195 Countries – What’s the point? – Part 1

Of all comments, a substantial portion simply voiced that they couldn’t see the point in undertaking such an exercise!

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.


The main countries, yes, but not bothered about whether they know the capital of, say, Djibouti.. Too much opportunity cost.

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.

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

For what reason? Seems rather arbitrary to me.

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Of all concerns, I think this is the most reasonable.  It’s an activity that on the surface, and given much of our own experiences of education and factual knowledge, can very easily seem pointless.

First, I should point you in the direction of an earlier post, “Why we must teach skills, not knowledge.”  In it I explained how I’d left school, gone through university, and graduated feeling that learning scientific knowledge was a bit pointless, especially at school level.  What had become more important and useful to me were the transferable skills I learnt along the way; the knowledge itself, I never used.

I also went on to explain how I later appreciated what I had missed in thinking this way.  There had been an important point to learning all that scientific knowledge I never used, I just hadn’t been consciously aware of it.

We underestimate our knowledge, and overestimate theirs

This is a statement I read only two months before I started teaching, and it has been enormously influential.  After reading this, I began to consider all my thoughts, and my limits, through the filter of knowledge – what was I bringing to bear that another person might not have access to?  Where I struggle to think, might it be that I’m missing something?

While I took the knowledge I learnt at school for granted, including my scientific knowledge, I try not to do this anymore.

What’s made me think learning 195 countries and capitals has been a useful exercise?

I really wanted to just share my own personal anecdotes before going into more high-level hypothesis.  I suspect my hypothetical ideas have resulted from my attempts to sharpen my personal experiences through the lens of theory, whereas it’s been the personal experience itself that have convinced me.

Contrary to my memories of school, my personal experiences this time around have been largely positive, but, I think, only because I’ve made a deliberate effort to consciously consider how I’m using any new knowledge I gain, when I use it.

The following is as comprehensive as I can make it, which means it’s longer than most will have time to read.  I’d suggest skimming over and taking from it as much as you can.  I feel it’s worth getting everything down because, even if it’s not possible for each person to read it all, it at least gives a sense of the wealth of anecdotal examples I’ve amassed in as little as half a year.

Year 9 Homework – Crisis in Syria

I picked up a sheet of homework intended for Year 9.  It was a series of articles about the crisis in Syria, written last year.  The first was a blog post by a girl living in Damascus.  She wrote about how she and her family had to move to Amman, which triggered something in my mind.  Until recently, I barely had any knowledge of Amman, much the same for Damascus really.  They could be countries, regions for all I knew.  When I read this the two names stood out – I instantly recognised them as capital cities… meaning this girl hadn’t just moved from ‘London to Birmingham,’ she and her family had moved from ‘London to Paris,’ another country – they had been forced to emigrate!

She made no mention of this in her writing, and why should she?  To her, it must be so obvious that Amman and Damascus are in different countries, and it must be obvious which countries they’re in, in the same way a person writing here might expect a reader to know that London was in England, and Paris was in France.

E.D. Hirsch refers to this tendency for authors to leave out information in their writing; knowledge which they tend to assume their readers will already have.  Daniel Willingham explains the idea exceptionally well in this short video here.

Algeria is not in Europe

The fourth century Algerian cleric St. Augustine believed…” (please forgive the Russian in the link)

I watched the BBC documentary The Code when it was released, around the time I started my training back in 2011.  Later, I re-watched it because I wanted to share it with my pupils, and wanted to get my head around how to make the most of it.

The line above is uttered within the first four minutes.  When I heard it the second time around, something jarred.  ‘St Augustine… Algerian… that’s in North Africa… but I had him placed elsewhere…”

Here’s what had happened: the first time I watched the documentary I didn’t know where Algeria was.  When that line was uttered my mind tried to quickly fill in the gaps with some guesswork; it placed St. Augustine somewhere in Eastern Europe (Algeria, sounds vaguely Eastern European, right?  And it certainly doesn’t sound like an African name) and moved on to focus on the point the presenter was making, which had nothing to do with St Augustine’s location.  Consequently, I understood the point that the presenter was making perfectly, but had missed something important to my mental image of the story; I conjured not only an incomplete but a false understanding of history as a result of lack of knowledge.

The reason this didn’t happen the second time is because in between I had taken time to learn the countries of Africa.

Following a Conversation

A few months back I was part of a conversation where three people who’d worked together a great deal over the years were recounting some of their experiences.  They’d spent some time working in the Middle-East, and were telling me stories that moved between Riyadh, Abu-Dhabi and Beirut.  I had only learnt that these were all capital cities, and what countries they were capital cities of, about a month prior.  Had I been in that same conversation two months’ earlier I would have had no idea where they were located.  I certainly wasn’t going to whip out the iPhone and try to Google it as they spoke!  I could ask them to tell me, but let’s be honest, since my geographical knowledge was so poor that would likely descend into ‘Where’s that… and where’s that… sorry, where?’ until someone took out a smartphone anyway and it became a geography lesson for me instead of a conversation (you must have found yourself in conversations like that from time to time…) or I could do what most of us usually do, nod along and try to follow the main points as best I could, not really following as well as possible, and feeling a bit ignorant along the way.

