Social Studies School Service
Our Guarantee

Mapping the World by Heart

Mapping the World by Heart

Mapping the World By Heart by David Smith at

A geography curriculum so innovative that it was awarded a "Breaking the Mold" award from the U.S. Department of Education, and so effective and exciting that it has been the subject of news reports in TIME , the Boston Globe , the Los Angeles Times , the New York Times , and on NBC's Today Show , Mapping the World by Heart is a flexible program that can be used as the centerpiece of a geography curriculum or as an adjunct to a course in world history or global studies.

What's the basic concept? Students are challenged to draw a detailed map of the world--from memory.

Before: In September, students are asked to draw a map of the world, with no help from textbooks or reference materials. Most of the maps are sketchy blobs and squiggles.


In June, the same students can draw, entirely from memory, world maps that include the names, borders, mountain ranges, rivers, and cities of over 150 countries--all properly proportioned and correctly situated by latitude and longitude.

Originally developed for David Smith's seventh graders at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the program has now been adapted for grades 5 and up. A flexible format permits teachers to adopt small portions of the curriculum; the full program works like this:

Each week, students devote two hours of class work and two hours of homework to geography.

Two seventh-grade teachers,
Cypress, California:
"Our 7th grade has mapped by heart for 4 years, and it is without a doubt one of the highlights of their educational experiences.... What we notice most is how the students are stretched beyond what they think they are capable of doing and feel so proud of their great accomplishment at the end of the school year.... STUDENTS OF ALL LEARNING STYLES have a picture of the world in their heads for the rest of their lives.... In 4 years we have not had one student who was unable to do the maps.... The California framework for history/social sciences does not allow for a specific geography course, so we integrate this program with 7th grade World History. It is a perfect blend."
In the first weeks of the school year, they learn about maps in general, covering such topics as blank grids, projections, latitude and longitude, thematic maps, and contour maps.

Next, the curriculum is divided into nine geographical areas that each merit two to three weeks of study. In the first week of each unit, students, given blank maps and lists of the names of features, use an atlas to figure out how to label their maps. They spend the second and third weeks learning about the countries of the area, memorizing facts through review games, and drawing practice maps.

In the last four to five weeks of the course, each student draws a complete, detailed map of the world on a 20' x 30" architect's board.

Smith, a classroom teacher with over 25 years' experience, says, "This isn't instant gratification. It takes nine months. It's a lot of repetition and hard work, enriched by practice and the real use of knowledge--the way people learn anything....

"They start off looking for rivers or mountains or countries.... They end up dealing comfortably with maps and the ability to decode information from maps, to use an atlas, read latitude and longitude....

"Beware of hot gorillas eating nitrates casually, pop!"
--Mnemonic for the nations of Central America: Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama
They end up finding themselves--and each other--and come away with a better understanding of their own special place in the world....

"Remember, we're facing MTV-era kids with an attention span of 20 seconds. To be effective, geography teaching has to become a hands-on, gee-whiz experience.... In an age where everybody is concerned with quick gratification, to start something in September and finish it in May, and do it beautifully, is an important lesson on how you learn."

Seventh grader, Cambridge, Massachusetts:

"It seems impossible at the beginning of the year, but it's really possible and it's really satisfying. It's a year of learning how to push yourself."
The program's flexibility permits it to be used in concert with other social studies courses, and allows for shortened versions of the course. Some classes, for instance, have chosen to paint a "parking lot map"--individual students each become expert on just one small portion of the map grid. Another option: a "world's fair" in which each student becomes expert on one country, then joins students assigned to neighboring countries to set up a "continent booth." Many other variations are also possible.

David Smith sums up the impact of Mapping the World by Heart this way: "It's about two things. One is, making places real.... The other piece that I like is that there is a memory component here. Now we're not talking about short term memory--sit down tonight, memorize a bunch of places, and then tomorrow put it on your map and you're done. We're talking about nine months of work towards a goal.... We're talking about learning how to learn.... Students not only have a vivid internalized world map, but they also have a picture of themselves as a person who is able to undertake an enormous task like this."

Examples of student maps:


Ordering Information

Mapping the World By Heart by David Smith at