The convergence of multiple educational disciplines manifests as the subject of geography. Due to the complexity of the subject, there is a need to organize it into themes that facilitate the teaching of Geography in the world’s schools, colleges, and universities. In 1984, a comprehensive educational tool was devised that divided the subject of Geography into five themes. This division was done with the aim to aid the educational organizations to teach Geography in a more structured manner. The National Council for Geographic Education (NCGE) and the Association of American Geographers (AAG) formally adopted the themes and formalized them in the printed form in the “Guidelines for Geographic Education, Elementary, and Secondary Schools” by NCGE/AAG.
The five themes of Geography are Location, Place, Human-Environment Interaction, Movement, and Region.
Location is defined as a particular place or position. Most studies of geography begin with the mention of this theme of geography. Location can be of two types: absolute location and relative location. In the former case, the location of a place is defined by its latitude and longitude or its exact address. Let us consider the case of Montreal, a city in Quebec, Canada. The coordinates 45°30′N 73°34′W define the absolute location of Montreal. However, when we say that Montreal is at a distance of approximately 540 km from Toronto, we are mentioning the relative location of Montreal. In another example, when we say that the address of the Natural History Museum of London is Cromwell Road London, SW7 5BD, United Kingdom, we are referring to its absolute location. However, we are mentioning its relative location when saying that the Natural History Museum is at a distance of about 5 km from another major tourist attraction of London, the London Eye.
Place refers to the physical and human aspects of a location. This theme of geography is associated with toponym (the name of a place), site (the description of the features of the place), and situation (the environmental conditions of the place). Each place in the world has its unique characteristics. The landforms, hydrology, biogeography, pedology, etc., of each place, is different, and so are its patterns of human habitation. The human characteristics of place are defined by the nature and size of its human population, the distinct human cultures, their ways of life, etc. The concept of “place” aids geographers to compare and contrast two places on Earth. For example, it helps to distinguish Antarctica from the Sahara Desert. One is a cold desert while the other is a hot one. While Antarctica has research stations and penguins, the Sahara has nomadic tribes and camels. Thus, in this way, the “place” theme of geography elaborates a clear picture of a place in the minds of the learners.
No other species that has lived on our planet, as per our knowledge to this date, has such a profound effect on the environment as humans. Humans have adapted to the environment in ways that have allowed them to dominate all other species on Earth. Humans have also achieved what no other species have been capable of doing (at least to such a radical extent): modifying the planet to attain their goals of living. Thus, human-environment interaction needs special emphasis and has been classified as one of the five themes of geography. It involves three distinct aspects, dependency, adaptation, and modification. Dependency explores the ways in which humans are dependent on nature for a living. For example, in India, farmers across the country wait for the monsoons to arrive for the successful growth of their rain-fed crops. If monsoons are late, or the rains are insufficient, droughts and food crisis might create havoc in the highly populated country. Adaptation relates to how humans modify themselves, their lifestyles and their behavior to live in a new environment with new challenges. The different types of clothing invented by humans is one of the finest examples of how humans adapted to varying environmental conditions since the early days. While people in the cold countries adorned wool and fur clothing, those in the warmer countries adhered to cotton. The third aspect of the human-environment interaction and the most important one that allowed humans to “conquer” the world is the modification of the environment for his comfortable living. Humans built dams to water their fields in the dry season. They invented air coolers and air heaters to modify the air temperatures of the environment they inhabited. Humans also tamed the wild animals for their use, converted large tracts of dense forests to human-dominated settlements, and developed automobiles and airplanes that shortened distances between places. It is this final aspect of the human-environment interaction, the modification of the environment, that has also created huge problems in the earth today. Global warming and climate change, mass extinctions of wild species, high levels of environmental pollution, etc., have all resulted from the drastic environmental modifications triggered by the human race.
The Earth is full of movement and in a human-dominated planet, movement primarily refers to the translocation of human beings, their goods, and their ideas from one end of the planet to another. Thus, the theme of movement becomes an important part of geographical studies. Movement deals with studies of population immigration, emigration, and distribution in the countries of the world. It is this physical movement of people that has allowed the human race to inhabit all the continents and islands of the world and also explore the depths of the oceans and land on the moon. Another aspect of movement is the transport of goods from one place on the Earth to another. In other words, it is the study of human trade, a practice that has shaped human civilizations and cultures since the time the first Homo sapiens emerged. The third and an extremely vital aspect of the movement theme is the movement of ideas. It is this interchange of ideas between the nations of the world that allows the unification of the human civilization and promotes its growth and prosperity. Thus, the theme of movement forms an integral part of geographical studies.
An area on the planet that is composed of places with a unifying characteristic is a region, one of the five themes of geography. A region is defined by its uniform physical or human characteristics. A region whose boundaries are formally defined is known as a formal region. For example, metropolitan cities, districts, provinces, countries, and continents can be regarded as a formal region that is unified by a common political entity. A functional region usually encompasses a central point with defined boundaries and the area around it that is connected via a well-developed network of transportation and communication systems that facilitates the movement of people, goods, and ideas within that system. A large metropolitan city including its suburbs like the New York City in the United States, Mumbai in India, Tokyo in Japan, or Beijing in China, can be regarded as functional regions. The third type of region is vernacular region. When closely placed in the world have unifying characteristics, we tend to imagine these places bound by an “imaginary border.” Thus, though physical maps do not formally define the boundaries of such regions, we tend to create “mental maps” of such regions.For example, we often group the countries in the Arabian Peninsula as the “Middle-East region”, though such a region is never mentioned in the physical maps of the world.
In 1994, a decade after the “five themes of geography” concept became highly popularized, the National Geographic Society (NGS) developed the National Geography Standards. These NGS standards were represented by a set of 18 standards that was to supersede the five themes of geography. However, though the standards presented by the NGS does significantly influence geographical studies in educational institutions, the five themes of geography also collectively continues to be used as a significant approach to delivering geographic education worldwide.