Critical Thinking – Map Projections

Learning to Divide the World: Education at Empire’s End by John Willinsky 

In this post, I discuss some of Willinsky’s thoughts and how it has shaped some of my teaching. Willinsky captures the essence of the current educational problems through the exploration of the past and the dominance of the imperial powers. When the European explores discovered new land during their voyages, their traditional sense of education was overturned and a new order had to be created. Willinsky (1998: 25) cites that the start of this legacy began with:

“…the distance between primitive and civilized peoples that gave rise to a science of our humanity.The dichotomy not only made Europe’s place in the world sensible and secure after it was temporarily unsettles by the discovery of new worlds, but also left it with a mandate for distributing its civilization to the rest of the world in return for governing that world.”

Textbook ≠ Curriculum

In contemporary Ontario schools, the textbook has come to be synonymous with and ultimately drive curriculum (Ornstein: 1994, 70). There exists a multitude of reasons as to why this phenomenon occurs, such as lack of time and inadequate training, but the focus of this post is the impact of replacing curriculum with the textbook, especially given the perspectives that current textbooks are written. Ornstein (1994: 70) explains that good textbooks are:

“…usually well organized, coherent, unified, relatively up-to-date, accurate, and relatively unbiased. They have been scrutinized by schools, educators, and minority groups. The textbook is an acceptable tool for instruction as long as it is selected with care and is kept in proper perspective so that it is not viewed as the only source of knowledge, and it does not turn into the curriculum…critics have found that textbooks in nearly every subject and grade level cover too many topics, the writing is superficial, choppy and lacking in depth and breadth…” 

Willinsky explores the systematic consequences of relying on teaching material, using strategies, and following curriculum that are all Eurocentric. The first step for teachers to develop their own set of resources is to acknowledge that some existing ones are obsolete. 

The Education Shift

In today’s schools, technology allows teachers the opportunity to move away form the textbook and teacher-driven classrooms, to a project-based model. Educations needs to evolve into a system that promotes 21st Century fluencies rather than suppressing it. Critical-thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity thrive within a model of project-based learning. One way I have use a project-based approach has been through the analysis of various map projections. 

The map projection that has been consistently used and distributed to students is the Mercator projection. This projection, created by Gerardus Mercator in 1569, represents the legacy of the imperial project. In the late 20th Century, James Gall and Arno Peters created a map projection that is considered by Geographers as true to actual scale relations. When examining both projections, it is clear that many discrepancies exist amongst nation and continent scales. As an example, Greenland is seven times smaller than Africa but seems enlarged in the Mercator projection. Continents of Africa and South America are significantly smaller in the Mercator projection while enlarging the actual size of North America and Europe. These disproportionate images signify the legacy of the imperial project because the actual geographic sizes are favourable to the ‘conquerers.’ 

 Mercator Map Projection
Galls-Peters Map Projection
The West Wing
Ornstein, Allan C (1994). The Textbook-driven Curriculum. In Peabody Journal of Education: 
Our Evolving Curriculum (pp 70-85). Taylor and Francis, Ltd. 
Willinsky, John (1998). Learning to Divide the World: Education at Empire’s End. 
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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