195 Countries – How recall of pairs is NOT the same as recalling a list

There was something that I finally realised was in people’s minds, that I hadn’t intended; it took many conversations before I finally spotted it.  When I talked about ‘memorising all 195 countries, locations and capitals,’ I realised that some people imagined the following:

A person should be able to sit with a blank sheet in front of them, and list out all of the countries, capitals and locations.

Through these conversations, I realised that this wasn’t what I had intended at all, but it’s completely understandable that I might not have communicated this properly.

In education, our understanding of memory and how it works is woeful.  The way that memories and knowledge form and connect is very, very specific.  Willingham described is poetically:

“Memory is the residue of thought.”

He meant that it is the things that we think about which we remember, but it’s often under appreciated just how specific that is!  For example, in this post I mentioned that upon seeing the capitals of African countries I could recall many of the countries… but didn’t I say I had memorised every country?  Why couldn’t I recall them all then?  Well, because the way in which I had thought about the initial list, the mnemonics I had used, and how most of the testing had been processed, was to be given a country and then return its capital.  The result was that when given a country I could return its capital 100% of the time but not the other way around!

I had spent time thinking ‘Country -> Capital’ not ‘Capital -> Country,’ and so ‘return capital when given country’ is precisely what is encoded in my long-term memory.  I will recognise a name as a capital city, and will very often be able to give its country, but it’s harder work for me and I’ll be less than 100% successful.  Anyone who finds listening to a foreign language easier than speaking it will be familiar with this asymmetrical relationship between parts of knowledge.

This in mind, if you asked me to list out all of the 195 countries… I’m not sure that I could do it!  I know what practice I would have to undergo if I wanted to be able to do it… but I don’t think I need to be able to do it; curious how my line of thinking now mirrors that of people who didn’t think that any memorisation was needed…  But there are important differences: thinking about how I interact with the everyday world and my own thoughts I will almost always be given an appropriate cue.  That cue will mean I will be able to recall my knowledge of countries and capitals as and when I need to, whether that be an external cue from the environment, or an internal cue generated by my own thoughts.

The process I’m talking about involves pairing country names with the concept of ‘country,’ capital city names with the concept of ‘capital city’ and then pairing together capital city names with country names.

When given a cue such as ‘Nepal‘ there is only a single capital paired to it, ‘Kathmandu.’

Country Pairings - 1

If given a cue such as ‘country,’ though, well there will be 195 names associated with it!

Country Pairings - 2

Recalling the one capital city name that is paired to a country name is both more useful and more likely to be successful than being able to recall all one hundred and ninety five names linked to the cue ‘capital city.’  When a single cue is loaded with so many other ideas, its efficacy as a cue breaks down.  So listing out countries might seem like a pointless and difficult task to people.  I probably agree; at least, I certain have seen nothing to convince me yet that it would be a useful exercise in which to engage.

That being said, because the pairings to the concept of ‘country‘ exist, when going the other way around – given the name of a country as the cue – the mind will quickly identify it as a country, and from that begin to connect it to other associated knowledge.

Country Pairings - 3

So, if at any point you imagined I was advocating for everyone being able to list out every country, I’m not.


About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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