The response – Should everyone learn all 195 countries, their locations and capitals?

140 people responded to this question; thank you to all those who did.  First, a few quick summaries.  Then, I’ll aim to delve deeper into my own thoughts through one post per day over the half term, returning to one per week after that if needed.

Who said what?

80 people selected YES they agreed with the statement, 60 selected NO.

How many were teachers?

Despite some effort, I wasn’t able to get the poll out much beyond the education community.

121 respondents were qualified teachers, and of the 19 who weren’t, 10 were involved in education in some other way.  With this question I’d hoped to see whether there was any difference in how people responded depending on whether they were a part of a community that was likely to be aware of the issues around a question like this one, however obviously no such analysis will be possible.

How old was everyone?

Here’s the breakdown for age of respondents:

Analysis - 1 - Age of Respondents

With this question I hoped to see if there was any difference in the opinions of people depending on how old they were.  Popular expectation might be, for example, that older people favour a more ‘traditional’ education, one that involved committing information of this kind to memory.  I thought it would be interesting to see how this bore up in this small exercise here.

What subjects did the teachers teach?

For teacher subject, it wasn’t surprising to see that the majority were maths and science specialisms were the most frequent responses, given my own focus.

Analysis - 2 - Subject of Respondents

The purpose of this question was to see if the ways in which different kinds of teachers think and have been trained has any effect on how they would respond to the question about geographical knowledge.

Comments

I’m particularly grateful to the 39 people who also commented on the reason for their response, as this created much greater insight into what was on people’s minds.  It also allowed some people who said yes or no to caveat their response and explain under what conditions they would change their mind.  16 people who responded YES chose to comment, and 23 of those who responded NO.

I’ll add all of the comments to the end of the post as a sort of appendix.

Unfortunately I cannot respond to each individual comment made by those who disagree, but they do tend to fall into certain categories of thought, and so I will respond to those general ideas.  The same is true of a number of comments made on Twitter.

FURTHER ANALYSIS

Age

In this case at least, age didn’t really seem to make any difference to the opinion a person would express:

Analysis - 3 - Age Breakdown

Subject

Again, there are no clear patterns here.  Often there’s a roughly even split, and the numbers are just so small that in most cases any variation cannot be considered significant.  The one tentative exception might be science, where twice as many scientists said ‘no’ than said ‘yes.’

Analysis - 4 - Subject Breakdown

Viewed side by side, the numbers look like this:

Analysis - 5 - Subject Breakdown

CONCLUSION

Even if we go with the conclusion that the division in opinion is split roughly evenly despite age and subject specialism, that in itself is interesting to note.  An initial hypothesis could easily run in one of the following two ways, for example:

“Science, maths and MFL teachers are more likely to vote YES, since they work in subjects where more knowledge is required to be memorised and built up across years, and where more knowledge is required for exam success.”

Or just as feasible:

“Science, maths and MFL teachers are more likely to vote NO, because sciences/languages might underestimate the importance of knowledge recall to other subjects, whereas those who work with children first-hand in these domains will have developed an appreciation for how crippling ignorance is.”

If nothing else, this at least goes to show just how confused, divided and uncertain we are as a profession!  It doesn’t matter how old you are, it doesn’t matter what you teach, we really don’t know what to think.

I need to stress again that when I say this, I’m speaking of us as a professional entityInstitutionally, we don’t know what to think.  Obviously, and as the comments will show, we all have our reasons for responding the way we have.

I already nailed my colours to the mast in the initial post – I’m convinced that learning these countries, locations and capitals is not only the thing to do, but that to not accept it as our responsibility to guarantee this knowledge as a part of our universal education system – as best we can – is a tremendous failing on our part.  With that in mind, I don’t just want to rub shoulders with those who already agree with me, but nor do I want to fight and argue with those who disagree with me either.

I want to persuade those who disagree to change their minds.

I want to do this because, leaving behind for a moment the usual rhetoric of what all this might mean for children, I believe we owe this to every citizen.  Every child in our schools will automatically become a citizen in our society not long after they leave, and post-18 there is no more State obligation to their education or to their future; they’re on their own.  I firmly believe we owe it to them give them the greatest foundation we can, and that this is one tiny but important part of that.

