Learn about geo-literacy—what it is, why it's important, and what we can do to advance geo-literacy in the U.S.


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(Revised May 28, 2014.)

Whether they realize it or not, every member of our modern society makes far-reaching decisions every day. A far-reaching decision is one that has impacts well beyond the time and place where the decision is being made. For example, when commuters choose between driving or taking public transportation, when corporate boards consider whether they should shift manufacturing from one country to another, and when troops in the field translate orders into actions, they are all making far-reaching decisions.

While the impacts of any particular far-reaching decision may be small, the cumulative impact of the decisions made by millions or even billions of people is enormous. The National Geographic Society is working to prepare our young people for the far-reaching decisions they will face throughout their lives. To be prepared for these decisions, they must be able to recognize the far-reaching implications of the decisions they make, and they must be able to take those impacts into account when making decisions.

At National Geographic, we have adopted the term geo-education to describe the kinds of learning experiences that prepare young people to make far-reaching decisions. A well-rounded geo-education takes place across the sciences, social studies, and humanities in schools and through a wide variety of experiences outside of school.

We have adopted the termgeo-literacy to describe the level of geo-education that we believe all members of 21st-century society will need to live well and behave responsibly in our interconnected world. The following three components of geo-literacy are critical preparation for far-reaching decisions:

How our world works. Modern science characterizes our world as a set of dynamic physical, biological, and social systems. These systems create, move, and transform resources. For example, in ecosystems, nutrients are created, transformed, and transported through food chains. Similarly, in economic systems, people transform natural resources into objects with economic value, which can be transported, used, traded, and sold. Every human decision is affected by these systems and has effects on them.

How our world is connected. Today more than ever, every place in our world is connected to every other place. To understand the far-reaching implications of decisions, one must understand how human and natural systems connect places to each other. For example, in the 1980s, scientists discovered that the prevailing winds that sped flights from Chicago to Boston were also carrying power plant emissions from the Midwest that were causing acid rain in New England.

How to make well-reasoned decisions. Good decision-making involves systematic analysis of outcomes based on priorities. For example, in deciding where to build a road, a planner will establish priorities for cost, capacity, and impact on communities and the natural environment. He will then predict the outcomes of different options based on those criteria and weigh the trade-offs between these options based on values associated with the different criteria.

A geo-literate individual is able to combine these three forms of understanding to make far-reaching decisions.

Why is geo-literacy important?

As preparation for far-reaching decisions, geo-literacy enables people to steer away from choices that will be costly for themselves and others. For example, individuals and communities bear preventable costs every time a retail business fails because of a poorly chosen location, a fishery is damaged by storm water runoff, or travelers and deliveries are delayed because of inefficient transportation systems. In addition to economic and environmental costs that accumulate over time, like these, we also face immediate and sizable costs for geo-illiteracy in the form of loss of life from natural hazards, terrorism, and military conflict, and loss of livelihood from competition in a global economy.

While geo-literacy can reduce the costs of bad decision-making, it also provides the foundation for positive breakthroughs. The hub-and-spoke system of modern air transportation, the introduction of high-yield, low-impact agricultural practices, the revival of urban neighborhoods, and the development early-warning systems for natural disasters are all examples of advances made by combining understanding of how our world works, how our world is connected, and how to make well-reasoned decisions.

Geo-literacy has important benefits across our personal, workplace, and civic lives:

  • In our personal lives, making well-reasoned decisions about where to live, how to commute, and what products to buy can save time and money, protect the environment, and improve personal health and welfare.
  • In our workplaces, making well-reasoned decisions about supply chains, infrastructure investments, and marketing strategies can reduce costs and increase revenues dramatically.
  • In our civic lives, making well-reasoned decisions about zoning and public transit, about emergency preparedness and response, and about foreign affairs can increase our safety, security, and quality of life.

At National Geographic, we are concerned about geo-literacy because we believe that increasing geo-literacy will lead to better protection of natural and cultural resources, a reduction in conflict, and more livable communities. In addition, we believe that having a geo-literate populace is also critical for maintaining economic competitiveness and national security in our dynamic, interconnected world.

In order to achieve these goals, we need to address the need for geo-literacy at two levels. First, we must work to provide all members of society with the fundamental level of geo-literacy that they need to make the far-reaching decisions that they will face in the course of their daily lives. At the same time, we must dramatically expand the number of individuals with higher levels of expertise to meet the planning and decision-making needs of 21st-century business and government.

What can we do to advance geo-literacy in the U.S.?

Unfortunately, the components of a geo-education are not taught widely or well enough in U.S. schools. In the sciences, much less attention is paid to earth science, environmental science, and ecology than is paid to other subjects. And all of the social studies subjects have been neglected as a result of the No Child Left Behind Act’s narrow focus on language arts and math.

To improve preparation for far-reaching decisions, we must revisit both what we teach in schools and how we teach it. We should focus on three components of geo-education:

  • Interactions. To improve understanding of how the world works, we should increase and improve instruction on natural and human systems. For natural systems, we should increase instruction in earth science, environmental science, and ecology. Instruction in these areas should focus on the function and interaction among natural systems. Similarly, we should increase the overall amount of social studies instruction and shift the focus of instruction away from names, dates, and locations and toward how political, cultural, and economic systems function and interact. We must also incorporate instruction on the interactions between human and natural systems into both science and social studies instruction.
  • Interconnections. To improve understanding of how the world is connected, we should increase instruction on historical, geographical, and social connections on local, regional, and global scales across all of the sciences, social studies, and humanities.
  • Implications. To improve understanding of how to make well-reasoned decisions, we should add instruction on systematic decision-making to the curriculum, and we should provide students with opportunities to practice decision-making in real-world contexts across the curriculum.

Of course, schools are not the only place where geo-education takes place. Geo-literate individuals report that out-of-school experiences have often played a large role in increasing their understanding of the world. People who understand the world as interacting systems were often first exposed to that view outside of the formal educational system—through literature, the media, or direct interaction with the scientific community. Similarly, many geo-literate individuals report that they learned to reason about interconnectivity in out-of-school programs like scouting and 4-H, from informal mentoring by adults, or on the job. Developing a geo-literate society will also require that young people have the opportunity to augment their formal education with out-of-school learning experiences in organized, facilitated settings, such as museums and after-school programs, and in casual community, family, and peer settings. Out-of-school experiences that are critical to building geo-literacy include time in nature, travel, cultural exchange, civic engagement, and community service.

Fast Fact

"As preparation for far-reaching decisions, geo-literacy enables people to steer away from choices that will be costly for themselves and others."

Fast Fact

"While the impacts of any particular far-reaching decision may be small, the cumulative impact of the decisions made by millions of people is enormous."

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Daniel Edelson, Vice President, National Geographic Education
National Geographic Society
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Sheryl Hasegawa, National Geographic Society
Justine Kendall, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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