The Five Themes Of Geography
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During the 1980's the United States showed unacceptably low test scores
on simple Geographic tests. The point Committee on Geographic Education could
only attribute these results to Geographic Illiteracy, not only on the part of
the students, but more importantly on the educators themselves. By 1984 it had
become inexplicably clear that immediate action must take place to counteract
this ongoing problem in our educational institutions (Journal of Geography 89).
In response, the Joint Committee on Geographic Education produced a landmark
publication entitled "Guidelines for Geographic Education". This document
contained a scope and sequence in Geography with suggested learning results for
the nations primary and secondary school systems, as well as suggested
educational strategies for analysis on the part of the students and teachers.
Most importantly, this article provided the Five Fundamental Themes in Geography,
which have evolved to become an integral element of social studies education,
because they take the world of geographic study beyond the realm of basic
memorization, and into a new plane of analysis and implementation. These five
themes include location, place, human-environment interactions, movement, and
Location answers the question of "where?". If you plan to meet someone
at a specific time, and a specific place, the question of "Where will you meet?"
must first be answered. To resolve this situation, Geography employs Absolute
Location, and Relative Location.
Absolute Location applies a grid-matrix system to the earth's surface
in the form of coordinates. These coordinates, longitude and latitude, allow
geographers to pinpoint exact areas of the earth's surface, and other planetary
bodies as well. If Geographers wish to apply satellite technology to observe
an area of the earth's surface, coordinates are used to pinpoint an exact
Relative Location answers the simple question of where you would meet a
person. For example: "Let's meet at Martin Hall, the building next to the
Library." But, relative location is much deeper than simple location. It also
involves interdependence of a location based upon its resources, people, and
If one wishes to build a ski resort, the location of that resort must be
relative with the environment of the location. It would be illogical, and non-
profitable to build a ski resort in the Mojave desert. However, it would be
logical to build a resort in the higher elevations of the Rocky Mountains in
Colorado, Idaho, or Montana.
Every area on the surface of the earth is defined by some type of
characteristic. Siberia is known to be very cold, but also a part of the Soviet
Union, a formerly communist country. Belize is known to be very warm, but it is
also an English speaking country which houses a tropical rain forest. To define
these basic geographical characteristics, Geographers have placed them into
three categories under the heading of "place" - Physical, Human, and Observed
Physical Characteristics are those characteristics which define the
physical environment of a place . This environment includes the climate,
physical terrain, and plant and animal life.
Human Characteristics are those things which people have done to an
environment to change them. People construct buildings in which to live, shop,
work, pray, and play. People are also defined by their religion, race,
languages they speak, and philosophies and ideologies in which they live.
Observed Characteristics are in part an overflow of human
characteristics. People change their environment, this change can be observed
in everyday life; the roads we use to get to work or school, the power lines
used to heat our homes, the pollution exuded from our factories to produce the
luxuries we crave, all of these represent changes to our environment. These
physical changes represent the observed characteristics of a place.
Human- Environment interactions are the way people react with their
environment (Guidelines for Geographic Education). Living with the environment
is not a one way street, we can not continually expect to take from mother earth
without giving something in return. We take for granted the air we breathe, the
water we drink, the food we consume, and the houses in which we live. The
important thing to remember is where did these amenities come from?
The human population continues to pour thousands of tons of combustion
emissions into the atmosphere every day, these emissions include not only
carbon dioxide, but chloroflourocarbons from refrigerants as well, which
escalates the depletion of the ozone (O3) layer exponentially (film - Geography
tutor). Only recently did our governments pass a law banning the use of
chloroflorocarbons. Sadly, humans continue to deplete one of earth's greatest
natural resources which could aid in the natural repair of the ozone layer, our
rain forests. The list of violations people incur upon the environment everyday
is endless, but it is the most important of the five themes in geography -
Human/Environment interactions - and the reason is very simple. If our
population continues to rape the environment in the fashion in which it has over
the last two hundred years, very soon, there will be no environment left.
Mother nature is very forgiving, but her resources are being pulled out from
under her at a rate in which she can not repair herself. If she dies, we all
shall surely perish as well.
Movement is simply the migration of people, products, information, and
ideas within or between regions (Journal of Geography 1990). People on earth
are now linked in virtually every way via transportation, communication, and
technological networks which allow for the sharing of ideas, philosophies, goods,
and services within virtually every corner of the globe.
The last of the five themes of geography consists of the idea of
regions. A region is not only a place where a group of people of similar
nationality, race, or religious belief reside. A region can also be a defining
physical characteristic of a place. The Sahara and Sahel of Africa is a desert
region. Defined by its consistently hot and dry climate. Great Britain of old
encompassed one of the greatest regional empires of the world, which extended
from Australia, to Belize, to the North American Continent, and finally to her
own islands. A region simply put, is a place which has a unique physical,
racial, cultural, or environmental characteristic which defines it separately
form other regions.
The five fundamental themes of geography offer educators a new and
unique perspective on the world of geography. This perspective breaks down the
vast array of knowledge contained in the world of geography into its simplest
simplest form, allowing teachers to convey the basic concepts of geography.
These basic concepts are the key to understanding. Once the student learns the
five basic themes, he or she can then apply the themes to virtually every aspect
of our physical and cultural environment. Which in the end will provide a much
deeper understanding of geography, as well as eliminating the problem of
geographic illiteracy in our schools. After all, education is not memorization,
education is understanding.
1. "The Four Traditions of Geography", The Journal of Geography, May 1964, pg.
211 - 213, William D. Pattison
2. "The New School Geography: A Critique", The Journal of Geography, February
1990, pg. 27 - 30, Robert Harper
3. "An Elaboration of the Fundamental Themes in Geography", Social
Education, May 1994, pg. 211 - 213, Richard G. Boehm and James F. Petersen.
4. "Guidelines for Geographic Education", National Council for Geographic
Education and Association of American Geographers., 1984.