195 Countries – Framing the Question

The importance of framing is well understood.

'Always stress the positive. Instead of, ‘Give me the cash or I'll shoot,' try, ‘Hand over your money and no one gets hurt.'

I asked the question:

“Should everyone learn the names of all 195 countries in the world, their location and their capitals, by the end of Year 11?”

I didn’t put all that much thought into how to frame the question, as pointed out in one of the comments amongst the responses:

“The way you’ve phrased the statement is to equivocal. I agree with the overall sentiment, though.”

To give a couple of examples of alternative framing, at opposite extremes, I’m sure some people read what I wrote like this:

“Should we force everyone to rote-memorise and be able to regurgitate on command 195 countries and capital cities?”

It’s very easy to disagree with this statement.  Others might have read it this way:

“Should everyone have a right to knowledge of what the countries in the world are, where they are, and a little about them, like their capital city?”

Again – I certainly hope! – it’s pretty difficult to disagree with this statement.  Yet, the objective to which they each refer can easily be the same, interpreted and framed through different lenses.

I figured I should therefore start by adding a little more nuance to precisely what I meant.

Knowledge of the countries is powerful knowledge

I’m suggesting we should see it as a responsibility to ensure that everyone in society has some awareness of all of the countries in the world.  To that end, I would suggest that the location of each country and its capital city would serve this purpose, at least in part.

I think it’s important that everyone know these things; I have not yet made the argument as to why I think this is important, but it seems obvious that while it might be impossible to reach all of the 50 million people in society to help them learn this, we certainly can reach the 10 million people who are still a part of the state education system.

I don’t intend for this to be a pointless box-ticking hoop-jumping exercise to be forced upon unwilling victims.  One commenter asserted:

Regardless of your claim, this would indeed be a “meaningless rote exercise.”

If this were the case, then my vision would not have been realised; this is not what I want.

So if this were the case, something would have gone wrong, and it would be a systemic flaw that would be in need of correcting.

A person could argue that it is not possible for an endeavour such as this to be undertaken and for it to end in anything but meaningless rote knowledge – I will not be swayed by such an argument since, having undertaken it personally, I know that it was so far from rote or meaningless as to render such a claim absurd.

However, I do allow for the caveat that I am an adult with a wealth of knowledge and experience to draw upon as I was learning these things.  I was also self-motivated; there was no external agent imposing this end-goal upon me.  This must lead to a completely different experience for me as compared to a young person in school undertaking a similar activity because they have been ‘told they must, and there will be a test.’

The knowledge doesn’t end with lists of names

What is that knowledge for? Aren’t there more interesting things to learn in Geography?

Some people expressed concern to me in person that a list of names isn’t meaningful, meaning, it isn’t enough.  They argued there should be greater knowledge of the countries’ cultures and customs, their society, some brief history, their relationship with the world around them and so forth.  Things such as these should be the jumping off point for socio-geographical study, and through this countries would become known.  This sentiment, I think, is expressed in the above comment.

Here I found I was sometimes misunderstood.

Yes to most all of the above.  I’m not advocating that all that be removed or sacrificed.  I am, however, acknowledging that it is impossible to do that for every country.  I am also arguing that it is important to have some awareness of all the other countries for which this level of study is not possible.

The one should augment the other, not preclude it.

The timeframe is eleven years, not Year 11

I also found that some people automatically pictured a joyless cramming and testing regime.  This is hinted at in this comment:

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.

At a rate of ten countries per week, you’d be done in twenty weeks, before barely half a school year had passed!

Across eleven years in formal education, there are roughly 420 weeks of schooling available.  Across that length of time you could introduce countries at a rate of one per two weeks if you wanted, and still have 30 weeks to play with.  I’m not suggesting that’s the structure we go for, but I am suggesting we would engage in drill practice and recall tests, in no small part because what we now know is that testing leads to learning (and here); rather than simply assessing it as we once thought.  Testing is a pedagogical tool.  By avoiding tests we are letting people down.  That doesn’t mean cramming at the last second though.  By spreading this out strategically across a decade we could easily structure socio-geographical study so that people learnt in depth about countries whose existence at least they were made previously already aware of.

