On Education and Geographers: The Role of Cognitive Developmental Theory in Geographic Education

Roger M. Downs, Debra G. Daggs, Lynn S. Liben

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

75 Scopus citations


The current focus on geographic ignorance within the discipline and within the mass media offers another opportunity to reform the teaching of geography at all grade levels. Previous reforms have met with little success. We argue that current efforts will succeed only if we integrate ideas from geography, child development, and education. Programs of geographic education must link geographic content with an understanding of the nature of the learner and with the expectations and knowledge of the teacher. We illustrate this argument using the Guidelines for Geographic Education: Elementary and Secondary Schools (1984). The concept of a map is central to the Guidelines: of 30 suggested learning outcomes for kindergarten through second grade, 13 depend upon understanding maps. We explore early map understanding by linking Piagetian developmental theory, cartographic theory, and educational practice. We discuss empirical data on the young child's (1) understanding of maps as graphic representations, (2) ability to use a classroom map, and (3) ability to understand the concept of geographic hierarchy. Successful reform of the geographic curriculum is possible if we match an understanding of geographic content with an appreciation of the development of logical and spatial skills in children.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)680-700
Number of pages21
JournalAnnals of the Association of American Geographers
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 1988

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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