Yes or No – Everyone should learn all 195 countries in the world, and their capitals?

I’ve arrived at a conclusion.  I believe that everyone, by the time they leave school at the latest (meaning end of Year 11,) should know the names and locations of all the countries in the world, and their capitals; approximately 195, give or take a few controversies.

I believe that this is an absolute minimum, rather than a goal in and of itself.  I believe it from experience, having been someone utterly ignorant of nearly all other countries for so many years, having then been someone with that knowledge described above, and having thought at length over the difference that knowledge has made to the things that I am able to think, the manner in which I have been able to engage with things that I have read or heard said in conversation, in short, the difference it has made to what I consider to be my intellect.

It’s a fairly straight-forward statement, with a very simple, easily measured outcome.  It’s not something we currently worry about teaching at all, and so rather than arguing in its favour, I actually wondered how many people would just agree with me, as they currently think, without any argument put forward, and how many would not agree that it’s something we should have as a goal within education.

I considered, therefore, asking for people’s thoughts, but then only a few tend to engage, so I thought it might be an interesting exercise to give voice to a much larger range of people; the opportunity to voice your opinion in just a few seconds.

So I’m going to ask whether or not you agree with the following statement:

“As a minimum, everyone should know by heart/from memory, by the time they leave school, the name and location of all of the countries of the world, and their capitals.”

The only caveat I shall make is that the statement about ‘minimum’ is important.  What I mean by this, is that in agreeing you are not signing up to a meaningless rote exercise akin to memorising the first 200 dinosaur names:

Rather, it should be assumed that all people would be expected to know from memory the names and locations of all countries, and their capitals, and that in addition to this they will still be educated as to things like the history, culture, physical, sociological and economic features and so forth of a small subset of those countries, as is already the case in geography lessons.  By the same token, if you want your response to be ‘No! They should have them all learnt much sooner than that!” then select ‘yes,’  There’s a comment box for refining your view; what’s important is that you think it should be done by some point.

I’m really looking forward seeing the responses, and from that, gaining some insight into the mindset of teachers and non-teachers out there!

About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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15 Responses to Yes or No – Everyone should learn all 195 countries in the world, and their capitals?

  1. @cazzwebbo says:

    Im in favour 🙂

  2. To add to my comment, I think you would have to have extremely good reasons to justify the incredible stress such a ‘minimum requirement’ would place on students with SEN, say, and I’m not sure you can really do that in this case – desirable an end though it may be. Reward and celebrate those that can do it – absolutely. But make it a minimum requirement – probably not 🙂

    • Kris Boulton says:

      I almost always implicitly speak to the exclusion of SEN students. Partly because I think far more students are labelled as having SEN than *really* do, and partly because the complexities involved in designing a universal system for those whose minds don’t operate in the same way as the vast majority require, I think, a separate and dedicated discussion.

      So, yes, of course it would naturally make sense to question whether a certain minority has the capacity to undergo such an achievement, but the vast, vast majority certainly do, positioning the discussion rather at whether there is any point to it / whether it’s worth the investment of time, rather than whether it’s within the bounds of capability.

      • I don’t think making it a minimum requirement is feasible in terms of capability at the individual or the system level. You’d have to have some sort of a pre-test cut off, and such arbitrary distinctions are, well arbitrary. On what basis would you exempt students with SEN, or a subset thereof, from this minimum requirement? What would be the consequences for students who fall short of this requirement – cram sessions? And why fixate on knowing all 195? Surely the value of knowing different countries and their capitals varies depending on where you live, your cultural heritage etc. Knowing some is better than pure ignorance, and more is preferable to some. You gain value at each point along the scale – as such a graded approach would be more nuanced, and more likely to inform intellectual activity than learning all 195 as an arbitrary minimum requirement.

        I think in terms of desirability, you’d have to argue the case for why / how this knowledge would be useful beyond pub quizzes. I’m not saying it’s not, but you’d have to argue the case. You say this knowledge has enriched your intellectual life – can you give an example of a situation in which it has been useful or desirable have committed this information to your Long Term Memory rather than, dare I say it, looking it up?

      • Kris Boulton says:

        I shouldn’t respond to this now, but I will once the polls are closed

        Thanks for adding it – useful remarks!

  3. Forgive me for my ignorance but is Geography still an optional subject in Year 9? Does this mean some pupils would need to have memorized this info by age 14? This might seem like a technical quibble but does raise some interesting questions.

  4. Loic says:

    No because setting disproportionate emphasis on one bit of knowledge as opposed to another would create a perverse incentive to focus on this even when a pupil would actually benefit more from learning something else. Also it is a bad idea to pick bits of knowledge arbitrarily without weighing up different things people might lear. and chosing in a rational way- there is no reason why this particular bit of knowledge should be privileged over anything else.

  5. Understanding largely consists of aggregate knowledge, synthesized. Understanding without knowing is a myth. Knowing why without knowing what is simply nonsense. And it’s perfectly obvious which one is a prerequisite for the other.

  6. Christine Counsell says:

    I agree with you Kris and I agree with your reasons for it, which I think you put extremely well here:
    “the difference that knowledge has made to the things that I am able to think, the manner in which I have been able to engage with things that I have read or heard said in conversation, in short, the difference it has made to what I consider to be my intellect.”
    I’d add: watching the news and being able to cope with the new information that it flings at you; once some of that information (such as countries and capitals) is already embedded, it not only aids resonance and recognition, but one has more space to take in the new stuff; and being able to form a view and join a debate more readily when these places crop up in newspapers, documentaries, history….

    And I don’t buy the practical objections. Pupils are in compulsory schooling for a very long time. If there was a will and a passion for pupils to know this kind of thing, they could build it gradually and securely, from, say, Year 3. Then you’d just be extending, strengthening and revising across Key Stage 3, and actually using that secure knowledge (alongside much richer knowledge on top) to engage in demanding and critical work in geography, politics, history… during Key Stage 3.

    Nor is this knowledge arbitrary. By insisting on all 195 countries, selection for invidious or partial reasons is precluded.

    Nor is it productive of dull or oppressive pedagogy – it’s fun to learn stuff by heart, fun to challenge oneself to call it up and fun to use it, and great teachers make it so.

    I should add that I don’t actually have all this knowledge yet! But I find myself filling in the gaps systematically, more and more, precisely for the reasons you give, and wishing I’d been required to learn it when I was little.

    Great poll! Look forward to the results.

  7. Pingback: The response – Should everyone learn all 195 countries, their locations and capitals? | …to the real.

  8. Helena Jovic says:

    I think that the knowledge of knowing all the countries in the world only becomes powerful or significant when one has something to connect that knowledge to…be it a political conflict, a person they know, a language spoken there, a cultural difference. This is what I believe enriches learning geography and the cultures surrounding us. Purely memorizing is okay, but it is not enriched learning. Most of the time this kind of learning becomes prevalent as time goes on and when one can connect one knowledge to another and then develops an interest in furthering that knowledge. However I believe that once one is forced to learn all countries, it takes away from the ultimate goal of learning, it becomes more of a chore , something people might dread of having to do.

    • Kris Boulton says:

      It’s a fair point.

      The only problem with it is the reality of the alternative – ignorance.

      Between then and now there are certainly several countries or capitals that have faded significantly… But there have also been innumerable occasions where I’ve been able to interact with something I’ve read, or with someone in conversation, far better and more keenly than I would have before, purely thanks to this exercise.

      School will never be able to predict those occasions for anyone, but we can predict that knowledge of the world’s countries and capitals will pay a role in everyone’s future, if they have it.

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