Keep in mind, I wouldn’t even been able to recognise whether they were talking about cities or countries, and if that sounds ridiculous to you, remember that line from earlier: we tend to underestimate our own knowledge, and overestimate that of others.

The Matthew Effect

For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath.

—Matthew 25:29, King James Version.

The Matthew Effect is referred to in education as the process by which ‘the smart get smarter, while the rest get left behind.’  The premise is that having access to an abundance of well-integrated knowledge in long-term-memory makes it much easier and quicker to assimilate new knowledge into the mind.  So the more you know, the more easily you can learn even more, and the ever-smarter you can become.

Over the past year and a half I’ve been steadily working my way through the excellent BBC Radio 4 series “A History of the World in 100 Objects.”  I probably completed the final 60-70 episodes in the last two months, as I took to listening on the way into and from work every day.  I’ve learnt so much from it – it was hugely exciting, and I would recommend it to anyone!

When referring to places that no longer exist, the presenter references their modern day equivalent, and as you can imagine, since it’s a world history, he frequently mentions places that are very far and wide ranging.  He also frequently refers to capital cities, since most histories take place in locations a little more specific than countries, and capitals tend to be the hubs of activity and important stories throughout history.

Each episode has 12-13 minutes of content.  The presenter does not take time to explain where everything is beyond giving the name of the city and/or the country.  There is no visual aid, these are all audio.  If I don’t know the place then I cannot properly follow the story and learn all that I otherwise could.  I’m on my bike, I cannot stop to take out my phone and just Google it if I don’t know the location he’s talking about.  As with Saint Augustine I would have an incomplete picture; at best I would miss out on a great deal of potential understanding and links between related locations, and at worst my mind would try to fill in the gaps and make a marmalade of it.

But this didn’t happen.  I followed almost everything with ease, and I did so because I recognised the names as places I’d learnt about as recently as three months before.  Had I not gone through that exercise, I would not have been able to follow the series as well as I did, and learn from it as much as I did.

Current Affairs

Reading ‘The Week’ I’ve come to realise that they tend to organise everything around the city from which the story is reported.  As noted earlier, most reported stories tend to be based in or near capital cities.  On occasion, as with the blog from the girl in Syria, the country isn’t even mentioned at all, only the city, which tends to be a capital.  Potentially one could look this one up, but it’s yet another barrier.  Much nicer to have that barrier removed and be able to read the article fluently and without interruption to search for all the assumed knowledge you’re missing.

The Week - 2

Spot Zimbabwe in the article…

The Week - 1

So is Monrovia another country, along with Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea?

Ebola 2

This article eventually mentions Macedonia, but the photo caption doesn’t

Kurdistan is not a country

You could have told me that Riyadh was a country, and I would have believed you.  In some cases when learning all this I found that names were familiar, and I was surprised to discover that they were cities, not countries, or vice versa.  In completing the list, it became interesting to later realise that certain places were missing: Kurdistan was one, so was Taiwan, and Kosovo.  These were names all familiar to me, and I was perhaps surprised to realise that they were not apparently ‘countries.’  Or are they?  Well of course now that this knowledge was in my mind, it got me thinking, and led me to look more closely at just what their status is.  This has now naturally led me into the point made in this comment:

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 …

I agree with this sentiment (in bold) entirely.  What I find interesting is that one argument often put forward goes something like this:

  1. Learning all the countries is meaningless and will be boring
  2. Learning something like what makes a country will be more meaningful and interesting

Yet in my own case I’ve naturally arrived at point 2, ready and willing to learn, as a consequence of having first gone through point 1; the first has facilitated the second, not replaced it.

Africa is not a country

It’s a point often made in general conversation or satirised in cartoons that too many people think that Africa is a country, not a continent of 54 countries.

I saw this advert on the tube a few weeks ago:


Looking at it, I realised I recognised nearly all the city names on there, since most (though not all) are capital cities.  Therefore I also knew some of the countries the advert was referring to, even though they weren’t mentioned (why only some will be discussed in a later post.)

I also realised something else, remembering that we tend to underestimate our own knowledge, and overestimate that of others – what would this poster look like to someone who did not know all these capital cities?  More importantly, what would it look like to someone who was still thinking that Africa was a country…?

If that’s how you are thinking, then it occurs to me that this poster would completely reinforce your mental image of Africa – it is a single country, outlined as it is in the poster, and look, you can fly to any of these cities within that country.

