195 Countries – What’s the point? – Part 3

The Matrix, and The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon


What is very, very challenging in persuading the unconvinced that knowledge of countries and capitals is important, is shown here:

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.

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.


How do you persuade someone of the benefit when they don’t yet have the knowledge themselves, and have gotten by just fine in life?  That sense of ‘I don’t know x, and I can’t say I’ve ever needed to know it,’ is violently gripping.


If it’s not there how could we possibly ever know when we might have needed it… ?

The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, now more often referred to as ‘frequency illusion,’ is that experience you’ve probably had where you learn about something for the first time, and suddenly see it everywhere; it’s like it just suddenly popped into existence the moment you learnt about it.

Of course it didn’t, it was all around you the whole time – The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work… when you go to church… when you pay your taxes. – you just never noticed it until now.

When we encounter something we don’t already fully know, or understand, and we are not primed to learn about it, our brain fills in the blanks so that we can carry on with whatever preoccupies us.  In my earlier post I talked about this very effect happening the first time I watched The Code, when I didn’t know where Algeria was.

In the same post I mentioned a conversation involving stories taking place in Riyadh, Abu-Dhabi and Beirut; if I hadn’t known where they were, I still could have followed the point of the conversation, and nodded along, later forgetting that I hadn’t really been able to picture/place the stories properly in the world (or even recognised that they were discussing three different countries!)

I mentioned reading a blog by a girl in Syria; I would have understood that she ‘had to relocate to a new city,’ continued reading, and probably a few days later forgotten most of the article, but would not at any point have appreciated that she actually had to move to a new country, which obviously has far greater implications for the impact of the Syrian crisis.

In this speech I noted that we can never know how our ignorance has held us back in life, and therein lies the problem:

If we don’t know what we don’t know, how can we possibly make the claim that we’re better off not knowing?

‘I don’t know it and I’ve done alright’ – well sure, because much of this knowledge is not required for survival, but I would hope we strive for something more than a society of people that just survive day to day.  What no-one can reasonably claim is ‘I don’t know it and I’m no worse off for it,’ because how could we ever know.

About Kris Boulton

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

  1. Here’s the reason I oppose your proposal. I believe you’re making a common mistake which lots of people fall into with good intentions. You’re taking a general principle – x is a good idea – and then saying x should therefore be applied to everyone, as a ‘minimum requirement’.

    There are always reasons why x might not be such a good idea in any number of circumstances, and why therefore x should not be applied uniformly across a whole population. Learning the names of 195 countries and capitals is a spectrum activity: some would find it relatively straightforward, others would find it is beyond them, and everyone else lies somewhere in-between. So applying it as a ‘minimum requirement’ for all means very different things for different people, and it’s a policy which is inherently more difficult for students further down the bell curve. Take for example students with SEN. There are some people who will never be able to master the list of 195 countries and capitals, no matter how hard they try. For these students to impose a ‘minimum requirement’ that they do so would be incredibly stressful, and therefore unethical. (What would the ‘minimum requirement’ mean in practice – that they would not be allowed to learn other things until they have learned the list? How long do you try for? What do you think it would feel like to repeatedly fail such a task, and then be made to repeat it again and again – for this is what a ‘minimum requirement’ would surely mean in practice, for some at least?)

    Supposing you accept this and want therefore to have some kind of an ethical cut-off point, you then have the problem of deciding who the list must apply to, and you’d tie yourself up in knots in no time at all. Which SEN ‘labels’ will be exempted – statements? Statements for what? ASD? Aspergers? ADHD? Dyslexia? Do you even do it on the basis of labels, or on a case by case basis? How do you decide?

    Suggest the 195 countries thing, fine – celebrate and champion it if you think it’s important. Run a competition or whatever. It can join the long list of things ‘everyone’ should do, like knowing basic first aid and reading political manifestos. But to make any of these things a ‘minimum requirement’ would be very silly indeed. One size fits all leaves the majority in ill-fitting clothes.

    • Kris Boulton says:

      These are fair concerns. Is it not already a minimum requirement, though that everyone should be functionally literate? Is it not a minimum requirement that all should be able to perform very basic arithmetic, like addition and multiplication?

      We allow for minimum requirements already, and so we should. I’m more concerned with the toxic consequences of low aspirations, than high.

      Where you’re concerned for a minority who couldn’t succeed, I’m concerned for the vast majority who could, who will not be educated for fear of upsetting this minority first mentioned! (tyranny of the minority) Would there be a need for some kind of either exception or intelligent interpretation of the principle? Well of course. How that should be handled though, and what I actually mean when I say ‘minimum requirement’ (am I talking about a state mandated test, or just a guiding principle…?) I’ve deliberately not engaged with. To that end, at this point I’d say I’m probably more concerned with principles than pragmatics. First one needd to get on board with the idea that it would be a good thing for everyone to learn this, before it’s really worth debating whether or not it can be done.

      I think I do speak to the concern for those who genuinely couldn’t retain this kind of body of information later on, but to be honest my simple response to this is that what you are describing is an absolutely *tiny* minority of people. I would argue that anything greater than that, where in your mind you believe kids would struggle, they have simply never been given the chance to do this in a way that would make success possible.

      One thing to keep in mind – if one were to argue that a particular human being were utterly incapable of holding on to a mere 195 paired pieces of knowledge, after 11 years of education, then one would have to essentially argue that that person were incapable of learning much of anything at all, in any domain.