It’s important we see education as a whole journey from start to finish, not just what happens in the GCSE years.

About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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14 Responses to 195 Countries – Framing the Question

  1. What else should be learned in a similar way?

    • Kris Boulton says:

      I’ll come to this properly in later weeks, but in brief I’m wondering about things like the periodic table, major rivers and mountain ranges, prime, square and cube numbers up to a point, and dare I say it, I’m even seeing some potential value in the old ‘dates of kings and queens’ idea.

      Could you see any value in any of this Martin, or does it still all seem a bit pointless and rote at the moment?

      • I’m all for rote learning, or ‘learning by heart’ of some things but not everything. I think this is something you’d agree with, in fact almost everyone would probably agree with. I can see a purpose in learning the alphabet, times tables, even the Lord’s Prayer… but I’m not sure about countries and capitals…

        Perhaps this is about things that might change, I still think of Peking as the capital of China, it is printed in my mind indelibly, Ceylon and Rhodesia still make an appearance in my memory as does the good old USSR… But an ‘awareness’ of where countries are, their flags and cities and up to date knowledge of what is changing and why is of use. In this case I wouldn’t ask for kids to ‘remember’ but to ‘approximate’ and, in some cases, be able to make an educated guess would suffice…

        So, how about, learn continents by heart? Know (pretty much) what countries are in each continent and keep up to date with the changing picture… For example what to make of Kurdistan, Iraq, and Syria at the moment…?

        Planets would be useful, Pluto was out and some say it is now back in, Constellations and names of certain stars would be good, things that will generally stand the test of our lifetime and do not change in a way that upsets our ‘knowing’… Your call on prime numbers would be a yes, kings and queens would be a yes as that is a way we think about ‘eras’ though that would be a call for a republican oriented free school to think about (Think Industrial age rather than Victorian maybe – though not a precise fit – how about a mix of ‘ages/eras’ and ‘monarch ages/eras’?), prime ministers, historical dates/events all yes, periodic table yes but keep up to date with additions… Mountain ranges and rivers (which names to learn) earthquakes permitting pretty much a yes, the ‘great lakes’ etc.

        And some Shakespeare, great poets etc. as these ‘won’t change’ though might come in and out of the canon…

        Interesting to think about a ‘remembered canon’ an ‘ought to know about’ canon an ‘aware of’ canon and an ‘I ought to know more about’ canon and stuff I’m interested in and then sheer bloody trivia…

        Will follow your posts with interest.

  2. l4l1 says:

    Constellations in the sky – they haven’t changed much. Right Ascension and Declination and how to plot the moon, planets and other celestial objects using a star atlas with those. All the Messier objects and the names of all the craters and mountains on Mars and the Moon.

  3. Kris Boulton says:

    What sense of perspective would memorising all of the craters and mountains on the moon and Mars give? What does it mean to memorise them? Diameter, height, location or just name: what is being memorised?

    How could a person memorise the Messier objects when, to the human eye, they all look so similar as to be virtually impossible to distinguish quickly and easy? Or do you just mean memorise the list of names of Messier objects… which is just M1-110. Again, what precisely is being memorised?

  4. l4l1 says:

    Some people index “some” of them with “common names” > http://files.seds.org/pub/info/messier/m-names.txt – which are quite wonderful and poetic in many cases. I could say the same about rivers – perhaps you need a satellite to see those? Where is the cutoff point and why? I found those objects extremely beautiful to observe on a clear night as a child through binoculars and took a very close interest in the not only their celestial beauty but also their nomenclature, where they were, how the earth moved in relation to them – astronomy in general. I remember having to take an Astronomy badge in the scouts – it was a breeze but I didn’t get the top marks – that went to another boy who wanted the badge really badly – he had zero interest in the topic – he just wanted to get another badge. I found that extremely amusing at the time and I still do. However I wouldn’t say it is something everyone must know but who is to say what is more important that what, in terms of “knowledge”, in terms of nomenclature in particular. Either we want people to learn proxies for things in the hope they might find them useful in a notional future or we explore more in depth or a combination of both. I could say the same about poetic forms and favourite poems – the fact that a trochee is the underlying metrical unit of Longfellow’s Hiawatha does not matter to some people – it might add insight but beyond that (unless you are writing a parody or comic verse) I can’t see much value other than an academic interest. Does it make you “smarter”? I don’t know?

