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Teaching Asian Geographies: Overcoming Pedagogical Barriers

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Teaching Asian Geographies: Overcoming Pedagogical Barriers

Understanding geography, especially physical geography, is not easy for me. A deceased relative once described this ineptness as “not having even a bump of locality.” This handicap notwithstanding, my advocacy for geographic literacy in general, and geographic understanding of Asia in particular, as essential foundations of liberal and international education becomes stronger each year. Despite enormous digital advances in pedagogy, the apparent persistence of widespread geographic illiteracy demands effective, content-rich, and innovative instruction, as well as careful reflection, and high expectations of students. Hopefully, the following entries from the EAA archives assist readers interested in improving both student and one’s own levels of geographic literacy.

In “The Selden Map and the Archipelagos of East and Southeast Asia,” (volume 19, number 2, fall 2014) historian Robert Batchelor uses one of the earliest (seventeenth century) Chinese maps made by merchants to expand readers’ knowledge of the regional and international scope of traders’ maritime world. The author also created a simulation titled “Fujian Trader” suitable for middle school, high school, and undergraduate classes that includes digital video resources. Information about the game is available online and included in the article.

Secondary school instructor Tanya Roth, in “Teaching East Asia with GIS” (volume 23, number 3, winter 2018) uses Geographic Information Systems (GIS) digital interactive maps to teach about East Asia-related topics at the high school level, ranging from the two Koreas to the “Black Death.”

History instructor Patrick Grant and geographer David Nemeth in, respectively, “Geography’s Importance to Japan’s History” and “Geographic Gateways to Seeing and Understanding Korea” (volume 3, number 1, spring 1998) skillfully utilize geography in innovative ways to assist students to better understand key ideas in Japanese and Korean history. Note that both articles were published in spring 1998 but are for the most part (if not entirely) just as relevant for students as when they were published.

Illustration of an island, with boats and a port visible from the ocean
Viewed from the sea, Malacca seemed a modest affair and not what one would expect from one of the world’s richest trade emporiums. Antique engraving published by F. Valentijn, titled De Stad Malacka, Amsterdam, 1726. Source: Wikimedia Commons at

Any reader who doubts the historical international importance of the Indian Ocean should read Michael Vann’s article  “When the World Came to Southeast Asia: Malacca and the Global Economy” (volume 19, number 2, fall 2014). Although Malacca has receded in importance, the Indian Ocean, because of its geopolitical and economic significance, still has a major global impact today.

Over eighteen years after publishing the geography-related article already referenced, Patrick Grant continued his exemplary record of using geography to teach, in this case an important contemporary international problem, in  “The Small Islands Debate: Exploring Critical Controversies in Maritime East Asia” (volume 23, number 3, winter 2018) by introducing students to rich introductory content and innovative pedagogy for Asia maritime controversies that simply cannot be understood without geographic literacy.

Other Teaching Resources:  AFE’s “East Asia in Geographic Perspective”

The Columbia University website Asia for Educators (AFE) includes a compact, but easily accessible page titled “East Asia in Geographic Perspective” that features a variety of useful teaching resources. “The Pre-AP” title may be a bit confusing, but readers should find it particularly useful for general middle and high school classes. Undergraduate instructors are cautioned not to underestimate useful pedagogical materials that are almost surely applicable to most survey level undergraduate courses

image of various sections of east asia geography resources.
Screen capture of Asia for Educators’ “East Asia in Geographic Perspective” website at

Editor’s Note and Request:

In the beginning of the column, I mentioned the terms “careful reflection” in my implicit contention that geographic illiteracy is a major educational problem, at least in the US. I invite EAA Digest subscribers to read this 1998 EAA classic by Roman Cybriwsky “‘Have Fun in China,’ She Said as I left For Japan” (volume 3, number 1, spring 1998).

After reading the article, interested readers are encouraged to write a brief reaction addressing some or all of the following questions: Was geographic illiteracy a problem in American schools and colleges in 1998 and is it still a problem today? Readers who agree with me that geographic illiteracy is still a contemporary problem are encouraged to recommend possible strategies/policies to improve geographic literacy. Most Digest readers reside in the US, but those Digest subscribers from other nations are encouraged to respond in reference to their impression of the state of geographic education in their respective countries.

Please submit your responses using the form available at and also limit any responses to no more than 200 words. We hope to publish at least some of the responses in the September 2021 Digest.