  2. I’m still not convinced that knowing all 195 delivers what is required within an education context. I fully accept that for you it has been very useful, as an adult. I also expect that the knowledge we need to give to children will change as the world (and the UK’s place in it) changes. I would like a deeper analysis of what geographical knowledge and understanding is required for students to access the curriculum (not just the Geography curriculum), and then what would be required to access modern UK. The latter of these is the difficult bit. There is a sense in which the context of the student determines what the school needs to do. But, is it not possibles to establish the required framework of understanding for world geography? (and I doubt that this would require knowing the 195 countries and their capitals). Effective knowledge requires nuance, I think.

    • Kris Boulton says:

      I’d probably agree with the call for detailed analysis, and recognition of nuance.

      I think I will later make a case in favour of *all* 195 – why I suspect it to be a worthwhile activity even before we do have that analysis in place.

      Also important to always remember: yes my being an adult changes the manner in which I engage with the process, but if one is to accept that knowing all 195 is useful to a person as an adult, then one would generally have to accept that they would need to be taught it in school, since in the majority of cases if it is not learnt on school then it will never be learnt.

      • Well, I can draw on my own experience in the same way that you have drawn on yours, I guess. I have always been interested in current affairs, but my home environment didn’t offer any resources in that regard (I don’t think we even had a TV until I was about 12). And, this was way before the Internet. I entered University without the detailed geographical knowledge which you are championing. However, I had evidently been given enough of an idea of what the World was like, geographically, because my lack of specific facts never prevented me from asking the right questions, and find out the information I didn’t have. My education had prepared me to ask the right questions (it was traditional in nature, much like most was when I went to school), but did not have me learning all the countries in the World. It is worth saying, I think, that world geography has changed substantially since I was at school. I do not, therefore, accept that if an adult doesn’t learn something at school they will never do so (you and me could both be exceptions, of course). I would suggest that if an effective framework of understanding has been put in place by the time someone leaves school, then they can continue to learn and update the knowledge hanging off of the framework on an ongoing basis?

      • Kris Boulton says:

        I would argue that, conversely, I *wasn’t* given this knowledge and therefore *didn’t* really know much about what to ask: I would suggest that I was relatively ignorant, even to the extent of being hardly aware of my own ignorance (who’s ever seen that in a child, right…?!) I think my point with the countries is of course *not* that life will be a disaster and you won’t survive it; since that’s half the point, is it not, that this knowledge clearly *isn’t* required for survival of any kind, and therefore people automatically assume it is either not needed, can be looked up, or is otherwise unimportant. In my case I would suggest that it was something else, rather than my education, that finally trained me in being able to ‘ask the right questions’ as you put it, but that aside, I think again that my point is in part that despite reaching this mindset/ability in life I have yet found it surprisingly enriching and useful to have conscious awareness now of all the capital cities, and in this post I note that I wouldn’t even be aware of what I was missing out on if I hadn’t learnt them.

        If we’re talking about frameworks here does that mean that all 195 are needed? Well maybe not, maybe that’s up for debate. As I say, I will later speak to that point in particular.

        With respect to an adult not learning unless they learnt it at school: first I would ask for clarity, have you learnt all 195 capital cities? Because if you haven’t that would seem to reinforce my point… In my case I would suggest that I am indeed an exception. Beyond that, I would suggest that all education is going to splinter off and go in individual directions post schooling. I’m not saying that not learning something in school precludes one from learning it later in life, more that it is unlikely to be learnt in the majority of cases. So from there I’m suggesting that if we were to see something as being sufficiently important or somehow fundamental that every citizen should have knowledge of it, that learning would have to take place at school – there is no other point in life where we could guarantee equal access to time, opportunity and incentive to learn whatever it was.

        Sorry if this seems rambling and unclear – this day is running long…

  3. Nat says:

    Hi Kris,

    Thank you for this series of posts, they are certainly thought-provoking.

    I do find it interesting that it is a mathematician making these points about memorisation. As a child, one of the things which really drew me to maths is the way in which, although rote memorisation often provides a useful shortcut, it is completely optional. Any fact you cannot remember, you simply re-derive from scratch. Some of the best mathematicians I knew while an undergraduate took this to the logical extreme – deriving the formula for the sum of an arithmetic progression or the quadratic formula each time they needed it. My experience is that a significant minority of mathematicians do not really know their times tables, myself included.

    Whether you find these strategies palatable is a philosophical and cultural question, but they can be highly successful. However, an approach to mathematics which emphasises rote memorisation seems like it might be likely to drive away a child who would otherwise become a highly competent mathematician by this route.

    Having said that, I, like you, do enjoy memorising, particularly since I discovered Sporcle. But I do worry that it is an activity which comes with some cultural baggage. We are both white, middle class men: rote memorisation has been a part of the way we gain social status since the Victorians or before. I have trouble articulating exactly why this makes me feel uncomfortable, but it does.

    One final point: when I started to memorise countries, I found that I had heard of almost all of them, and could manage about 140 on my initial run. I guess this is due to reading widely, and I do wonder whether strategies which encourage reading might not be a more efficient way of creating the “multiplier” effect which forms the core of the argument. Reading effects are much more difficult to measure in the lab or the controlled trial, and my worry with the Willingham-type research is that there is a bias towards correlates which are easy to measure.

    Once again, thank you very much for this series of posts.

  4. Kris, thank you for your perseverence. I don’t know all 195 (in fact, I have no idea how many I do know), and you could claim that therefore I don’t know what I am missing…..but, I think that would be taking a good point too far.

    I think my contention is that the 195 pairs are not the framework of understanding, although many of these are part of it. That understanding needs to get students to the point where they don’t need to know all 195 to appreciate where geographical understanding can take them (beyond their time in school). I think that this is important, and worth exploring in depth. I look forward to your next blog in the series.

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

  6. Pingback: Knowledge Frameworks – A Challenge | …to the real.

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