That's Not The Real Map?

Dear Future Teachers,


Most classrooms in the K-12 system have posters on the walls. Different teachers may choose to decorate their classrooms in their own unique fashion, however there is one poster that remains pretty constant throughout many classrooms. By the title of this post, you've probably already guessed which poster that is.... it's the poster of the World Map! For a little refresher, this is the standard map I've personally encountered in many K-12 classrooms:


Image is of an actual classroom map poster from Poster Foundry


This is known as the Mercator Projection. What if I told you that this map that we've seen on countless classroom walls is actually super inaccurate? If you already discovered this, great! If not, don't feel bad. I was a sophomore in college when I was first introduced to the inaccuracies of the Mercator Projection. While the map, which was introduced in the 1500s, is accurate for navigational purposes, the landmass sizes are not portrayed correctly.


There IS a map that portrays the different countries and continents in a more accurate scale. This is called the Peters Projection, or the Gall-Peters Projection. If you haven't seen the Peters Projection before, the differences are rather shocking. Here is one image of the accurate landmass portrayal:


Image from Oxford Cartographies at https://www.oxfordcartographers.com/our-maps/peters-projection-map/



I don't know about you, but seeing the Peters Projection for the first time was mind-blowing. Now, you may be thinking: "So the landmass size is off, what's the big deal?" While I admit, the differences in the two maps may seem insignificant at first, I want to ask you to notice which continents are altered from the Peters to the Mercator Projections, and in what ways are they altered? Here is a side by side comparison of the two maps:


Image from Business Barbados at http://businessbarbados.com/trending/social-progress-index-map-social-investors/attachment/mercator-vs-gall-peters/



The biggest differences that I would like to point out are:


  • In the Mercator Projection, Greenland looks similar in size to Africa. In reality, Greenland is 14 times smaller than the continent of Africa!


  • Europe appears to be only a little bit smaller than South America on the Mercator Projection, but the Peters Projection shows that S. America is about twice the size of Europe.


  • Continents in the Southern Hemisphere are squished down while continents in the Northern Hemisphere appear to be larger in the Mercator Projection.

Image found on Reddit


What implications does using the Mercator Projection in the classroom have? Well, there are several ideas that are influenced by the inaccurate portrayal of landmass of different continents. First, by enlarging continents in the Northern Hemisphere, the map is contributing to a euro-centric narrative. This could unintentionally portray countries like Canada, the United States, Greenland, and European countries as more important than countries in Africa or South America.


Second, the Mercator Projection places European countries in the middle of the map, while they are really located higher north. The eye is drawn to the center of the map, further contributing to the inflated importance of Northern Hemisphere countries compared to countries in the Southern Hemisphere.


Finally, we tend to view "bigger as better" when comparing objects. When certain continents and countries look bigger in comparison to other countries and continents, we may see the larger countries as more important or as the dominant areas of the world. Students may underestimate the size and importance of countries and continents in the Southern Hemisphere.


With classrooms filled with students of color, who may have roots in South America or Africa, we shouldn't portray a misleading narrative about those areas. Many history books in the United States already exclude the rich histories of those continents, and the Mercator Projection further erases the prominence and contributions of those countries.


Schools in Boston have already begun replacing the Mercator Maps with Peters Projections, and I plan to do the same in my own classroom one day. I will say that the Peters Projection will not be perfectly accurate, as it is difficult to show a 3D globe on a 2D map, but the landmass size is much more accurate than in other projections. I encourage you all to add the Peters Maps to your classrooms, and spark conversation with your students about the different map portrayals!



Much Love,



Emily B.