Coffee Hour with Roger Downs: Incidental Learning about Geography: Saint-Exupéry and The Little Prince

Friday, March 17, 2017 - 3:30pm
Refreshments are offered in 319 Walker Building at 3:30 p.m. The lecture begins in 112 Walker Building at 4:00 p.m.

The Little Price illustration

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Related news: Penn State’s Roger Downs to receive AAG 2017 Presidential Achievement Award

About the talk

There are formal and informal pathways for developing geographic knowledge and skills. Each pathway is characterized by a mode of learning, with distinctions between instructed and uninstructed learning, and intentional and incidental learning. Each pathway generates different understandings of the world. The scholarly discipline of geography is defined by the formal pathway and that pathway is well-studied. The informal pathway is neither well-recognized nor well-studied. Instead, we lament about the persistence and prevalence of geographic ignorance. Nevertheless, to function people need to know about the geographic world: weather, roads, distances and directions, seasons, cities, hazards, vegetation. People develop an understanding of geography derived from everyday experiences. How do geographic knowledge and skills develop from everyday experience? Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote about flying mail planes in Africa and South America, and wartime flying in Europe. Geography underpins his books, not the formal geography mastered from school instruction, but the informal geography hard-learned from meeting challenges of navigation, storms, night flying with few instruments and little fuel, and searching for emergency landing places. I will use Saint-Exupéry’s life and writing to develop the idea of an experiential geographer, distinguishing between geographic understanding resulting from formal scholarly learning versus informal practical pursuits. The typical reader of The Little Prince would neither expect to learn geography nor would they find a systematic presentation of geography. Incidental to reading the story, they would, however, come to understand some fundamental geographic ideas.

About the speaker

Roger DownsRoger M. Downs is a professor of geography and former head of the Department of Geography at Penn State. He teaches undergraduate courses in human geography, human spatial behavior, and urban geography, and graduate courses in research design and geography education. His research interests include the development of spatial thinking and spatial literacy, the history of geography education, and the design of curricula for geography and spatial thinking. His work on the development of our knowledge about the world focuses on the interplay among the developing mind, the environment, and the process of education. Currently, he is studying (1) the roots of geography (how and why some people become geographers); (2) the development of expertise (how and why spatial/logical abilities interact with experience); (3) the differential development of expertise (how and why gender interacts with geography); and (4) the development of graphic comprehension (how and why we learn to read the world through media). He has been involved in the development of the National Geography Standards and in the NAEP Geography Assessments of 1994 and 2001. He is Chair of the Geography Education National Implementation Committee (GENIP), former Chair of the Geographical Science Committee of the National Research Council, a member of the 2010 NAEP Geography Development Committee, and a member of the Board on Earth Science and Resources of the National Research Council.

Suggested readings

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery et al. Link:

Contact us

Penn State encourages qualified persons with disabilities to participate in its programs and activities. If you anticipate needing any type of accommodation or have questions about the physical access provided, please contact Angela Rogers in advance of your participation or visit.

Angela Rogers  office: 814-865-2493 email: