About Lightning Strikes

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Problem solving in Geography and History

Geography is another area that lends itself to including problem solving. There are many essential questions that elementary students can consider while they're learning basic ideas of geography.

In our 4th grade social studies we explore the early British colonists and Jamestown and Plymouth before moving on to later colonial times and the American Revolution. We look at exactly what the settlers at Plymouth were looking for in a site for their colony and what circumstances led them to pick Plymouth. Then we contrast that with the decisions that the settlers of Jamestown made about their location. Neither group made the ideal choice. The Pilgrims were very pressed to find something before the winter weather grew even worse. The Jamestown settlers were being directed long distance from England by investors who were mostly concerned with finding gold.

I had the idea that we could incorporate geography by having students use a map of the Plymouth area to decide on a settlement location. They knew that the Pilgrim were looking for a spot with a high hill for a lookout over the ocean, flat lands for growing crops, fresh water, a nearby forest for both hunting and lumber, and a deep enough harbor for ships. Students had to apply their knowledge of map scale in choosing a location, and note the lakes and streams in the area. The other three criteria, however, were not apparent on the map we used.

Then, I attended the the Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute and came home with so many wonderful teaching activities! One of them was a geography activity with a scenario set in 1630. It included all the concepts we wanted our students to deal with in their problem solving. They need to evaluate the conditions and connections of five possible settlement sites. The map is a made-up location. Each of the sites has advantages and disadvantages, so there is no correct or easy answer. Students have to think about what the settlers' goals in starting a settlement are, as well as what the site is like (conditions) and what is nearby (connections). This is the map from the activity:

We have the 4th graders work in small groups on this activity. There is always a lot of discussion. They are asked to rate each site for both positive and negative aspects, and to pick the locations with the best conditions, worst conditions, best connections, and worst connections before deciding upon the best site to build a fortified town in 1630.

I have not been able to find this activity on the Williamsburg teacher site, but I found two versions when I did a Google search. They are both a little different than the version I have, having been adapted for specific teaching situations. They can be found at Conditions and Connections Near Jamestown and Geography Activity: Conditions and Connections.

Another wonderful source for geography curriculum that requires problem solving is NASA. I will post about those activities later.


  1. I have sometimes wanted to get a topographical map of a real island somewhere and remove all of the signs of habitation. Then have the students decide where to put various features, such as cities, farms, harbors, water sources, etc. They could then compare with the actual island. A similar idea.

    1. NASA has a geography unit that has a similar kind of activity. Students look at photos from space at night to identify human settlements by the lights, and then look at a topographical map and think about why the people live where they live. http://missiongeography.org/