What is the Capital of Western Sahara? (Why We Need to Rethink ‘Geographic Literacy’)


Being able to point out the countries of the world, together with their capitals and major cities is a cache of knowledge many people assume to be as essential as knowing your ABCs or your times tables. In fact, people (and even whole nations) are ridiculed because they can’t point to, say, Bhutan on a blank map of the world.

No other body of knowledge (or lack thereof) is as closely linked to the success or failure of a country’s education system. This is a very strange phenomenon indeed. Think about some other core areas of knowledge:

  • Fundamentals of grammar
  • Basic literacy, numeracy and graphicity
  • The history of [insert country’s most significant event here]
  • The principles of evolution
  • Basic nutrition
  • The fundamentals of chemistry
  • The core works and themes of [insert country’s most famous author here]

And so on.

As important as they all are, none of these are as subtly weaponized as geographical literacy. How many of these core learning stockpiles do you think the majority of a country’s people have locked and loaded and ready to fire off on demand (especially those a decade or two out of school)? Strangely, not knowing where a country is, is somehow more disgraceful to the ‘geographic illiteratists’ than not understanding how an apostrophe works, being unable to read a graph, or refusing to ‘believe’ in evolution.

According to the traditional way of thinking about geographic literacy, kids need to know not just their own provinces / states, and the capitals thereof, but the names of ALL of the world’s countries and capitals. And adults are expected to know them even better than kids. Even if things change.


If they don’t, they are geographically illiterate and can be openly mocked.

Think about trivia games and television shows: people are forgiven if they can’t name a historical figure, or a song from the nineties, or a chemical element, or a character from a novel. But not if they forget, say, the capital of Scotland. (Which is Edinburgh, by the way, not Glasgow.)


So why is geographic illiteracy such an area of scorn and derision? Some would argue that in a globalized world, it is important to know that we are connected to the world, and that knowledge of the world makes us better global citizens. This is a lie: remembering where a country is has nothing to do with appreciating its history, cultures, customs, traditions, and economic networks. 

According to the spatial illiteratists, in an age where education is evolving rapidly, and most content is being probed more deeply, knowing something as objectively true as where countries are is a battle-test for the triumph or humiliation of our education systems. In an era where training kids’ ‘soft skills’ forms an essential part of their basic training, not knowing something as ‘fundamental’ as where the continents are is indicative of the ‘declining’ quality of modern education. “We shouldn’t just be able to ‘look up’ where a country is, like we might look up the properties of a chemical element”, they might say, “we should know it!”

In short, geographic illiteracy is an easy target for those who wish to shoot down the modern education system.

I would like to assert that this is a wrong. It’s time we took on the illiteratists.

Firstly, the field of geographic literacy is not as clean-shaven as many illiteratists imagine:

  • Many of the world’s borders and even countries are contested
  • Questions like ‘What makes a continent?’ or ‘What is an ocean?’ have no clear, incontestable answers.


  • ‘Where’ a country is changes physically. Japan moved 2.4 meters after the 2011 earthquake, and it’s longitudinal position had to be updated.
  • The sizes and shapes of countries on maps depends on the projection used to to create them. And these projections can be used to encode all manner of political agendas into something as seemingly innocuous as a map.
  • Knowing where a country is is not the same as knowing about that country.
  • Climate change is changing coastlines and causing the oceans to completely ingest some island nations. (Alas, Kiribati!) Not to mention the fact that the melting ice means that maps of Antarctica have to be withdrawn every few years.
  • There is not even a final answer on how many countries there actually are.
  • And who’s to say what constitutes an ‘important’ city? Where do you draw the line? If you live in the middle of the Outback, Alice Springs is a pretty important town. And if you live in rural Manitoba, Thompson is a heck of a lot more important than Winnipeg. 

This may seem like splitting hairs. The majority of countries and features are where they are, some might say, and it’s important to know where they are.

My answer is this: knowing where geographic features are is less less important than being able to find out more about these countries and features. Being able to probe and discuss the economic, geopolitical and environmental issues facing these countries and environments is of far greater use than a regimented, superficial knowledge of what goes where. Real geographical literacy is about thinking using different scales, its about being able to investigate deeply and discerningly, and its about finding connections.

A redefined version of geographic literacy in the twenty-first century is more closely aligned with progressive educational methodologies. In place of drilling facts into kids’ heads and asking them to memorize these, we take a more textured and child-centered approach. Instead of learning what the countries and natural features of Africa are, we look at how climate change is affecting African economies. We investigate countries like Botswana and Rwanda to see if what they are doing could be a model for the rest of Africa to lift themselves out of poverty. We explore modern forms of colonization. And we try to uncover connections between the historical, developmental, environmental, geopolitical and economic issues facing several African countries. 

And how about we teach globalization by looking where the components that are used to manufacture our cellular telephones come from? We could learn a whole lot about rare earth metals, labor abuses, environmental consequences, marketing, and so on. These are lessons that stick. These are lessons which require active learning. These are lessons which really teach kids about the world they live in. And it gives them a sense of being able to change that world for the better.

And then we’ll move on to the Middle East…

I am not alone in this move to redefine geographic literacy. National Geographic has gone so far as to introduce the term ‘geo-literacy’ to replace the old fashioned geographic literacy:

Geo-literacy is the ability to reason about Earth systems and interconnections to make far-reaching decisions. Whether we are making decisions about where to live or what precautions to take for natural hazards, we all make decisions that require geo-literacy throughout our lives.

And they continue elsewhere:

In our modern, globally interconnected society, it is more important than ever that people understand the world around them… [T]he preparedness of our children to have systemic understanding, geographic reasoning skills, and systematic decision-making capability are crucial for our society. Geo-literacy can reduce the costs of bad decision-making and provide the foundation for positive breakthroughs.

This new kind of ‘geo-literacy’ is very different from the old geographic literacy. In a sense, it becomes more about geographic thinking and reasoning rather than just memorization.

Being geo-literate means being able to…

  • research, access and evaluate geographic information.
  • understand the world as set of inter-connected, dynamic systems.
  • link together events, ideas, and places.
  • appreciate that contexts matter.
  • ask questions that link the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ to the ‘where’.
  • recognize and analyse spatial trends and patterns.
  • think both regionally or locally, as well as more widely (and being able to move back-and-forth between these levels of thinking).
  • communicate ideas using graphs, maps and other ways of representing spatial information.
  • understand how the physical world affects the human world and vice versa.
  • understand and assess both short and long term consequences of actions.
  • imagine and design solutions to social and environmental problems.
  • develop a sense of agency in the world and to make well-reasoned, responsible, and ethical decisions.


In short, it’s time to rethink what geographical knowledge is. It’s time that we realized (as most of the world’s Geography teachers already have) that Geography is not just about knowing where things are, it’s about being able to think geographically.

Perhaps it would be poignant at this moment in world history to give Barack Obama the final word:

The study of geography is about more than just memorizing places on a map. It’s about understanding the complexity of our world, appreciating the diversity of cultures that exists across continents. And in the end, it’s about using all that knowledge to help bridge divides and bring people together.