Ask any teenager for directions and he can pull up Google Maps quicker than you can recite an address. Pretty awesome, right? And I’ll be the first to admit that having a map in my phone that not only tells me where to turn but how long it will take me to get there is pretty amazing. I use it all the time, honestly. But even when I’m zoning out and listening to that soothing voice telling me where to turn, I have a mental picture in my head of her directions. And I never realized that my teenage daughter doesn’t have a map in her head, because she’s never really had to use one. Ever.
Many of the more fortunate students (access to portable electronic devices, multi-car families with parents who drive them around, etc.) are actually worse off in map reading skills in part because they have never needed to develop a mental map and are not adept at navigating their neighborhoods (in the last few generations most and the range that part). When these children become drivers, they are unable to navigate without GPS devices, but they still need to learn map reading skills. They are convinced that their apps can do all the work and that an old fashioned paper map is outdated technology, but their spatial thinking skills become atrophied. Spatial skills are crucial for understanding the world as a global citizen, to understand your local environs and for making scientific discoveries. So teach a kid how to read a map…the sooner the better.