Education I write about retooling K-12 education to address social inequality.
At a tournament in DC, students compete to identify states from their shapes on a blank US map. They’re having fun while acquiring factual knowledge that enables them to think critically.
PHOTO BY NATALIE WEXLER
The conventional wisdom in education circles is that memorization is a waste of time—and boring. In fact, it’s crucial to higher-order thinking. And a geography game is proving it can be fun.
At some American high schools, it’s not uncommon to find students who aren’t clear on the difference between a city and a state—or a country and a continent—and can’t find the United States on a map of the world. Children used to learn those things in elementary school. But in many schools, high-stakes testing has narrowed the curriculum to reading and math. More fundamentally, many people both inside and outside the world of education believe it’s not important to memorize facts when you can Google them. Far better, they say, to just teach students critical thinking.
But, as scientists who study the process of learning have long known, you can’t teach critical thinking in the abstract. To think critically about a topic, you need to draw on information about it stored in your long-term memory. As for Googling, it’s far more efficient and reliable to withdraw basic facts from long-term memory than to drop everything to look up a fact or a definition of a word.
Still, memorization is boring. Or is it? Sure, handing kids a list of facts and asking them to commit them to memory is liable to elicit groans. But what if you make it into a game?
That’s what Washington, D.C., lawyer Alan Fishel decided to do about 15 years ago. Coaching his third-grader’s soccer team, he realized “the kids didn’t know where Seattle was, they didn’t know where Detroit was—they didn’t know where anything was.” There were geography games on the market, but Fishel wanted to create one that would be fun for both kids and adults.
He came up with GeoPlunge, a card game for third through eighth graders that teaches kids all kinds of facts about the United States, from the names of state capitals to the location of states on a blank map and the order in which they entered the Union. And judging from a tournament held at George Washington University in D.C. last month—the 20th major GeoPlunge tournament since 2005—children get so wrapped up in the game they may not even realize they’re acquiring valuable information.