The Development of Expertise in Geography: A Cognitive-Developmental Approach to Geographic Education

Roger M. Downs, Lynn S. Liben

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

63 Scopus citations


It is generally recognized that geographic education and cognitive development are intertwined at the precollege level. Here we argue that college-level instruction likewise depends upon appreciating the cognitive-developmental level of students as well as their level of geographic expertise. In particular, we set geographic instruction within a Piagetian approach to cognitive development and illustrate this approach by reference to two fundamental topics covered in cartographic instruction: map projections and coordinate systems. We present data demonstrating that not all college students readily have available the cognitive and spatial skills needed to understand fundamentals of map projections and coordinate systems. Instruction on map projections typically relies on reference to shadow projections, and yet significant numbers of college students fail to understand even the simplest cases of shadow projections. Instruction on coordinate systems assumes a Euclidean understanding of spatial relations, and yet many college students cannot represent the basic horizontal and vertical coordinates available in the everyday environment. From these examples, we offer two lessons about geographic instruction that derive from a cognitive-developmental approach. Apparently simple and intuitively obvious tasks may be difficult, and there may be significant individual differences in levels of performance on these tasks. What is logical, reasonable, and self-evident from the perspective of an expert geographer may not match the psychological realities of a student. We must link a theoretically-based understanding of cognitive development with a more explicit understanding of geographic expertise if we are to meet the challenge of geographic education at the college level. The Process of Geographic Education Understanding Cognitive-Developmental Level and Level of Expertise as Prerequisites for Geographic Instruction.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)304-327
Number of pages24
JournalAnnals of the Association of American Geographers
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 1991

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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