“Geographic skills provide the necessary tools and techniques for us to think geographically.”

National Geographic Standards
Photograph by Jani Bryson/iStockphoto.com

The Importance of Geographic Skills

“Geographic skills provide the necessary tools and techniques for us to think geographically. They are central to geography’s distinctive approach to understanding Earth’s physical and human patterns and processes. Geographic skills are used in making decisions important to everyday life—where to buy or rent a home; where to get a job; how to get to work or to a friend’s house; and where to shop, vacation, or go to school. All of these decisions involve the ability to acquire, arrange, and use geographic information. Daily decisions and community activities are linked to thinking systematically and spatially about environmental and societal issues.

Community decisions relating to problems of air, water, and land pollution or locational issues, such as where to place industries, schools, and residential areas, also require the skillful use of geographic information. Business and government decisions—from the best site for a supermarket or a regional airport to issues of resource use or international trade—involve the analysis of geographic data.

Geographic skills help people make reasoned political decisions. Whether the issues involve the evaluation of foreign affairs and international economic policy or local zoning and land use, geographic skills enable people to collect and analyze information, come to an informed conclusion, and make reasoned decisions on a course of action. Geographic skills also aid in the development and presentation of effective, persuasive arguments regarding matters of public policy.

Developing Geographic Skills

It is essential that students develop skills that will enable them to observe patterns, associations, and spatial order. Many of the skills that students are expected to learn involve using tools and geospatial technologies that are part of the process of geographic inquiry. Geographic representations, such as maps and globes, as well as their digital versions, are essential tools of geography because they assist in visualizing spatial arrangements and patterns.

Other tools and geospatial technologies, including satellite-produced images, graphs, sketches, diagrams, and photographs are also integral parts of geographic analysis. The rate of growth of an urban area, for example, can be observed by comparing old and new satellite images. Large-scale land-use changes or changes in sea surface temperatures can be observed by comparing a series of satellite images. An important tool in geographic analysis is the geographic information system (GIS). Geographic information systems make the process of organizing, analyzing, and presenting geographic information easier, thus accelerating geographic inquiry. Remotely sensed data provide both archived and real-time images that can be studied independently or as a part of a GIS analysis. Digital globes and interactive online maps can display human and physical data sets to assist in systematic analysis of spatial phenomena. A global positioning system (GPS) aids in accurately identifying the location of collected data; GPS technologies are currently used in a wide range of digital mobile devices.

Many of the capabilities that students need to develop geographic skills are termed “critical thinking skills.” Such skills are not unique to geography and involve a number of generic thinking processes, such as knowing, inferring, analyzing, judging, hypothesizing, generalizing, predicting, problem-solving, and decision-making. These skills have applications to all levels of geographic inquiry and constitute the bases on which students can build competencies in applying geographic skills to geographic inquiry.

Geographic skills develop over the entire course of students’ school years. For each of the three successive grade levels discussed, teachers and other curriculum developers must recognize that students’ mastery of geographic skills should be sequenced effectively so that students retain and build on their understanding. The skills cannot be taught or applied in isolation. They are interconnected and complementary, and together they form a process of investigation that makes the complexity of place more intelligible and more understandable.

The Rationale for Geographic Skills

The geographic skills required of a geographically informed person consists of five sets of skills adapted from the Guidelines for Geographic Education: Elementary and Secondary Schools, prepared by the Joint Committee on Geographic Education by the Association of American Geographers and the National Council for Geographic Education. The five skill sets are as follows:

  1. Asking Geographic Questions
  2. Acquiring Geographic Information
  3. Organizing Geographic Information
  4. Analyzing Geographic Information
  5. Answering Geographic Questions

For each of the five skills sets, there is a discussion of the principles underlying the set of skills and then a presentation of what the student is expected to know, understand, and be able to do at grades 4, 8, and 12. ”

Geography For Life: National Geography Standards, Second Edition


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GENIP Member Organizations

American Geographical Society
Association of American Geographers
National Council for Geographic Education
National Geographic Society

Standards Content Committee

Roger M. Downs, Chair
Sarah Witham Bednarz
Judith K. Bock
Charlie Fitzpatrick
Paul T. Gray, Jr.
Susan Gallagher Heffron, Project Manager
Susan E. Hume
Lydia J. Lewis
James F. Marran
Joseph P. Stoltman


Susan Gallagher Heffron
Roger M. Downs

Reviewing Editors

Susan W. Hardwick
James F. Marran
Audrey M. Mohan
Robert W. Morrill

Content Reviewers

Philip J. Gersmehl, Co-Director of the New York Center for Geographic Learning, Research Professor at Central Michigan University
Carol Harden, University of Tennessee
Susan W. Hardwick, University of Oregon
David Lanegran, Macalester College
Robert W. Morrill, Virginia Tech
Cynthia Pope, Central Connecticut State University

Learning Sciences
Richard Duschl, The Pennsylvania State University
Roy Pea, Stanford University, Stanford, CA
Tony Petrosino, University of Texas
Joshua Radinsky, University of Illinois-Chicago
David Uttal, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL

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Geography Education National Implementation Project Geography Education National Implementation Project