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History Nerdfest 2018: Spatial Analogies and Learning Geography

It ranks right up there with the Holiday season, KC Chiefs football, and the first weekend of the college basketball tournament. It’s National Council for the Social Studies conference week. I’m lucky enough to get front row seats and am trying to live blog my way through it.


Dr. Phil Gersmehl is rocking the room with brain science and maps. His basic point:

“Kids like pretty maps. But they usually don’t learn from them.”

He’s using brain research to show how our brains unconsciously encode maps differently. What we remember depends on how we encode it. He highlighted some ways that this works and my mind is officially blown. I’ve always been a huge map fan. And I’ve always known that maps can lie. They can be used incorrectly and be confusing.

But I’ve never really thought about the reasons why. This is why he says:

Kids don’t just learn stuff from maps on their own.

Need an example?

He shared a map of some regions in Africa that he “taught” his college pre-service social studies teachers. He told them to memorize it for a quiz on Friday. The result? Not so good.

So we need to teach different types of spatial thinking skills. His basic advice:

Use simple but well designed maps and ask great questions. It’s true. Simple basic maps won’t capture kids attention. Until … a teacher asks a great question. And then they’re wonderful!

He shared some examples of good questions based around a simple map of Africa with camels pasted on across the northern 1/4 of the continent:

  • Do camels live in the north or the side part of Africa?
    2nd grade
  • What part of Africa do the camels live in?
    3rd grade
  • What kind of place do camels want to live in?
    6th grade
  • Why are the camels in the desert?
    7th grade
  • Where did Islam develop?
    High school question

So what are we to do?

Get the details at his website Our Spatial Brains. Get his handouts and presos here.

Then download his teaching tools:

And get your mind blown.

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