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Integrating Historical and Geographic Thinking

By Educational Outreach Staff, with contributions from Dr. Mark Newman and Dr. Peggy O-Neill-Jones

The light bulb went on; the energy in the room bounced off the ceiling. While reflecting upon their learning after a two-day Teaching with Primary Sources workshop, one teacher exclaimed, “I can bring geography back into history!” The workshop focused on examining primary sources through two lenses: history and geography. Another teacher could just have easily said, “I can bring history back into geography!” with equal enthusiasm.

Primary sources support the study of many disciplines, including both history and geography. Connecting and layering these two disciplines can contribute new perspectives and a multi-dimensional understanding of complex topics—no wonder teachers are excited!

Each discipline informs the other with its own specific set of thinking or reasoning routines. When analyzing a primary source, students might apply historical thinking strategies of sourcing, contextualizing, close reading, using background knowledge, reading the silences, and corroborating (See Sam Wineburg, TPS Quarterly — Historical Thinking: Vol. 3, No. 1, Winter 2010). Or, they might apply geographic thinking or reasoning to the same source, considering location, place, human-environment interaction, region, and movement, and looking for patterns and changes (National Geography Standard Index).

Geographic Thinking

Geographic thinking, also called "geographic reasoning" or "spatial thinking," conceives of the Earth as a physical system with interconnected sub-systems, including humans as biological entities as well as members of collective societies (C3 Framework (PDF)).

By considering the geographic concepts of location, place, human-environment interaction, region, and movement, students develop an understanding that extends beyond identifying our planet’s physical features and knowing how to find them on a map. In the new C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards, the interconnectedness of these themes is described in four categories:

  • Geographic Representations: Spatial Views of the World;
  • Human-Environment Interaction: Place, Regions, and Culture;
  • Human Population: Spatial Patterns and Movements; and
  • Global Interconnections: Changing Spatial Patterns.

Applying geographic thinking strategies can help students ponder questions such as: How is this place unique? How do people influence their environment? Why do people move from one place to another? Time is an important element in geographic thinking as well. Using geographic thinking, students can consider how and why places have changed over the last decades, centuries, or millennia.


Location refers to the physical situation of an identified place. This could be related to its coordinates on a map or where it is located in relation to or within another location of note, for example, a town, state, region, country, or continent.

Students can hypothesize about the economic, social, cultural, or strategic importance of a location and can extend this thinking to form ideas about what geographic features generally hold value and utility to human beings. Teachers can encourage students looking at maps of a location to think about why and how they were created.

  • Who were the intended users?
  • What was the map’s creator attempting to communicate to these users about the location and why?
  • What cultural or political biases are evident?

Comparing maps or other spatial views of the world can also help students think about location. For example, a teacher might show students two maps of the District of Columbia, from 1835 and 1901. (The maps can be printed or viewed online, where students can zoom in to see minute details or zoom out to see the placement of the city in relation to its environs.) Students can study the maps individually and together. In addition to thinking about why and how the maps were created, they can consider what changes took place between 1835 and 1901. They might notice that in 1835, the District encompassed two counties, but by the twentieth century, its western boundary stopped at the shores of the Potomac River. Why? Students might notice that the 1901 map sections the city into quadrants. Encourage them to investigate the political, economic and demographic significance of these boundaries, then and now. What does comparing the maps suggest about the development of the city during the 19th century?


In geographic terms, place refers to the special qualities that make a designated space distinct from other locations. A place can be defined in ecological, political, historical, or cultural terms. Observing the physical characteristics of a place and how these might differ from physical characteristics of other places is important as students consider the diversity of Earth’s environmental and societal features.

When applying geographic thinking to the analysis of primary sources, students closely observe the topography -- lakes, rivers, shorelines, and mountains -- of the place under study, along with its plant and animal life and manmade structures. They might reflect on the unique qualities of the area that define it as a place, evidence of how humans have responded to its particular geographic features and the ecological, political, historical, and cultural themes connected to it. Students can think about how they would react emotionally if they were standing in this place – what would they feel, hear, see, or smell. They might question how big or small the place is and why the creator of the primary sources chose to include some, but not other, features that they would expect to see.