I’m under no illusions as to just how great the challenge of persuasion is; if anyone’s ever changed their mind, it’s relied in large part on their knowing me as someone they could trust, and being open to hearing an argument they might not have heard before.  When the mindset has become so entrenched that: knowledge recall is unimportant, that it can always be Googled, that to suggest otherwise is to heartlessly demand a callous forcing of rote facts into the unwilling minds of vulnerable children, the challenge of asking people to consider an alternative series of arguments is enormous.   But hopefully there will be some people out there ready to give it a go.  To that end, I’ll be taking the next several blog posts to try to carefully outline, as best I can, why I think this is so important, and in that I’ll respond to the objections that people have made.

And what about me; am I open to being persuaded that I’m wrong?  I think the answer to that is ‘yes and no.’  I’m utterly convinced of the utility of having this knowledge to hand; trying to persuade me that it’s not useful knowledge is unlikely to work.  I am, however, wary of the many ways in which an education system which had this as a goal could go wrong.  I’m keen to avoid those pitfalls, and there we may find common ground between those of us who currently disagree.

APPENDIX 1 – COMMENTS FROM POLL

NO

  1. You’re kidding me right? Sure it would be nice for people to know this, but a requirement? Absolutely not! Most people in their entire lives will never have any benefit from knowing this information.
  2. Pointless
  3. “I like the idea, I think it would be nice if they did, but given that all that kids/parents/teachers/schools/the nation seem to care about is qualifications and exam grades I feel the time spent instructing kids in countries/capitals would be better spent preparing them for their GCSE exams. Especially in lower ability/special needs classes where it can be a struggle just to get them to perform calculations involving money and tell the time correctly.

UNLESS

We introduce a new qualification, a full GCSE in “”General knowledge and common sense”” (or similar title) and bundle this requirement with an understanding of political parties, running a household, how loans work, how to plan/prepare balanced meals for a week on a budget and all the other things they’ll need to know when they’re older but are currently not included to a satisfactory extent in current subjects.

Apologies if this doesn’t read very well, stressful week at school…”

  1. Regardless of your claim, this would indeed be a “meaningless rote exercise.”
  2. The main countries, yes, but not bothered about whether they know the capital of, say, Djibouti.. Too much opportunity cost.
  3. I think they should spend that time honing their sob stories for their inevitable appearance on a TV talent show which will become the main source of employment by 2030…
  4. “I think that many students would not have the intellectual ability to learn them, and indeed they would be put off Geography if this happened.

That said, I would LOVE it to happen. I certainly wish that I had been challenged to do so at school.”

  1. Because they change for a start. And because it’s a waste of mental energy. My son can name most of them mind, because he loves going on Google Earth – he taught himself. But I can’t say it’s made him a better person.
  2. The way you’ve phrased the statement is to equivocal. I agree with the overall sentiment, though.
  3. Yes to location no to knowing the capitals
  4. Knowing locations and capitals will be the focus vs why people might need to know relative location and how it impacts people
  5. I think it is a noble aim, but arguably an arbitrary one, and one which would cause considerable distress to young people who may for a variety of reasons find such a task either incredibly difficult or indeed impossible.
  6. It is one, random set of facts, of little use in life. You might as well ask if everyone should be able to recite the Greek alphabet.
  7. “Why?

If it can be ‘Googled’ it’s not a great question to begin with.

Unless I’m on Jeopardy why do I need this info? ”

  1. What is that knowledge for? Aren’t there more interesting things to learn in Geography?
  2. I think all of the countries and their locations, but not the capitals.
  3. In the age of Google, why bother learning random information like the names of countries and their capitals. I would rather know the symbols of the elements.
  4. It’s not where people live but how our children treat them that will be important
  5. “Without context this <constantly changing> knowledge is meaningless. Whist it will be of importance to some, cartographers – even they will work in teams cross -checking etc.

Finally to infer that a binary response to this can provide an insight into teachers’ mindsets might be stretching it a bit far I think>”

  1. For what reason? Seems rather arbitrary to me. You mention that we would still learn about ‘the history, culture’ etc of a small subset of countries- chosen on the basis of what? This is the kind of information that remains unused and gets forgotten the quickest. Far more important to have a rough world view of prehistory, history and our place in it as this at least links to literature, sociology and the ability to predict future events based on past ones.
  2. I think knowing a large number is helpful (I love sporcal for this reason) amd you can get pretty big gains in retention early on. I’m not sure learning the final few after the big gains are achieved is a good use of time. There is likely to be a deminishing marginal return and once that gets below a certain point time is better spent elsewhere.
  3. “I know quite a lot of them. I tested myself and got just over 100 capitals right and named almost all the countries.

It’s not knowledge I’ve needed. Nor can I see its usefulness. My main issue with the idea is the amount of time and effort it would take. I believe given the limited reward for learning them all that the time it would take is prohibitive.”

