195 Countries – What’s the Point? – Part 2

In the previous post I tried to give a verbatim account of as many anecdotal experiences I could recall that have led me to conclude that learning all 195 countries and capitals is the thing to do.

In this post I try to make the case from a slightly more succinct, theoretical perspective.  Across this and the next post I’ll focus on:

  • Frameworks
  • The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon


Two people described this knowledge as arbitrary:

I think it is a noble aim, but arguably an arbitrary one…

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?

I found this response surprising.  Surely countries and capitals are not an arbitrary choice, but rather an obviously important one.  There were a few other comments that suggested that the choice was in some way arbitrary:

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.

Comments - Twitter - No - 7

Comments - Twitter - No - 9

Honestly, I think some of these might be a good idea; I suspect a great deal of chemical understanding might manifest through memorisation of the periodic table of elements, for example; and here’s why: it provides a framework for understanding everything else in chemistry.

What I’m calling a ‘framework’ in this context might sometimes be called a ‘schema’ by others, though I think there’s an important distinction between the two – schema being a very specific and technical term in cognitive psychology.  Essentially a framework as I’m referring to it is a high level, broad-but-shallow overview of content; it is the structure, the scaffold into which new knowledge will be assimilated and understood.

There were a few positive comments made that suggested other people had this notion in mind when they opted for ‘yes’:

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

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.

Comments - Twitter - Yes - 4

Comments - Twitter - Yes - 5

The framework of breakdancing

Before I started breakdancing (aged 19) I saw all breakdance as a blurred whirl of motion I didn’t understand.  Just take a look at this video (no, sadly I’m not in it.)

In our first lesson we were taught to view a single dance or ‘throw down’ as a combination of ‘top rock,’ ‘ground work,’ ‘freezes,’ and ‘power.’  Very quickly, what was before an impressive but incomprehensible blur suddenly presented itself as a structured series of deliberately chosen moves.  In the first thirty seconds of that video now I can see top rock, including cross step; power, including flares, elbow spin, a barrel role and part of a turtle and a spinning one handed air chair; ahead of ground work mostly made up of basic three-step and six-step, and I recognise that this falls outside of the typical pattern of ‘top rock, groundwork, freeze/power’ that most novices will start with, but is not so atypical of pro-dancers.

That’s all great if you’re into breakdance; it’s not worth much if you take no interest in it!  I expect the same is true for trampolining and volley ball moves.  These are all hobbies.  What I found strange was that anyone would equate ‘foundational knowledge of the world and its peoples’ with ‘foundational knowledge of a hobby a few people might take interest in.’

Conflating the pointless with the important

As for Pi to a hundred places – probably not much use because there is no pattern to it, but one of our greatest historical mathematicians famously memorised something like the first hundred square and cube numbers, because he felt it would help him spot patterns in number more fluidly than if he always had to keep referring to tables to find them – the pre-cursor to Just Googling It.   Unfortunately I can’t remember which mathematician, and haven’t been able to relocate the reference – maybe someone else is aware of it?


Guess what, memorising 100 digits of Pi is not the same as memorising countries and capitals

(didn’t think I’d ever have to say that…)

Because the form looks similar, and both involved the word ‘memorising’ it appears that a lack of thought leads some to conflate that whose purpose is not simple to divine with that which truly has little purpose.

Coming back to countries, they are just painfully obviously not arbitrary.  They are where we all live, or originate from, and identify with.  As far as general or foundational socio-geographical knowledge goes, they should be a no-brainer.

About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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3 Responses to 195 Countries – What’s the Point? – Part 2

  1. chemistrypoet says:

    I don’t, at the moment, have time to leave a full comment. But, this is a very good blog series. I agree about frameworks of understanding. I still think that the case for everyone learning all 195 is not fully convincing, but needs of curricula and wider pupil need should inform the scope. A more nuanced consideration is required, and generally learning data in other areas (e.g. Periodic Table) also requires nuanced and careful thought (yes, opportunity cost).

    • Kris Boulton says:

      I do think that the ‘all 195’ position is open to challenge. At that level, we can start getting into opportunity cost debates. But I almost feel that ‘all 195’ would be as ‘correct’ as ‘100 most frequently referenced.’ By this point we’re probably going to get into value judgements, and as you hint at, we need to consider what isn’t being taught as a result. Is there something of greater value we can teach in that time? Personally, I’m just happy for the damned conversation to take place at all, over the mewling of ‘but who gets to decide!?’

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