195 Countries – Why can’t we learn them holistically?

In the previous post I defined learning ‘holistically’:

Holistically: Learning of facts such as ‘names of countries’ that happens amidst, simultaneously with, and as part of learning much more about that country besides e.g. climate, flag, culture, religion, recent history, relation to our world

The holistic argument seems to have a few features to it.  One is that it is more meaningful to learn more things about a country than just it’s name, location, capital and then move on.  I wouldn’t deny that, but have already dealt with why it’s not always an option in previous posts.


Another argument is that it’s more compelling to learn this way.  Suppose that I was going to tell you that ‘today we’re going to learn about Mozambique.’  The supposition is that kids will remember more and demonstrate greater inquisitiveness if they hear about a place for the first time, and are then taught all those other rich stories and pieces of knowledge about it.

By contrast, I contend that the name being completely alien to some children will serve as an additional barrier to learning; an additional fact to hold on to along with all the others.

Maybe this one’s just me, but if I’m told ‘today we’re going to learn about Tonga,’ then immediately I’m thinking ‘What?  Where?  What for?  What?’  But not with an open minded sense of inquisitiveness, but rather with a barbed or hostile ‘…what for.’  This is simply because the word has literally no meaning to me whatsoever, so I kick off with no sense at all as to why I’m being made to learn about it.


If I’m told ‘Today we’re going to learn about Tonga.  It’s a small island country to the east of Australia and north east of New Zealand,’ that’s a little better, but now I’m picturing it out there all on its own, which is inaccurate, and I’m trying to process that image while the teacher’s probably already moved on.

Tonga Alone

If instead what I hear is ‘Today we’re going to learn about Tonga.  It’s a small island country to the east of Australia and north east of New Zealand. It’s within of a group of similarly located very small island countries that include Tuvalu, Fiji, Vanuata and Samoa,’ well now I’m just completely overwhelmed.

Tonga Too Much


Yet, imagine if you could kick off with nothing but that initial line ‘Today we’re going to learn about Tonga,’ and immediately that comfortably conjured in their minds the third image; would this not be hitting the ground running?  Building on prior knowledge?

Cognitive-Load Theory

This is just cognitive-load theory in action:

  • The more knowledge pupils have to start with, the less strain there is on working memory,
  • the less likely they are to hit cognitive overload,
  • the more likely they are to learn the things you really wanted them to learn today.

The more they have to learn as a part of any one lesson, the less likely they are to learn any of it.

Cognitive Overload

Image thanks to Harry Web

Also, for me, when something is familiar to me, but I know nothing about it, I find that’s what makes me inquisitive.  I don’t like not knowing; I want to learn.  I also see this all the time in maths.  Pupils might ask ‘what trigonometry is,’ as an example because they’ve heard about it, but don’t know anything about it.

Every teacher wants to teach everything ‘holisitically,’ which is just another way of saying there’s so much we want to share, and we feel we’re letting kids down if we don’t share it all in one go.  Yet, part of our responsibility is in limiting how much we share in any one go, and cognitive load theory now explains why that is essential.

No teacher wants to be stuck teaching lists of countries and capitals to kids.  Let’s get that out of the way, learnt, memorised, so that teachers can get on with teaching all those far more interesting things in geography that they are passionate about, and do it better than ever before, with kids who already have a framework of knowledge with which to incorporate these lessons.

About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to 195 Countries – Why can’t we learn them holistically?

  1. Pingback: Knowledge Frameworks – What are they, and why are they important? | …to the real.

  2. Pingback: Why Do I struggle Learning to Code? – thatsgrandblog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s