M is for Map

| May 1, 2014

M is for Map

Toby Lester wrote an intriguing book about the first map that showed what we now call North and South America. In his book Lester details how conceptions of the world altered as technology and circumstances allowed cartographers to explore. For medieval Europeans, maps pictured Jerusalem at the center of the world. Exploration was spurred in part by the search for “Prester John” a mythical Christian king whose empire was reputed to be enormously wealthy. Maps that depict the location of his kingdom place it either in East Asia or in Ethiopia. As explorers ventured out to find the mythical king, the maps gradually incorporated new lands.

Maps seem relevant to this Primer for several reasons: maps are used both in wayfaring and planned trips; curriculum is mapped to chart key benchmarks; and mapmaking reflects conscious choices and assumptions. As a Social Studies teacher, start each school year I have each student draw their map of the world. Periodically they draw a new map as their studies progress. Students typically do not include some continents or have difficulty approximating the shapes of major landforms. Usually in December I have them draw a new map and then compare it with their first effort. The students are amazed to see how much more they can draw after a few months. No matter how sophisticated their vision of the world, their maps always reflect choices of what to include and exclude. No map can capture everything on the surface of the earth. Similarly, curriculum maps show the major topics to be-studied and the planned assessments. Even the most detailed curriculum map cannot detail how a teacher will navigate the daily exploration of material with each unique group of students. Nor will each student’s “cognitive map” of what they have learned look the same.