Orbitist Hits the Books

You know when you have a loose thread hanging from your shirt? You try not to touch it until you can get to some scissors, but really, it’s only a matter of time until you pull.  And pull. And pull. Before you know it, the thread that was half of an inch long is now hanging six inches past your clenched hand, and it’s still attached to the shirt. That’s kind of my experience with Orbitist so far. I keep pulling at the thread that’s attached to all of the things we can do with this tool. One region of the thread that we’re just beginning to reach is education.  

There seems to be a prevailing wisdom that many Americans don’t have great geographical knowledge. If this is indeed the case, it might suggest that American students are not receiving effective geography education. I decided to dig down into our educational system a bit to try to parse whether or not this is true.  

The NAEP Report Card is an assessment of students’ standardized test scores at the 4th, 8th, and 12th grade level on number of different subjects, including geography. The headline results aren’t great: there has been no significant improvement in overall average geography scores of 8th graders since 1994, and none of the grade levels tested register more than a third of students at or above proficient. The NAEP has its detractors that insist the proficiency level is unnecessarily high, but I think there are some interesting themes that come to the fore regardless.  

For instance, while 8th graders seem to make substantial gains from 4th grade results, they also seem to give back all of those gains by 12th grade. This could suggest that there is less of a geographical emphasis in high school, or that some of the success seen at the 8th grade level is temporary at best and fails to give students lasting global context.  

So let’s get back to that thread I was going on about. As it continues to unravel in my head, I start to think about how Orbitist is, at its core, a multimedia mapping software platform. It brings stories to points on a map through information, pictures, video, and people. But the stories that are contained within these points can mean so many different things. What if we could use Orbitist to bring better geographical context to many of the lessons students absorb daily in the classroom?  

Let’s take the topic of Spanish architecture. When teaching a lesson that includes such landmarks as the Catedral de Santiago or the Plaza Mayor to a group of ninth graders, teachers might assume that all of the students in the room know where Spain is, or that they can name a major city in the country, such as Madrid. But teachers are learning that they cannot make these assumptions. The creator of the map quiz below, Spanish teacher Caitlin Gunner elaborated more on this issue:  “I used to assume that students knew the country I was talking about and where it was located. Yet over time, I realized that they have difficulty even identifying states that surround New York, their home state.”  

If educators were to able to place both the learning material and the testing material on the same geographic platform, perhaps students can be empowered to explore within a map and gain geographic context. Suddenly, instead of existing only as pictures and text on a page, these landmarks become living, breathing points of interest that are populated with educational text and multimedia. In addition, Orbitist allows users to integrate social media posts from Twitter and Instagram, which helps bring contemporary voices into each point and utilizes applications many students use every day.  

When a person takes out their phone to take and share a picture of Plaza de Cibeles, they don’t do so with the intent to contribute to lessons about spanish architecture and culture for students across the world  They do so to fulfill a desire to capture a time and place and to share with family and friends. However, to a student that happens to have an interest in soccer, the sight of the Fuente de la Cibeles in front of the Plaza de Cibeles in that same picture might spark both recognition of the place where fans of famed La Liga team Real Madrid celebrate and a desire to learn a little bit more about just what that place is. Without even knowing it, that student may become more of an informed global citizen through small discoveries like this.  

“Teachers creating content on a map was the original idea…” said Gunner, “...but we realized this was too passive for students. We want students to be able to interact with the maps and assess their own learning. This led to the quiz feature, which includes multiple choice, short answer, and open-ended questions.”

The exercise below essentially functions as an open-book quiz. Students can bounce back and forth between the questions and the map. As they come across answers, they are able to enjoy the satisfaction of meeting goals, while also gaining greater geographic context through their own exploration. Feel free to give it a try for yourself!

Gunner says that results have been positive so far. “The map quiz has been beta-tested in the classroom and has proven highly successful. Students have come away with a better understanding of the geography of a country and the culture associated with it.”

While I don’t believe we’ve come up with the ultimate solution to our nation’s geographic woes with one simple map quiz, I do believe that if we make every effort to emphasize the importance of geographic curiosity and the importance of every individual’s role in a global community, we can better serve students. We’re going to keep pulling at this thread, and I hope you’ll come along with us!  

VIncent Quatroche is Senior Explorer at Orbitist.  He hails from Western New York but has called New York City home since 2010.   Have an idea for a place that you want explored on Orbitist?  Contact him at vquatroche@orbitist.com

You can make beautiful maps like this using Orbitist.  Learn how how to make a map in 8 minutes.