This perspective map of Cairo, Illinois, created in 1867, offers a bird’s eye view of the town. The bibliographic notes for the map indicate that it was not drawn to scale. After observing the details of the map – including the placement of the town, the geographic features it portrays or omits, the activity on the river, and the layout of the town – students can speculate about its purpose. For example, they might guess at which features of the map might have been off scale, portrayed either larger or smaller than they actually were. Why?

Students will probably notice dark smoke billowing out of the ships on the river. Today, this image conjures concerns about air quality, but what message would it give to someone living at the beginning of the industrial age? Why would the mapmaker want to define this place in this way?

Cairo, Illinois, also appears in a Civil War era map, Map of the present seat of war in Missouri. How is the notion of place different here? The map shows the placement of Cairo in relation to the states of Kentucky and Missouri. Why?

  • What else is included in the map?
  • What was the purpose of this map?
  • Who would have used it?
  • What geographic features made Cairo well suited to both military campaigns and commerce in the 1800s? Are those features still important to us in 21st century? How does this affect the economic and social conditions of present-day Cairo?

Human-Environment Interaction

Geographic thinking also focuses on how human beings shape and are shaped by their natural environments. People’s actions can be both beneficial and detrimental to the natural world, triggering local, regional and global consequences. Primary sources offer examples of a variety of actions, including grand environmental change projects, implementation of land use policies and practices, and conservation efforts. For example:

  • Documents and photographs about the Tennessee Valley Authority, before and after completion of dams, offer an excellent example of a significant and large-scale project that had great economic impact over a whole region. Students can speculate about and find evidence of negotiations between government officials, professional groups, scientists, and citizens that influence large and small human-environmental interactions.
  • Land use maps illustrate the interconnectedness between earth and human economic and social activity, including farming, mining, manufacturing, and even slavery.
  • Primary sources related to conservation projects demonstrate how our feelings about the treatment of our natural environment incorporate both practical considerations and transcendent emotions. For example, students in younger grades can read the words of conservationist John Muir, who considered sleeping outdoors to be one of life’s greatest pleasures, and write about their own encounters with the natural world. Older students can review language from the 1918 bill establishing the National Park Service to identify the values expressed within it.

These materials can shed light on mental models, through time, that are similar and very different from those we have today.


Location, place, and region focus on defining space in various ways; movement examines how and why places are connected to one another. This study of how and why people move examines not only where people leave, but also where they travel to reach their final destinations. The study of population movement offers students an opportunity to learn vocabulary such as migration, displacement, refugee, immigrant, alien, and the social, political, cultural, economic, and health connotations of these concepts.

The reason for a population’s movement provides an interesting lens through which students can analyze primary sources. Primary sources often portray causes of human suffering, such as scarcity, expulsion, climatic conditions, and extreme competition for resources. Some primary sources were created by individuals who were compelled to move, like those fleeing the Dust Bowl. Their emotional reactions to movement often include both a sense of loss for the cherished familiar and anticipation of new opportunities, conveyed in diary entries, poetry, songs and artwork. For example, students can study the photograph Oklahoma dust bowl refugees. San Fernando, California, taken by Dorothea Lange in 1934, and imagine the feelings of the occupants of the car shown, stuffed with inhabitants and laden with belongings.

In the recording of the song Why We Came to Californy, students of all levels can hear composer and performer Flora Robertson’s firsthand account of the conditions that pushed her family toward California. Her song provides personal insight, promotes empathy, and provokes questions about why people move and the relationship between humans and the places in which they live. Students can reflect on what that means in the context of today and our own treatment of and dependence on our natural environment.

Listening to Mrs. Robertson’s use of language also suggests her background and level of education, which might lead to a discussion about the socio-economic aspects of groups that bear the greatest hardship during population movement. Students will hear how the Robertson family adapted to their changing environment and how the family’s circumstances affected the way they choose to adapt. Providing students with a printed copy of the text may help them better understand the recording.

