195 Countries – Why all 195?

Why all 195?

History in schools is forever rife with controversy as to what to teach, English has the same problem.  Here we have a simple and almost definitive list that is well within human capacity to learn, and people still want to argue about it?  I find that somewhat obtuse, but okay.

Value Judgement

If we don’t go for all 195, then we have to make value judgements about what constitutes an ‘important country’ or not.

To collectively decide ‘no-one needs to know about country x’ is to actively choose to remove it from the National consciousness; that country and its people will for all intents and purposes not exist.

We cannot always know what we’ll need to know

We can never know what we’ll need to know.  I reiterated this point already in the last post, and also a previous post where one person assumed there’d be no point to knowing about Djibouti or its capital, yet coincidentally in my life that wasn’t quite the case.

Bonus round

There are perhaps unforeseen bonuses to knowing all 195 countries and their capitals.  For example when a place you’ve never heard of is mentioned, it’s likely to be a town or city somewhere in the world, because you will recognise that it’s not a country or one of the capitals.  If you don’t know all of them, then when you hear ‘Nuku’alofa’ how are you to know whether or not it’s a country you haven’t heard of yet?

Many people still confuse Africa, Kosovo, Greenland and Kurdistan with countries.  The fact that they are not (or are they…) is therefore surprising, and can engender curiosity in why they are not countries, and what it is that makes a country a country.

But the ‘list of countries’ of forever changing…

Countries occasionally change.  Not so long ago the Czech Republic and Solvakia were both one country, Czechoslovakia.  Some people have therefore argued that learning them all it pointless.

First, most of them don’t change, so no.

Second, if you know all of them then when you hear about a country you don’t recognise you will immediately know that something significant in the world has changed and might take greater interest.

Opportunity Cost

Cost Benefit Analysis

Cost Benefit Analysis – Related to opportunity cost, but not the same thing

The most compelling counter-argument I’ve heard is that of opportunity cost.  Time is finite, memorising these requires time, that time could be invested elsewhere, is this the maximum gain for that investment?  Always an important question to ask, and actually where I think there’s scope for sensible discussion.

It’s my current belief that the time required is much lower than most people will suspect, and that objectives such as these can actually be delivered without a teacher in large part, and therefore outside of usual lesson time.  I also believe that the gain to having a comprehensive knowledge of the entire globe, rather than a curated selection of the ‘top 50 countries’ is of such great value – for reasons previously noted – that it is worth the investment.

There are obviously many heated ‘battles’ fought in English and history in particular as to what content should be included in curricula.  In English almost more than anywhere, the choices to be made might appear most ‘arbitrary’ and open to dispute.  I chose this topic to discuss in part because of my personal experience of it, but also because I felt it was in many ways on the firmest footing in comparison with alternatives in the others humanities – people live in countries, identify themselves based on those countries, events take place in these countries, and there are (currently) precisely 195 of them.


About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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4 Responses to 195 Countries – Why all 195?

  1. This is a very thought provoking series of blog posts. I commend you on your attention to detail, tenacity and bravery.

    It appears to me that the main reasons you put forward for requiring students to learn all 195 countries and their capitals are:

    -you have personally found it very beneficial to have done so.
    -it is eminently do-able (and would be less effort and less time consuming than most people would intuitively think).
    -we don’t know (in advance) what we will need to know in the future.

    I ultimately find these arguments (and the others you have put forward) unconvincing, with respect to demonstrating that students ought to learn all 195. Let me try and explain why I think this.

    -you have summarised a number of cases where the lack of this knowledge has disadvantaged you, and meant that you were either not able to engage fully in a situation, or had to delay the progress of a conversation because you needed to ask some basic questions. I fully accept that this will also be the case for many other people. You also suggest that if people don’t learn this at school then they are unlikely to learn it at all, and would be disadvantaged forever. My contention is that it is possible to teach geography in such a way that this would not be the case, even though it would not necessarily lead to knowing all 195 countries and their capitals. I will expand on this below.

    -I think you are right that it is eminently do-able. I also agree that we don’t know what we will need to know in the future. However, both of these could be applied to a vast number of other series of facts or collections of information. This is where the opportunity cost appears. What makes this series of facts rank higher than the other possibilities? I do not think that you have demonstrated this sufficiently forcefully. I am of the view that there are information threads that all students should know (or at least be exposed to) whilst at school. With respect to any one particular thread, I think that the whole set should be considered by a school in totality, and an integrated (across all subjects) plan be devised. Would the 195 make it onto the list? Don’t know. It might. It might not.

    With respect to my suggestion that there is a way to teach geography without learning all 195 countries, but achieve the same big picture aim (remembering that not only am I not a geography teacher, but I am not even a teacher): these are a list of things that I think a student should know before they leave school (with respect to geography, but integrated with respect to other subjects…History, English, Languages….where geographical information is useful to aid understanding)-

    -what is a country?
    -what is a capital city/major settlement?
    -the geography of the British Isles (physical and political), in significant detail (to county level?)
    -countries and capitals of Europe
    -the continents
    -the main countries in each continent, and their major cities
    -the major physical features of each continent.

    These, I think, when embedded, would form a framework of understanding of the world around us, and should allow someone to easily ask the right questions, and know how to seek the right information, to more fully engage in our increasingly globalised environment. I think that this would form a more comprehensive framework than learning all 195 countries and their capitals.

    A very interesting question opens up, here. What frameworks of understanding do students need to have? I agree with you that they need to know about the world. But what else do they need to know?

  2. Pingback: Frameworks of Knowledge – response to @Kris_Boulton blogpost | chemistrypoet

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

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