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Use the menu at left to select a standard, along with related classroom ideas and family activities. For a paper copy, simply click the text you want and print.

The 18 U.S. National Geography Standards

Element One: The World in Spatial Terms

Standard 1: How to Use Maps and Other Geographic Representations, Tools, and Technologies to Acquire, Process, and Report Information From a Spatial Perspective

Standard 2: How to Use Mental Maps to Organize Information About People, Places, and Environments in a Spatial Context

Standard 3: How to Analyze the Spatial Organization of People, Places, and Environments on Earth’s Surface

Element Two: Places and Regions

Standard 4: The Physical and Human Characteristics of Places

Standard 5: That People Create Regions to Interpret Earth’s Complexity

Standard 6: How Culture and Experience Influence People’s Perceptions of Places and Regions

Element Three: Physical Systems

Standard 7: The Physical Processes That Shape the Patterns of Earth’s Surface

Standard 8: The Characteristics and Spatial Distribution of Ecosystems on Earth’s Surface

Element Four: Human Systems

Standard 9: The Characteristics, Distribution, and Migration of Human Population on Earth’s Surface

Standard 10: The Characteristics, Distribution, and Complexity of Earth’s Cultural Mosaics

Standard 11: The Patterns and Networks of Economic Interdependence on Earth’s Surface

Standard 12: The Processes, Patterns, and Functions of Human Settlement

Standard 13: How the Forces of Cooperation and Conflict Among People Influence the Division and Control of Earth’s Surface

Element Five: Environment and Society

Standard 14: How Human Actions Modify the Physical Environment

Standard 15: How Physical Systems Affect Human Systems

Standard 16: The Changes That Occur in the Meaning, Use, Distribution, and Importance of Resources

Element Six: The Uses of Geography

Standard 17: How to Apply Geography to Interpret the Past

Standard 18: How to Apply Geography to Interpret the Present and Plan for the Future

Introduction to the Standards

The U.S. National Geography Standards were published in Washington, D.C., on October 20, 1994. They appeared at a time of great optimism and great controversy over the concept of national standards for K-12 education.

As the writing coordinator for the standards project, I am pleased to say that the National Geography Standards are alive and well today. We were and still are optimistic. The vast majority of states have incorporated parts or all of the 18 geography standards into their state standards. The main document, Geography for Life, has sold nearly 100,000 copies, and the executive summary has sold nearly 30,000 copies. Textbooks have incorporated the standards into lesson plans and exercises.

We have come a long way to ensuring that geography in America will be “well-taught and well-learned.” That goal of the National Geographic Society will be advanced by the appearance of the standards in this online version.

But what exactly are the U.S. National Geography Standards? And more importantly, what might they mean for you? To answer those questions, we need to go back to the origins of the standards. They are a response to the Goals 2000: Educate America Act. The act stated that: “By the year 2000, all students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter including ... geography, and every school in America will ensure that all students learn to use their minds well, so they may be prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment in our Nation’s modern economy.”

The geography community responded to that challenge with a massive, two-year effort involving all of the major geography organizations, hundreds of geography educators and teachers, and countless parents and other members of the public. Geography for Life is a consensus document, something that reflects collective agreement on the best of what geography has to offer to students, parents, and communities. It sets an ambitious agenda for teaching and learning a geography that is “lifelong, life-sustaining, and life-enhancing.”

The goal of this agenda is a geographically informed person, “someone who understands that geography is the study of people, places, and environments from a spatial perspective, someone who appreciates the interdependent worlds in which we all live.” This is not knowledge for knowledge’s sake: “The study of geography has practical value through the application of a spatial view to life situations.”

As you read these standards, you will see that they are broad statements of what we would like children to understand, not prescriptions of exactly what must be learned in a specific order. They mix concepts, skills, and perspectives in equal measure. They are not lists of facts but suggested guides for understanding the world around us. The standards are applicable to all states and school districts, but they are designed to allow teachers, communities, and parents to establish different emphases and priorities. They are full of examples that can be followed or used as springboards for designing your own classroom and home activities.

The reason I write about parents and home is simple. The writers firmly believe that geography will only come alive if students can make the links from the classroom to the world around them. One of the best ways of doing that is to have children and parents do geography together. Overviews of the standards help parents understand what their children are learning; family activities reinforce what has been learned.

As geography educators, we had a vision in mind as we wrote the standards. We believed in the power and beauty of geography. We wanted to help students to see, understand, and appreciate the web of relationships between people, places, and environments. We see geography in the world that is nearby and around the corner; we see geography in the world at large, the global economy and global environment. The standards capture that vision but it is people—teachers, parents, community members—who can make this vision come alive. We welcome your help in creating a generation of students who are geographically informed.

Thank you.

Roger M. Downs
Professor and Head
Department of Geography
The Pennsylvania State University