As It Happens

A whole new world: Why Boston public schools are adopting a different map

School children in Boston are learning geography from a map that shows countries as they really are — size-wise.
This map, used in classrooms the world round, distorts the relative size of countries for the ease of European colonial navigation. (Stephane De Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images)

Read Story Transcript

Looking at a map of the world, you'd be forgiven for thinking Greenland is the same size as Africa or that Alaska is bigger than Mexico.

In fact, Africa is 14 times larger than Greenland and three times as big as Europe, and Alaska could fit inside Mexico with room to spare. 

These are just a handful of the size distortions on the Mercator map — the global standard in schools and atlases for 500 years and the basis for Google Maps.

The Mercator map makes Greenland look roughly proportional to Africa, when the latter is actually 14 times bigger. (RTimages/Shutterstock )

That's why public schools in Boston have become the first to adopt the The Gall-Peters projection, an "equal-area" map that more accurately reflects the relative size of land masses.

The Gall-Peters projection map is better at representing the size of continents, although it still isn't a perfect reflection of the planet Earth. (Wikimedia)

"We were looking at ways to explore bias in the curriculum and how we can alleviate that in the classroom, ensuring that we're giving the opportunity for students to look at the world from different perspectives and not just the same, traditional narrative," Natasha Scott, director of history and social studies at Boston Public Schools, told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

The Peters world map, also known as the Gall-Peters projection, more accurately reflects the relative size of land masses. (Oxford Cartographers)

'See the world in a new light'

First created by 19th-century Scottish map maker James Gall and later published by German cartographer Arno Peters in 1974, the Gall-Peters projection distorts the continents' shapes somewhat, but more accurately scales their surface areas.

It is the preferred map of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and was once featured on an episode of The West Wing.

Boston students got their first glimpse of it Thursday

"It provided them an opportunity to see the world in a new light," Scott said. "They're definitely amazed, kind of like a curtain has been unveiled from their eyes, and they're looking at  it and trying to figure out what else has been hidden from them."

Boston Public School students were 'amazed' by the differences between the traditional map and the Gall-Peters projection, says Natasha Scott. (Dan O'Brien/Boston Public Schools)

De-colonizing the map

So why is the map we're all familiar with so off when it comes to continental sizes? It dates back to European colonialism. 

Designed by cartographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569 as a tool for European navigation along colonial trade routes, the traditional map draws straight lines across the ocean.

"Staying true to size and shape is great if you are sitting in your study, looking at the world from afar. But if you're trying to explore, an idealized map is next to useless," Nick Stockton explains in Wired. 

Natasha Scott hopes that students will become better historians by studying different map styles. (Dan O'Brien/Boston Public Schools)

But it's not all about smooth sailing. The Mercator projection, which conveniently places Europe in the centre, also reflects the world view of its era — and critics worry that it continues to skew people's world views today.

"When you think about what you're viewing on the Mercator map, the Northern hemisphere — you have Europe, you have Russia, you have North America — seem incredibly large. So when you think about that, people are going to associate that, at first glance, with power," Scott said.

"So when we diminish the areas across many of our Third World countries, it's in a way disempowering them." 

The only accurate map is a globe

Of course, neither map is a perfect representation of the planet. Nor are they the only options. National Geographic, for example, favours the Winkel tripel projection.

Since the Earth is globe-shaped, only an actual globe can do it justice.

Public schools in Boston want students to look at both Mercator and Gall-Peters map and make analytical comparisons. (Dan O'Brien/Boston Public Schools)

"We're actually keeping the Mercator maps as well in the classroom, because we want to make sure that students are taking the time to compare, contrast, find the similarities and the differences," Scott said. 

"Every map has its strengths and weaknesses and we really want to make sure that the students take the time to analyze that. Just switching the narrative to another narrative doesn't help them become better historians."



An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated South Africa is twice as big as Europe. In fact, South Africa's land area is 1.22 million km². Europe is 10.18 million km². We've updated this story to reflect that the continent of Africa (30.37 M km²) is approximately three times larger than Europe.