    • Kris Boulton says:

      I think these are all really good questions to ask. I suspect everyone does have a sense that ‘some knowledge is more important that other knowledge,’ where I guess we could try to define ‘important’ as ‘going to be of greater use or interest to a greater number’ – but, when we try to define what knowledge is important any further than that, all manner of problems fall into place, and some choose now to instead declare a relativist position: ‘No knowledge is important / or all knowledge is equally important.’

      For now, in this discussion I’m trying to stick only to simple factual knowledge that could be memorised without the aid of any teacher. Relatively complex ideas like ‘the themes of Oliver Twist’ or ‘solving quadratic equations’, as examples, wouldn’t fit into this category.

      I would admit up front that I don’t know what knowledge is most important, but I do have a sense that some is more important that others, as defined above.

      I fit all 195 countries into that for reasons I’m going to go into the following weeks, and I specifically define ‘what is to be memorised’ as ‘their names, their capital, and their location.’

      My way of trying to frame my thoughts is going to be to speak about ‘frameworks of knowledge’ – overarching broad but shallow frameworks into which more complex/deep study can fit or be contextualised. In this way, the countries are a socio-geographical framework for understanding what is happening where in our world. I’ll make the case for why all 195 instead of ‘some of them’ later.

      But in other cases maybe a ‘some of them’ approach is more appropriate. Why might I argue for major rivers? Because maybe they could form a physical-geographical framework for understanding ‘place’ in the world. Coincidentally many cities and borders are also defined around or along rivers, so perhaps then the two frameworks tie together and become ever more meaningful.

      I read once there are around 165 ‘major’ rivers – fewer than there are countries. So *if* it were thought that it would be of use to memorise them (name and location) then is the case for memorising all, or only some – those in particularly ‘important’ parts of the modern world? Again, I don’t know, and I could see a strong case being made either way.

      With moon and Mars mountains and craters, I would struggle to see how they provide a framework for anything at a ‘shallow/introductory/everyday level’.

      With Messier objects – maybe it *would* be worth memorising a number of the 28 named objects here:


      Argument for it: might provide a more acute sense of scale (as you put it, sense of perspective) – embedded knowledge of some objects such as these might inspire greater curiosity / desire to study astronomy in more depth

      Argument against: there might be a better framework to provide that

      There’s also the problem here of, as I said, *what* specifically is being memorised? The list of names alone? Possible, but it will run into the same problem I’ll set out for the ‘names of countries alone’ in the future. Name and relative position in night sky maybe? I don’t know…

      But would a better framework for sense of scale / place in / perspective of the universe be key distances e.g. distance to moon, sun, Pluto, Alpha Centauri, dimensions of Milky Way, number of stars in Milky Way, distance to Andromeda, number of galaxies in the universe – or something to that effect?

      Back to the ‘problem’ I mentioned in the previous paragraph, in brief, memorising the Messier objects’ names means a person is trying to pair up each of 28 names to a single cue: “Messier Object”. In the alternative I just provided each item is paired with a single cue e.g. “Distance to sun ~ 150 million km” This is an easier memorisation activity in which to engage.

  5. chemistrypoet says:

    I think this thread is round the wrong way. I keep asking myself, why does Kris think this information should be memorised? Why does Kris think that lots of different things should be memorised…what’s the context?

    This post we learn that you personally gain enormously from memorising things. It appears to empower you, opens up a route for making connections….perhaps gives a framework for understanding? But, is this just personal to you? Is it a universal thing? Only at the end of the blog series wil these questions, possibly, be answered.

    (btw, The periodic table thing….I’m a chemist, and think that learning bits of the Table would be very useful for sixth formers (not the whole thing, mind). For younger students? Not so sure of the benefit.)

    • Kris Boulton says:

      Thanks for the comment. You might be right… maybe it is the wrong way round. I’ll make the point next week that it’s this way around because I accept it’s more likely my own personal experience that convinced me, and so it’s my own personal experience that I recount. The ideas underpinning why it might have been of value have probably come after having been convinced through experience.

