Geographic Perspectives with Educator Kim Young

This post was written by Dr. Vicki Phillips.


As students are challenged with 21st-century issues, geography is a skill, insight, and vision that allows learners to better understand the interconnected world. Given the complex social, environmental, and political challenges today’s learners will inherit, we must leverage the power of geography to teach them to measure the impact of our actions. 

That’s why I’m thrilled to continue our conversation series in which I’m asking various educators, thought leaders, and other experts in the field for their take on geography, exploring its many layers, complexities, and applications. Through leaning into the importance and full understanding of geography, we aim to inspire both educators and students to better illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. 

This week’s conversation partner is Kim Young, a high school social studies educator outside Boston, MA. Kim is a 2020 National Geographic Education Fellow and was a 2017 National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions Grosvenor Teacher Fellow in Arctic Svalbard. Here’s what geography means — in all its iterations — to Kim:

Educator Kim Young takes a Polar Plunge as a 2017 National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions Grosvenor Teacher Fellow in Arctic Svalbard.

Vicki Phillips (VP): What does geography mean to you? 

Kim Young (KY): Geography means an open invitation to ask questions that will have complex and interdependent answers. Geography is not just about one thing. It is the intersections and interplay between different forces, ideas, places, and things. It is also a lens of inquiry that invites EVERYONE to the table. Everyone is a geographer. Everyone’s field of study uses geographic thinking.

VP: Geography helps build bridges and create connections. How do you see this play out in your work? 

KY: Geography builds connections on both global and local levels. Geography is one way I can “invite in” members of the local school community to my classroom to work collaboratively with students on inquiry. Students have gone geocaching, reached out to local government officials to gain access to topographic maps and community land use plans (as well as drone footage), and engaged with local content experts. At the elementary level, the use of OpenROV’s Trident underwater drone (from the S.E.E. Initiative and OpenExplorer) helped students study vernal pools in the woods next to the school from a perspective/lens they had never considered! 

Geography is also a way I can “invite out” my students to think about a world, area, culture, or idea that is different from what they already know. This comes through engaging with National Geographic Explorers in the field or working collaboratively with Explorers. Last year my students worked with Dan Hammer using satellite imagery to identify illegal mines in the Yanomami Amazon preserve — and then their data was used by Reuters for a news story! Previously, students had never used satellite imagery and they also had a very skewed understanding of uncontacted indigenous peoples. Geography invited them out to be curious and take action in a part of the world they were not familiar with. 

VP: How is geography relevant to 21st-century thinking and what might we do differently with geography in mind? 

KY: Geography is relevant to 21st-century thinking because it is complex, interdependent, and interdisciplinary. 21st-century thinking requires collaboration and movement between silos and this is what geography is all about. Geographic thinking allows us to think differently since things are always a two-way street. Humans impact the environment, and the environment impacts humans — we have to look at a topic from both directions/impacts. Geographic thinking is also different in the way it induces wonder; I think about Joseph Campbell’s universal human psyche and the awe of nature.

Geographic thinking inspires and requires us to think outside the box challenging what we traditionally think is possible.

VP: Where/how do you see geography playing out in the news/world today? 

KY: There is not a topic in the news that isn’t related to geographic thinking, but a couple I’m currently interested in and most closely following are: 

  • Impact of geography/climate on human migration (the emergence of climate refugees and its sociopolitical implications)
  • Climate justice (how inequitable structures, systems, and laws disproportionality impact populations that have been made vulnerable [race, class, gender] and how local communities have worked together to resist and fix these systems)
  • Innovative geographic solutions around human/wildlife interactions

VP: How can we connect geographic thinking to solving the world’s most pressing problems? 

KY: I think a lack of geographic thinking and perspective has led to the failure of many global solutions to the world’s problems; it is a factor that gets overlooked but is clearly visible in hindsight. The best way to start is by emphasizing geographic thinking as part of problem-solving in global K-12 education. Giving students exposure, practice, and scaffolding with geography as part of critical thinking shapes the next (and current) generation of problem solvers. 

VP: What geography fact fascinates you the most and why? 

KY: The general concept of maps being seemingly objective sources that in actuality are very subjective. I love looking at a map and inferring and hypothesizing what it can tell me about the person who created the map and the time in which it was created — the story behind the map vs. what the map seems to be saying about geography.


Read other Geographic Perspectives conversations here. Looking for more stories, ideas, and lesson plans about teaching geography? Click here! And share your definitions of geography on social media — use #ThatsGeography and tag @NatGeoEducation to join the conversation.

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