I have been preparing a mini lecture about the complexity of meaning contained in a map. Apart from having a chance to speak about something I really enjoy, the lecture discusses how the themes surrounding reading maps can be used in a intermediate or high school class. This week I had the opportunity to actual give the lesson a try.

I began with an “upside down” map and asked the students what they saw. It was not long before they realized that the map was not the “right side” up. I asked them how they knew the map was upside down, and they responded by pointing out that the text on the map was upside down and more importantly the landmasses were also upside down. After a few minutes of this, I asked them did it matter that the map was upside down.

It’s funny to note that even as early as grade 7, students know a leading question when they hear one. At first many put their hands to say that it mattered and then hesitantly wavered, but many did say that it didn’t matter since the world is a globe. But it opened an window to talk about global perspectives. From there I showed them a map of the British Empire to talk about colonialism and its impact on the modern world.

Map of the British Empire
The sun would never set on the Howard Vincent map of the British Empire, 1897 Date: 1897

Although I will admit to some disappointment that they had no idea what the Commonwealth is, although I now have another history/social studies lesson idea.

From there I decided to inflict on them of my favourite maps to really challenge them. The map I showed them was the 13th century Hereford Mappa Mundi.

hereford mappa mundi
Exploring a different mental world. Hereford Mappa Mundi

I thought long and hard before including it in the lesson portion because of its complexity. But I decided to include it because I think it is important to challenge students so I went for it and I was glad I did. At first the students had no idea what to do with it, but also a bit of a discussion the class was able to understand the medieval world a little better.

The purpose was to introduce the activity which was having groups of students look at different kinds of maps and then asking important questions about those maps. Here are sample scenarios I gave to them.

  1. FIND A MAP THAT DEPICTS REFUGEE ROUTES

Instructions: You are given a specific kind of map to find. Once you have found it answer the following questions:

What does this map tell you?

Why is this information significant?

What questions would you ask about this information?

  1. FIND A MAP FROM THE 1500s, 1800s, AND THE 2000s

Instructions: You are given a specific kind of map to find. Once you have found it answer the following questions:

What does this map tell you?

Why is this information significant?

What questions would you ask about this information?

The nice thing about this is that you can list any scenario you like and these questions should elicit some really high order thinking about all kinds of issues. We are far removed from the days when geography is colouring maps.

social media map post-facebook (2010)
Nary a pencil crayon in sight

When used properly, a map can be a highly effective teaching tool because a map is more than just about from getting from point A to B, it is a living snapshot of the mental and spacial world of a society

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