      Is the utility personal to me? I cannot see how it could be – I can’t believe that I am somehow uniquely privileged in being able to make meaning of the world from that which I know about it!

      What I do accept is that my experience and enjoyment of the process might be more personal to me. Especially, I acknowledge that my voluntarily choosing to invest time in an activity of memorisation, in combination with all of the prior knowledge that I bring to bear and connect to as I go, must make the experience for me quite different than for, say, a child in school being told they have to memorise a bunch of things, not having a clear sense as to what value it will eventually have, and not having the requisite pre-existing knowledge to connect it with things they’ve heard in the past.

      I suppose I’m tackling this from a ‘what should be done’ perspective, rather than ‘how to do it.’ I’m arguing that there is value in everyone in our society having this knowledge. I would accept that there would be challenges to implementing it successfully, though with respect to the ‘how,’ I would hope that curricula might be developed that would ‘flesh out’ the simple facts that were being deliberately memorised. For example, if countries and capitals 1 through 20 were being memorised in any given period of time, I would hope that a school curriculum would have been developed that meant at least some of those countries would be referred to in subject studies across that same period of time, and then hopefully the remaining countries would have *some* meaning given their geographical proximity to those that were being studied or referred to in greater detail.

      The only school I’m personally aware of that’s currently designing its curriculum with this kind of idea in mind is Michaela Community School:


      As for the periodic table, I will eventually advocate for it as a possibility, and am giving more thought to that at the moment. I’m actually hoping to go through the process of memorising it myself sometime in the near future.

      One of the things I’ve found when making a deliberate effort to memorise things by heart is that the process requires time, focus and deliberate thought. As a result for me there have always been unexpected benefits. With poems I found to my surprise that the act of memorisation led, for the first time, to my being able to derive meaning from poetry:


      With the periodic table, it’s not the list of atom 1-118 alone that I expect to hold value, it’s everything that I hope will come with that, like having a clear recall of the the eight coloured groups listed here:

      And from that a sense of what makes each of them a distinct category. Or, I remember that the chemical properties across the 18 groups at the top made a difference to how they acted/reacted, but can’t think of many specifics. Same for how things change as you move down the table, or having a real sense *in my head* as to how many metals there are versus non-metals, or what separates the noble gases from the other non-metals, or just how many unstable elements there are… etc.

      Answers to some of these questions I obviously won’t take from memorising the periodic table alone, but my hope is that an *internal* knowledge of the table will lead to the ability to hold these questions in my head, the choice to look them up when I have the time in future, and then being more likely to hold on that knowledge as I see how it fits into the periodic table. I don’t necessarily expect reference to them to come up as often as reference to hitherto unknown countries and capitals have done, but who knows! Chemicals and elements are sometimes referred to in popular media.

  6. Pingback: 195 Countries – And the Seven Myths | …to the real.

  7. chemistrypoet says:

    Thank you for this very impressive reply. It’s impressive party because of the confirmation that it gives that you are very thoughtfully working through this. I am personally of the opinion that we make sense of the world by forming frameworks of understanding that orient us and the information we get about the world, and help us to make the networks of connections between things which partly relate to memory. At root, humans take a mass of data and synthesis it into something useable. These frameworks are very flexible, and can allow us to function even when we have contradictory bits of data and clear gaps in our understanding.

    I guess, my thoughts in the context of your proposals to memorise many things, to the level and quantity that you are advocating, are tending to link to your evident joy in mastering these ‘knowledge streams’ and delight in the way that they have allowed you to make deeper and wider connections than before. My current working hypothesis is that this intensity may be less general than you think (and hence, limit the concomitant benefits), but also that I tend to agree with you on the underlying processes and utility of knowing things. Eventually, this may come down to a question of degree rather than principle. I look forward to getting further data on this as you publish subsequent blogs.

    [btw, the structure of the periodic table reflects the underlying organisation of protons and electrons, which determine chemical properties and reactivities. It is a powerful way of summarising chemistry…but is only a summary. It helps to introduce systematism, but is only a platform for further elaboration. For example, organic chemistry (the chemistry of life) studies an infinite number of compounds formed mostly from carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen – mindblowing (I’m an organic chemist)]

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