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Exploring the language of maps

Rex Walford introduces the 2006 Young Geographer of the Year competition which challenges pupils to make a map

Maps speak in a distinctive spatial language of lines, dots and patches, which the aviator Beryl Markham once called "The earth in the palm of your hand". Map readers and makers know the power of the map to convey information more effectively than thousands of words.

Professors WGV Balchin of the University of Swansea, and Alice Coleman of King's College London, gave the language of maps and diagrams the name of graphicacy in a seminal article published in The TES on November 5, 1965.

It appropriately caused fireworks and began a long debate in The Times and geographical periodicals. They argued that graphicacy was the fourth "ace in the pack" in education - a skill to be valued equally with and taught alongside the basics of literacy, numeracy and oracy.

A team of researchers at Clark University led by JM Blaut and David Stea showed that children understand and use the language of maps quite independently from these other basic skills. Working with hundreds of children in a variety of different cultures they found that they could understand and use simple maps and spatial diagrams as early as the age of three and that this skill did not depend on literacy.

The famous clerihew "geography is about maps and history about chaps" is too simplistic in its division, but it contains a key element of truth. The place where maps have always been most cherished (and where their understanding has been thoroughly and coherently taught) is within the school subject of geography. And there it is centrally placed as a component of national curriculum work in the first three key stages.

Although Ordnance Survey maps are usually the main focus of specific mapwork tasks in the secondary school, a wealth of other maps can be exhibited and used as world issues are explored in the geography curriculum.

So there is much compelling sense in varying the usual essay format for the Young Geographer of the Year competition for 2006 and asking contenders to demonstrate their competence and flair within the language of mapping.

The canvas is broad. Entrants for the three age groups (12 and under, 13-15, and 16-18) are invited to create a map on any topic, as long as it has a title and is on a sheet of paper no larger than A3. The judges will make their assessment of entries based on the criteria of elegance, originality, communicability and fitness of content for purpose (ie does the map show what the title says it shows?). Maps can be hand-drawn, or computer-drawn, or a mixture of the two, but they will be disqualified if they are merely copies of a map from another source.

The latter condition of entry clearly precludes merely copying a portion of an Ordnance Survey map or gazeteer or atlas map, but such maps might well be the basis for the addition of particular original features which the entrant has discovered and which have not been published before - for instance, the network of underground sewers in an urban centre, the global travels of a pop group or football team, or the observed distribution of a particular plant or tree. However clear and elegant the map may be, applying the criteria of originality and general interest will be a key factor for the judges.

Robert Louis Stevenson claimed that Treasure Island derived mainly from his initial creation of a map ("As I pored upon my map of Treasure Island, the future characters of the book began to appear there... the next thing I knew, I had some paper before me and was writing out a list of chapters").

So perhaps aspects of Harry Potter's world or Narnia might provide some current inspiration, or (more probably) some lesser-known story from myth and fiction which is crying out for a geographical realisation.

In recent years, the parameters of maps have been explored more radically.

Peter Hall's 1960s map of Shrinking Britain based on a scale of time from London (rather than distance) was the precursor to whole atlases of maps in which elements were changed from those normally used. A map of the world which shows the size of a country is related to its population, for instance, provides a very different perspective to the usual maps which show the countries of the world by land area.

There are now more frequent use of topological transformations (the London Underground map is the most widely known) which have increased both the usefulness and the attractiveness of mapping, as the language of graphicacy is used in a more sophisticated way. The whole swathe of GIS mapping packages present opportunities to explore - as does the intriguing matter of mapping human perceptions on a variety of topics.

Even nursery rhymes may be viewed in a new light, when unlocked by a map.

"Only give me a map and I will conquer the world?" said Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great, an eloquent testimony to the power of the map. What new worlds will the 2006 Young Geographer of the Year competition conjure up?

* Full entry details are on the back page of this week's Teacher magazine or visit

Rex Walford is a fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge and was formerly head of the department of education at Cambridge University. He is one of the judges in the 2006 Young Geographer of the Year competition

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