The National Science Foundation, through its Education and Human Resources Core Research program (Award DRL-1347859), has awarded a $292,491 grant to the Association of American Geographers (AAG) for a project designed to build capacity for conducting research on learning progressions in geography. Dr. Michael Solem (AAG) will direct the project with co-investigators Dr. Niem Tu Huynh (AAG) and Dr. Richard Boehm (Texas State University).

Learning progressions offer a means for educators to determine how students learn geographic facts, concepts, and skills, and whether they are on track toward attainment of a particular curriculum standard or set of standards. As noted in a report recently issued by National Geographic’s Road Map for 21st Century Geography Education Project, research on learning progressions is an area of critical need for improving the quality of geography teaching and learning (Bednarz, Heffron and Huynh 2013). The available research base in geography education is primarily focused on students’ understanding (or learning) of individual ideas or skills, but not on the relationships between different areas of content or types of skills learned progressively across grade levels.

Through this project, geographers and education researchers will receive training on how to conduct, develop, and validate learning progressions and assessments based on Standard 1 of Geography for Life: National Geography Standards (2nd Edition), which reads: How to use maps and other geographic representations, geospatial technologies, and spatial thinking to understand and communicate information.

The capacity building will involve four major areas of activity over a two-year period:

  1. The project will begin with a symposium that brings together geographers and learning progressions experts to formulate an initial research agenda on geography learning progressions. Participants in the symposium will discuss current debates about the potential advantages and limitations of learning progressions for improving the quality of geography education. On the basis of this knowledge, the group will work together to develop a methodology for pilot research on learning progressions for Geography Standard 1. The methodology will define the parameters for future research and include short- and intermediate-term benchmarks for assessing progress. Envisioned outcomes from the meeting include a crystallized methodology to conduct learning progressions in geography as well as a research handbook that will serve as training materials for a cohort of graduate students and early career scholars interested in this area of research.
  2. A second objective will be to conduct an inventory and prospect studyto determine the range of scholars doing research that is relevant for understanding learning progressions in geography. In proposing learning progressions as a line of research within a small geography education research community, this project immediately calls into question, Who will do this research? What institutions, individuals, or professional associations have the experience, background, funding capability, or for that matter, even the interest in carrying out the type of large scale, replicable research proposed? To provide direction to these questions, the inventory will serve two purposes. First, the inventory research will provide data to assess to what extent the system of researchers in geography education will be able to carry out future research on learning progressions and where potential collaborators might be found in other fields. The second purpose is to identify potential research collaborators for future projects and training workshops.
  3. A third activity will take the form of a research-training workshop with graduate students, early career scholars, and faculty mentors.The training will prepare graduate students and early career scholars to develop, test, and refine learning progressions based on Geography Standard 1. The workshop design will include small teams of participants with mentors to formalize the data collection process (e.g., clinical interviews) and analysis (e.g., coding and statistical analysis) on learning progressions related to the themes of Geography Standard 1 across the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades. Over time, it is hoped that this process will produce a cadre of future researchers with strong research and analysis skills to conduct studies on geography learning progressions.
  4. The project will conclude with planning a national program for coordinated research on geography learning progressions. The resulting research plans and the publication of a training handbook will be leveraged to coordinate future research activity in multiple locations and to work with individual researchers to compile and synthesize the results of their data collection. This effort to scale-up research in learning progressions is a strategy that builds on the outcomes of each preceding recommendation to pave a road map for geography education research.

For additional information, please direct inquiries to the project director, Dr. Michael Solem.


Bednarz, S.W., Heffron, S., & Huynh, N.T. (Eds.). (2013). A road map for 21st century geography education: Geography education research (A report from the Geography Education Research Committee of the Road Map for 21st Century Geography Education Project). Washington, DC: Association of American Geographers.