Friday, February 3, 2012

Mapping by Hand: Another Case For Paper

Source: 5th Grade Student
As educators, most of us know where to find blank outline maps of the world, continents, and countries for our students to label. In addition, we can point students in the right direction to a myriad of Web resources to practice geography, such as Traveler IQ or Sporcle. But too often, we don’t make time in our curricula to have students draw maps by hand with good old-fashioned pencil and paper. Yet the benefits of such lessons are plentiful. It is not that one or the other makes a better geographer, but the inherent gain in understanding by creating a map on paper makes a difference in what students learn. In a world with GPS navigation systems in cars, or on mobile devices that literally tell us where to go, the ability to understand the relationship of relative and absolute location gets lost.

Source: 5th Grade Student
Labeling a blank map as opposed to actually drawing one by hand changes a student’s perception of place. The maps of South America in this post were all drawn by students in the fifth grade in two class periods. We are hoping to cover every continent as we work our way through the year. Hand-drawn maps require students to make connections physically between countries, states, or provinces. By building in time to let students draw, they used critical thinking skills on multiple levels. We’ve seen a direct correlation between the act of making it themselves and the knowledge acquired by doing so. As teachers, we want our students to create visualizations to increase understanding and be actively engaged in learning. It also helps them make associations between geographic locations and current events by putting the news in context with place.

Source: 5th Grade Student
For some, mapping by hand was not easy at first. They made mistakes that were sometimes frustrating, but by correcting the problem, they learned more. It trained their eye to draw what they see and not what they know. Adjusting a country’s size, leaving space for a significant landform, or using latitude and longitude for proximity helped them to be better designers of their own maps. These proud cartographers had to make choices. They learned to take feedback to improve the accuracy of their creations and to think about spatial adjacency.

Making maps by hand required studying the content and creating a visualization of what they saw. It was no longer a linear list of countries and capitals, or blank lines to label on a printout. It challenged them to think. We liken this to doodling, where the brain stays actively engaged to determine marks of content. When they were done, they not only admired their work, but they also knew the content. They owned it. It was a win-win, on all fronts, and worth the time. Next up is Africa, and they are ready and happy to take on the challenge.

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