are considered a defining marvel of the technological age, the gadgets are affecting one’s ability to read maps and undermining sense of self, according to one of the nation’s leading geographers.

Rita Gardner, President of the Royal Geographical Society, said: “I firmly believe that sat-navs are depriving us of our ability to read maps. This is a terrible thing because maps are more than pieces of paper that tell us how to get from A to B. They have so much extra that can benefit us.”

In a world where people are all trying to find their inner selves and to make sense of our place in the world around them, maps are essential, she adds. “Show me another sheet of paper that has as much information on it as a map. If you are looking at a road map of Great Britain, apart from looking at roads, you will get a feel for the built and the natural environment you are moving through and that will tell you something about the economy and the history.”

An ability to place oneself in a spatial setting in this way is important, Dr Gardner added, because it provides an insight into the societal, environmental and economic changes that govern all our lives. It also sharpens our hunter instincts and sense of discovery.

“Look, for example, at a map of rural East Anglia,” she said, “and you will see the route from Cambridge to the coast with the A14 running through it. You’ll see that Bury St Edmunds has grown dramatically in the last 15 years because there is lots of new development and new light industry. This tells you that it is on the route between the Midlands and the coast at Harwich and it has benefited from increased traffic to the Continent.”

“You might also see that it’s a nice place to live because of the low population density. You would get none of that information from a sat-nav,” she said.

While emphasising the importance of being able to read a map, Dr Gardner is less concerned about teaching children to memorise maps of continents, rivers and capital cities. A recent survey by National Geographic Kids magazine, which found that 20 per cent of children in Britain cannot find their own country on a world map, had missed the whole point of geography, she said.

“It is much more important that kids know about vegetation zones, major continents and different climate zones than that they know the name of a particular country, providing they know how to look it up on a map.”

“What’s important is that when they fly on holiday from Manchester to Málaga, they have an understanding that they are moving into a different geographical zone and they know why the Mediterranean landscape and vegetation is different from what they see at home,” she said.

To ensure that children get a proper grounding in these principles of geography, Dr Gardner believes that they need to do more field work. She advocates a minimum of two weeks a year, including a field trip away, for each child at secondary school, in place of the one day a year that many get.

To allay the fears of parents and teachers about the risks involved in field trips to coastal plains or glacial valleys, she believes that pupils themselves should be involved with their schools in drawing up risk assessments for trips. “It will help them to understand the concept of risk and to devise strategies for coping with it. It will give them a real life skill and show that we all, children included, have a responsibility for managing risk,” she said.