Understanding Maps

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This topic examines perhaps the most famous of geographical outputs, the map. Maps help us make sense of the world and map work has long been a cornerstone of geographical syllabuses. Generations of schoolchildren have been taught how to read maps, and even how to draw them. In your early school careers you may have been introduced to debates about what makes a good map and you were probably asked to draw basic sketch maps to show the locations of towns or rivers, with features such as scale bars and north arrows. You may also have looked at atlases, with their topographical and thematic representations of physical and political geography.

The activities included here are not designed to convey any particular political message, but are assembled to provide a range of exercises to think critically about the production, understanding and use of maps. They encourage you to think critically about graphical presentation of data, the use and abuse of maps and the impact of new technology on our geographical knowledge. The key skill here is the development of ‘cartographical literacy’ – that is, knowing how to read and use maps.

You can supplement the sources and links indicated here with your own independent research. Ask your teachers if they subscribe to the Geographical Association’s resources. The Royal Geographical Society’s webpage is certainly worth bookmarking. And remember to look at the BBC’s and other media outlets’ websites.

If your school has a subscription to Digimap for Schools then you will be able to access a range of Ordnance Survey maps. You will not need these maps for these exercises, but you will be able to apply ideas that you have learned here to those sources.