In this lesson students will:

  • Learn about the design elements of a map.
  • Apply an analytical framework to analyze maps.
  • Consider maps as sources that contain bias.
  • Assess the value and limitations of using maps as sources.



Videos were produced in collaboration with the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.

Reading maps: What is a map? (Ronald Grim)

Reading maps: Visual design elements (Ronald Grim)

Reading maps: How to analyze a map (Michelle LeBlanc)

Analyzing a map: “Imperial Federation,” 1886 (Michelle LeBlanc)

(optional) Analyzing a map: “Colton’s Map of the United States,” 1854 (Michelle LeBlanc)

(optional) What is georeferencing? (Michelle LeBlanc)



Design Elements and Big Ideas on a Map

Analyzing a Map

Note to Teachers: There are excellent online sources for primary source maps that you can use with this lesson. The following sites provide digitized maps that cover a range of locations and time periods.

Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

University of Texas—Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection

Library of Congress

Maps to accompany the Choices curriculum unit, A New Nation:


In the Classroom

1. Framing the Lesson

Write the following question on the board: “What is a map?” Ask students to share their responses. What different types of maps have students seen and used? Show the Choices video, Reading maps: What is a map? with Ronald Grim, Curator of Maps for the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library. After viewing the video, review the concepts of selectivity and bias. How are maps selective? What does Grim mean when he says that maps are like stories and contain bias? In what ways does this make maps similar to other types of sources? Tell students that in this lesson they will learn about how to analyze the selectivity and bias in maps.

2. Introducing Design Elements

Explain that, since maps are biased and selective sources, it is important to consider the choices that go into making a map and how these choices influence what the map shows. Distribute “Design Elements and Big Ideas on a Map” and have students read the Part I instructions. Show the Choices video, Reading maps: Visual design elements (Ronald Grim). Students should complete the first table on their handout as they watch the video. You may wish to pause the video after each design element is mentioned to give students time to take notes. After watching the video, ask students to share their responses from the handout. Why is each design element important to consider? How does it show the mapmaker’s bias?

3. How to Analyze a Map

Remind students that they should examine a map for its point of view and the information that is included and left out, just as they would examine written sources. Knowing about the design elements of a map is helpful when doing this critical analysis. Direct students to read the Part II instructions on “Design Elements and Big Ideas on a Map.” Show the Choices video, Reading maps: How to analyze a map with Michelle LeBlanc, Director of Education for the Norman B. Leventhal Map and Education Center at the Boston Public Library. As they watch the video, students should complete the first column of the second table on their handout. Next, show the Choices video, Analyzing a map: “Imperial Federation,” 1886 (Michelle LeBlanc). Students should fill in the second column of their table, recording examples of each big idea based on the map in the video. (For an additional example of how to apply the analytical framework, watch the video Analyzing a map: “Colton’s Map of the United States,” 1854) Review students’ responses from the handout. What is each “big idea” that LeBlanc advises students to look out for when analyzing a map? Encourage students to name specific examples from the map in the second video.

Ask students to make connections to Ronald Grim’s videos. How do the design elements of a map contribute to each of the big ideas in Michelle LeBlanc’s videos? For example, how might decorations and symbols reveal the perspective of a map, or its audience and purpose? What choices can a mapmaker make around orientation or center of focus? Where did students hear LeBlanc refer to these design elements in her analysis? Encourage students to refer to specific examples from the videos when possible.

4. Applying the Framework

Form pairs of students. Distribute “Analyzing a Map” and a map to each pair. Direct students to follow the instructions on their handout to analyze their map.

5. Sharing Findings

Invite a few students to show the class the map they examined and share their analysis of the big ideas revealed in the map. Presenters may choose to read aloud the paragraph they wrote or simply use their handout as a reference.

6. Concluding Discussion

After a few different maps have been shared, ask students to reflect on the process they used to analyze the maps in today’s lesson. How did paying attention to design elements and big ideas shape their understanding of each map? Was this method different than the ways students had previously studied maps? Ask students to consider the value and limitations of maps as sources. What kinds of information do maps present that may not be available through other types of sources? In what ways is a map’s information limited? What additional sources might be helpful to examine alongside a map, in light of these limitations?


Extra Challenge

Show the video, What is georeferencing? with Michelle LeBlanc. Invite students to come up with a question that they think could be explored using data collected through georeferencing technology. Have students write a proposal explaining how they would use georeferencing to answer their question.


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