  1. Countries, maybe, capitals, not so much. I would put the focus on teaching people what makes something qualify as a country to be able to discuss issues like Taiwan, Palestine, Greenland, Antarctica …

YES

  1. I am a year 9 tutor, I started something along similar lines. Every morning we look up a new country – learn how to spell its name, and then see were it is, the capital, the flag, national food etc. Then on a Friday we do a quiz. I am an English teacher – knowledge is key to understanding my subject. Not just history. How can students see literature as symbolic of the world, if they have no knowledge of the world?
  2. I ran a General Knowledge Club at one school. We learned countries, capitals, flags, rivers, mountains… Loved it! I’m an English Teacher but very interested in global learning.
  3. Cultural capital
  4. This sort of general knowledge makes one appear cleverer, friends, colleagues and employers will be impressed. Also, pub quizzes, there’s money to be made…
  5. I hadn’t thought about it before you asked. We had to learn the same for all of Europe in primary and that’s been really helpful. I’d be interested to hear your argument for it. DQ
  6. I learned them all as a child (weekly tests for three years, continent by continent) and it’s the kind of thing that always comes in useful.
  7. In a way, it strengthens your world view and ability to understand world events. Without this context, if someone mentions some sort of conflict between two countries on the news or someone talks about a natural disaster, then the individual who memorized the countries and capitals now has an immediate image in their head as to where they are talking about and helps them absorb and understand the story.
  8. The capitals of the top 100 countries.
  9. My answer is probably, ‘I don’t know’. I think that it would be useful for people to have an education that exposed them to the geographical/political/historical details that would lead them to the knowledge. But a ‘here are the 10 countries for the test this week’ approach would not be great.
  10. “In a Eutopian world this would be ideal and it is something that I would strive to achieve with my own (future) children.

Although I said yes, I wouldn’t necessarily expect this to be covered in schools as I am very aware of the top heavy work load already placed on teachers. So my intentions will be to cover this information with my own children in my own time to both educate them and also brush up on my own geography.

However, I would have no objection to this being taught in geography (and also perhaps RE) in schools. My own experiences of geography at school were all somewhat negative and entirely forgettable. I’m sure I would have found this topic much more engaging and memorable. It would have also put me in good stead as an adult where unfortunately I found myself hopeless with identifying different countries on a map. ”

  1. I think it would help develop curiosity in pupils to travel more and learn more about different cultures.
  2. I wish I knew them! Must remedy.  Agree that knowledge, at a minimum, of the existence of other countries — 195!! — could only produce a more nuanced sense of one’s own place on the world.  There is always the problem of memory, though.  How many names would be retained and for how long and if not retained, is there still value in the exercise?  My instinct is, yes, if only for awateness’ sake.  Thanks for the intriguing question!
  3. Love it! Ties in with cross curr links 🙂
  4. 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.
  5. I would like my son and daughter to have a well rounded education, and this helps. (I am Dutch and live in The Netherlands.)
  6. I’m somewhat less committed to the ‘and their capitals’ phrase – I don’t think knowing all the capitals is critical (though the largest possible subset is desirable!)

APPENDIX 2 – COMMENTS FROM TWITTER

As you might expect, comments on twitter are a bit more free-roaming, but I’ve tried to categorise them as best I could.

I know that, as one person pointed out in the comments above, it’s a bit crude to group people into ‘yes or no,’ so if anyone feels misrepresented by how I’ve grouped them please let me know and I’ll modify the post.

NO

Comments - Twitter - No - 1 Comments - Twitter - No - 11 Comments - Twitter - No - 10 Comments - Twitter - No - 9 Comments - Twitter - No - 8 Comments - Twitter - No - 7 Comments - Twitter - No - 6 Comments - Twitter - No - 5 Comments - Twitter - No - 4 Comments - Twitter - No - 3 Comments - Twitter - No - 2

YES

Comments - Twitter - Yes - 1 Comments - Twitter - Yes - 10 Comments - Twitter - Yes - 9 Comments - Twitter - Yes - 8 Comments - Twitter - Yes - 7 Comments - Twitter - Yes - 6 Comments - Twitter - Yes - 5 Comments - Twitter - Yes - 4 Comments - Twitter - Yes - 3 Comments - Twitter - Yes - 2

Somewhere in-between

Comments - Twitter - Between - 1 Comments - Twitter - Between - 6 Comments - Twitter - Between - 5 Comments - Twitter - Between - 4 Comments - Twitter - Between - 3 Comments - Twitter - Between - 2

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About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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