Mental Maps for Orientation, Problem Solving, and, of Course, Language Learning

by Jackie Waite

As a geographer by day, I like to use geography-based content with my Advanced Conversation club.  Geography’s skills, perspectives, and knowledge make great entry points for sharing experiences and for talking about our students’ new environment.  Recently, we spent a session drawing and analyzing each other’s mental maps of the Washington, DC area.

Most of us have mental maps of places, but we may not ever talk about them explicitly. Mental maps are images in our mind where we store information about locations and characteristics of places.  These maps are a mix of objective knowledge and subjective perceptions.   A geographically informed person continually develops and refines his/her mental map by adding layers of information that can be used in problem solving and decision making.   The United States national standards for geography education include “how to use mental maps to organize information about people, places, and environments in a spatial context.”  Specifically, students of geography learn that mental maps can change and become more accurate with direct experience (such as travel) and indirect experience (such as media exposure and looking at other maps)[1].

Mental Map Activity

My objective this day was for students to articulate what they know about the spatial organization of Washington, DC, and discuss how this plays into their level of comfort with their surroundings.  The idea was to see what students identified as most important to them, not necessarily how accurate the maps were.  My hypothesis was that students would draw the most (and most accurate) detail in areas where they live or work, i.e., areas with which they are most familiar.  I thought they might point out sites that were culturally significant to them, and I was hoping to learn more about my students in the process.  In addition to having good conversation, the ultimate goal was for the students to leave empowered and encouraged to refine their own mental maps through direct experience.

1) First we clarified what is meant by a mental map (simplified definition: how a place looks in our mind based on what we see and hear).  I showed them an example of a mental map of the world.  Students were instructed to take 5-10 minutes to draw their mental maps of Washington, DC, on a plain white sheet of paper.

2) Next, we hung the maps on the walls of the classroom. We paired up and did a gallery walk, rotating to the next map every 3-4 minutes.  In pairs, students discussed the following questions:

  • What places are identified by this map-maker?
  • Do you see a lot of detail or not much detail?
  • What do you think this says about the map-maker’s experience in Washington?

3) As a whole group we discussed:

  • Has your mental map changed over time? How?
  • How is your map the same or different from other maps in this class?
  • What did this experience teach you?

The discussion was lively and broke into several topics, such as using Google Maps and technology to navigate; how people give directions here (vs. in other countries); how we think about space; how transportation methods like Metro (underground) limit our knowledge to nodes or stops. Students learned from each other about places they had not been to or had not paid attention to.  We spent some time talking about quadrants and how the streets inside the city are laid out.  We could have spent more time on students’ perceptions of areas and neighborhoods.  We could have also discussed why things are located where they are.

Figure 1Fig. 1.  Student’s mental map of Washington, DC area

One student drew a large-scale map of the Foggy Bottom area where she likes to walk, including a park she likes to visit.  Another mapped out the area north of Dupont Circle where LETC is located and where she lives.  These maps had well-defined streets and labels.  Other students tackled a broader area and included neighborhoods and tourist stops (see Figures 1 and 2).  Figure 1 uses more place names, whereas the illustrator of Figure 2 chose to use symbols to represent places.

Language Learning Possibilities 

Since this was conversation club, we were not limited to specific language objectives, and several naturally fit with this activity, including the following:

  • Specific map-related vocabulary such as scale (large scale = smaller area of real world, more detail vs. small scale = larger area of real world, less detail), cardinal directions, neighborhoods, building types
  • Navigating and giving/getting directions (Where am I in relation to ______? How do I get to ____ from ______, using different modes of transportation?)
  • Prepositions (on the left; two blocks from ______, next to _____, etc.)

Note: drawing the map does not require much if any language to start, so students of all levels can participate and talk about what they have drawn at a level that is appropriate to them.  Students can also draw mental maps of their hometowns.  They can describe them to each other and compare and contrast these places.

Figure 2Fig. 2. Student’s mental map with symbols


If I do this activity again, I will try harder to alleviate bias. That is, this works better when students draw what they want to rather than what they think the teacher wants to see.  I cannot say for sure this happened, but I have my suspicions. One way to remove teacher influence is to challenge them with creating a map to help orient an imaginary new immigrant or visitor.

[1] Heffron & Downs (2012) Geography for Life: National Geography Standards, pp. 27-28.

This entry was posted in Language for Exploring the World, Washington English Center. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Mental Maps for Orientation, Problem Solving, and, of Course, Language Learning

  1. Claire Kevill says:

    Great idea! I love it and will definitely use it. Thank you for taking the time to post this.

  2. Susan Joseph says:

    This plan worked very well for an informal conversation club at the Georgetown Public Library this morning.

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