Coffee Hour: Expertise in Geography

Friday, December 7, 2012 - 3:30pm to 5:00pm
Refreshments are offered at 3:30 in the E. Willard Miller seminar room, 319 Walker Building. The lecture begins at 4:00 p.m. in the John J. Cahir Auditorium, 112 Walker Building.

Expertise in Geography

Unlike most disciplines, geography lacks a significant body of scholarship on the nature of expertise. We do recognize expertise in many ways: experts are given awards for distinguished contributions, they testify before Congress, they testify in court, they write op-ed pieces, and they are celebrated in textbooks and histories of the discipline. We do not, however, subject the idea of expertise to scientific study in the same way that we do with substantive topics.

This lack of scholarship is disappointing for two reasons. First, without an understanding of geographic expertise, it is difficult to develop and foster expertise. What should we teach in terms of knowledge and skills? To whom? How? In what sequence? Second, lacking an understanding of expertise we cannot fully appreciate the power of geographic thinking. What makes the contribution of geography so important? How does it provide particular and perhaps unique ways of looking at the world?

For the past few years, I have been exploring expertise in geography. I will begin by outlining what cognitive scientists have learned about the nature and development of expertise in general. Given this background, I will look at expertise in geography in two ways. The first presents the results of a task in which people, ranging from novices to experts, are asked to complete a map. The second sets an idea about the amount of time required to develop expertise into the typical educational background of a geography student. How much time do people spend in learning geography and developing expertise?

Roger M. Downs (Ph.D. University of Bristol) is professor of geography at Penn State. He has held positions at The Johns Hopkins University, Colgate University, University of Washington, and the National Geographic Society.

His current research is focused on two major topics. The first concerns the nature and development of expertise in geography in general and spatial thinking in particular. The second concerns the way in which knowledge is produced and reproduced in geography.

Downs has been Chair of the Geographical Sciences Committee of the National Research Council, a member of the NRC Board on Earth Sciences and Resources, and chaired the NRC Committee responsible for producing Learning to Think Spatially. He also has chaired a variety of education-related activities including the Geography Education National Implementation Project committee, the National Assessment of Educational Progress in Geography committee, and he coordinated the National Geography Standards Writing Committee. Most recently he co-edited the second edition of Geography for Life: The National Geography Standards.