A general awareness of where people are from

I met someone from Slovenia in December.  It was nice to be able to acknowledge that I had heard of her country, knew where it was, and be able to ask her if she was from Ljubljana or elsewhere in the country, rather than my typically more ignorant response when meeting people from new places for the first time of ‘Where’s that…’  No-one ever asks ‘Where’s England,’ or America, China, France, India etc.  When you have to ask someone where their country is, there’s an implicit ‘because I don’t know, because it’s unimportant,’ even if we don’t intend it or consciously think that way, it is unavoidably what our ignorance says.  This view was even overtly reinforced in a few of the comments:

The main countries, yes, but not bothered about whether they know the capital of, say, Djibouti.. Too much opportunity cost.

The capitals of the top 100 countries.

What constitutes a ‘top country’ or ‘main country’?  In absolute fairness to these commentators, I know exactly what they meant.  Some countries are more frequently discussed in current affairs, some countries are more likely to export their culture to us than others some countries play a greater role on the international stage that others, we are more likely to meet people in our lives from some countries than others.  So, focus on those countries – greatest effort:impact ratio, lowest opportunity cost.  It’s actually a strong argument.

But, I found it felt more polite to be able to express at least some awareness of where this person was from and in the end we all just have no idea what countries are going to feature in our lives at some point.  It seems similar to me as when people make an effort to learn at least a few key words or phrases in the language of a country they’re visiting, like ‘hello,’ ‘goodbye,’ ‘thank you’ etc. because they feel it’s polite to at least make some effort.

Similarly for the pupils I’ve taught over the years, I’ve spoken to some and in passing learnt that they’re from Eritrea, or Djibouti for example, and I’ve been able to express some knowledge of their homeland, which they’ve appreciated.  I found that particularly ironic when I read:

The main countries, yes, but not bothered about whether they know the capital of, say, Djibouti.. Too much opportunity cost.

As I’ll explain in a later post, I don’t think the cost involved is actually so huge as to outweigh the benefit of knowing all 195 countries and capitals.

About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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5 Responses to 195 Countries – What’s the point? – Part 1

  1. dodiscimus says:

    This has been a fascinating exercise, Kris, particularly reading your experience here. Maybe there is another example of underestimating own knowledge and overestimating others because in thinking about the benefit of learning all 195 countries and their capitals, it didn’t really occur to me that you were, personally, talking from a position of not being able to roughly place Algeria in N. Africa, for example. Which knowledge (and which skills) we should learn is, I think, a question every teacher needs to be asking to some extent, and anyone involved in developing curricula needs to be thinking about very hard indeed. What has to be remembered, perhaps obviously, is that whenever we include one thing we need to leave out something else. In the case of the science curriculum I think that we ought to be leaving out quite a bit so we can include a lot more depth and mastery. In the case of 195 countries, my question would be the same – what do we leave out to make room? And if we decide that there is something less valuable then we have to ask the next question – what about e.g. other major cities. For the same reason that knowing Algeria is in N. Africa is useful, so is knowing where and what Birmingham, Glasgow, Manchester and Leeds are. But what about Romsey, Dalkeith, Chesham and Llanberis? Or Aran, Constantine, Annaba and Blida? For you, learning the 195 countries and capitals has been really useful; maybe for a pupil, learning the multiplication tables is more useful: maybe both! But there is a point at which the line has to be drawn – there are over a thousand cities with populations over half-a-million. “Which knowledge” is a key decision we have to make in education, and it’s not an easy one, and I don’t think it gets the attention it deserves (witness the process of reforming the NC). Thank you for making me think about it more.

    • Kris Boulton says:

      Thanks for the comment. Particularly interesting to hear what areas of this were unexpected to you; that idea of ‘underestimating our own knowledge’ is such a powerful guiding force, I think, once it’s internalised.

  2. The question of “what do we leave out to make room?” is an interesting one, because I’m not sure we would have to leave much out. To take myself as an example: I can say that I had probably three times as much factual knowledge when I left primary school as my now 16 year old daughter did. This is because I attended a primary school where we had very little group work or project work, where testing was not a dirty word, and where from age 8-9 we had textbooks and were expected to read them. This was not a private school or a selective school; it was in the U.S in the sixties. I would argue that more effective teaching methods would actually allow much more knowledge to be taught than at present, without sacrificing any current content, apart from a lot of off-topic or unproductive chat disguised as groupwork, and heavily time-consuming but largely ineffectual “active” lessons. (I would add that we still had time at my school for fun, for enrichment activities, and for off-topic explorations of side-issues by teachers. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there.)

  3. Pingback: 195 Countries – What’s the point? – Part 3 | …to the real.

  4. Pingback: 195 Countries – Why all 195? | …to the real.

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