Official documents, like the directives that precipitated the Trail of Tears, can expose another reason for movement and shed light on the consequences of population shifts; competition for, and ownership of, natural resources; changing laws; and perceptions of human rights related to land.


An important aspect of geography is organizing space and using models that reflect how humans conceptualize a region. A region can be defined as an area with unifying physical characteristics such as climate or topology; or human characteristics, like history, ethnicity, politics or economic activity.

A teacher might ask students to examine the details in these photographs representing two very different regions within the United States – Alaska and the Southwest. Students’ observations, reflections, and questions can launch investigations about how the geographic features of these regions shaped economic, social, and political life over time.

Combining the Study of History and Geography

How might teachers and students apply both historical and geographic thinking strategies to analyzing one primary source? Consider some approaches to analyzing the cartoon “School Begins” using both geographic and historical thinking strategies. Historical thinking strategies can help students see that the source of this article is Puck magazine, a publication operating at the turn of the last century, famous for its satirical cartoons. They will observe a figure representing Uncle Sam portrayed as a teacher in a classroom. Through close observation, students will notice depictions of various ethnicities and nationalities, each with a different position, attitude, and occupation. Using their background knowledge, students might recognize that each figure represents a place or population with a history of contact with the United States. Students can analyze the placement, body language and facial expressions of the students shown in the primary source. Those with sharp eyes might see that Hawaii is portrayed as a female. Why? They might also notice and speculate about the meaning of the placement and activities of the African American and native boys in the cartoon or question the identities of the orderly students in the back of the room.

Figure 2. This political cartoon, “School Begins,” was published in Puck magazine on January 25, 1899, as the U.S. Senate debated annexation of the Philippines. Its caption reads: “Uncle Sam (to his new class in Civilization).—Now, children, you’ve got to learn these lessons whether you want to or not! But just take a look at the class ahead of you, and remember that, in a little while, you will feel as glad to be here as they are!” (Dalrymple, 1899)

Because this primary source refers to American imperialism in the late 19th century, it also contains rich fodder for applying geographic thinking routines. Students can map the locations of the places shown in the cartoons, particularly in proximity to the United States. They might look at American interaction with the regions shown over time, and consider what else might have been happening in the world, such as wars, colonization, and technological advancements. Imperialism is often based on geographic features, resources above and below the ground, and intentions for human-environmental projects, such as mines, dams, fishing, and agricultural plantations. Students can research the characteristics of each place and reflect on why the American government considered it to be of strategic or economic importance.

Movement is a central theme of American history. This primary source alludes to voluntary and involuntary movement within, to, and from the continental United States. Students can use both geographic and historical thinking strategies to identify references to human movement in the cartoon. For example, people of various races and ethnicities appear. What does the primary source say about how, when, and why each came to the United States? What turn-of-the-last-century attitudes about each population does it portray? Students might also consider the movement of people, like soldiers, administrators, engineers and agriculturalists, away from the U.S. to other regions that might have been necessary to support imperialistic ambitions.

Integrating Geographic Thinking

Twenty-first century geography is action-oriented and framed by attitudes, skills and knowledge. Virtually every subject in the curriculum, from social studies to the physical sciences, connects at some level to geographic thinking. Combining geographic thinking with primary sources can help students build deeper, more nuanced content knowledge and hone key analysis and literacy skills.

Both and the Teachers Page are rich with geography-related primary sources and classroom materials. Students can use maps, photographs, surveys, blueprints, government documents, battle plans, diaries, and myriad other primary source formats to enrich their investigations of the geographic themes of location, place, human-environment interaction, region, and movement.

Dr. Mark Newman is Associate Professor of Social Studies Education and Coordinator of Secondary Teacher Education. He also directs the TPS program delivered by the Federation of Independent Illinois Colleges and Universities.

Dr. Peggy O’Neill-Jones is Professor of Journalism and Technical Communication at Metropolitan State University of Denver. She directs both the TPS program at MSU Denver and the TPS Western Region.