My Case Against Learning State Capitals

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Why is learning states and capitals so important?

One of the first things children seem to learn when they study geography in school is the names of the state capitals. It's generally considered a staple in a child's elementary curriculum, whether in public school or homeschool.

And really I don't have a problem with kids learning the state capitals. There's nothing wrong with learning them.

What I do have a problem with is this: Teaching children the state capitals is often considered more important than other, more useful knowledge.

I mean, which of the following would be more useful for a person to know?

1. In which state Seattle or Philadelphia is located (and where those states are located on the map)

OR

2. That Olympia and Harrisburg are the capitals of Washington and Pennsylvania.

How many kids can rattle off the names of the state capitals without a problem, but they can't tell you that Detroit is located in Michigan or even locate the state of Michigan on a map?

If a child learns nothing but how to match up the state names with their capitals, what has it profited them? Not much of anything.

So while I don't actually oppose teaching state capitals, I don't think that it should be made a priority in a quality geography education.

More Useful Geography Knowledge

Before learning the state capitals, I think children should learn several other things first. In my opinion, the knowledge in the list below is far more useful in real life than knowing the state capitals:

  1. The names and spellings of all 50 states
  2. Each state's location on the map
  3. The names and locations of the major cities in the U.S.
  4. The postal abbreviations of each of the states

If children first concentrate on learning the information on the list, they'll be better prepared for real life. Then once all that is learned, they can feel free to learn the state capitals.

Geography Resources

So how do I teach these geography concepts to my own kids? I'll share a few of my favorite resource:

1. Maps, Maps, and More Maps

When a state or U.S. city is mentioned on the news or in a book we're reading, I have my kids look it up on a map (of course, this is on an ideal homeschool day, so it doesn't happen all the time). To make this easier, we have a world map on the wall in our hallway as well as a U.S. map on the wall in Joely's room.

2. Seterra

Seterra is a free, downloadable software program that makes learning the names of the states, and especially the locations of major U.S. cities, a breeze.

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3. Sheppard Software Geography Games

Sheppard Software has several interactive activities to learn state names and locations. But beware. The games are addictive!

4. Postal Abbreviations eBook

My free ebook, Learn the States and Postal Abbreviations, is a great way to teach your kids both the names and locations of the states as well as the U.S. postal abbreviations. I used this method with my own kids and it worked great.

I rest my case against learning just the states and their capitals when there is so much else to learn.

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Comments

  1. says

    Great post! I think the emphasis on rote memorization is misguided, at best. I would so much rather my kids see the big picture–to know what industries are common in what regions, to be able to find the states (or countries) on the map.
    Ashley
    .-= ashley´s last blog ..Where I’m supposed to be…. =-.

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  2. says

    This is so timely! Thank you! I am planning on having my children memorize and located the states and capitals this year, but wasn't quite sure how I was going to tackle it. This gives me lots of direction and insight. I also have your e book, and it is truly wonderful!
    .-= Stephanie´s last blog ..Serenity =-.

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  3. says

    Excellent points! I've seen a parent have her toddler rattle off the states and capitals and I just think, "What's the point?"

    I've found puzzles (actual wooden ones) very useful in teaching my children the states and where they belong.

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  4. says

    My son's 6th grade Social Studies teacher gives the children 3-5 clues each wk on a state, like: "What states name means snow cap in Spanish?" And if they do the research and answer correctly, they get extra credit.
    It's been fun as a family trying to figure them out too.
    You may be able to incorporate that into your homeschooling.
    ~Liz

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  5. says

    I am an email subscriber, and was really interested to see why you were against learning states and capitals. I don't know what school is like now. But when I was a kid, we learned the name of the state, how to spell it, where it was on the map, and the state capitals to go along with them. When we were tested, we were given a blank US map and had to write in the states and their capitals. This makes sense to me!!!! lol
    .-= Becca´s last blog ..Thursday Thunks – Ouch, denim, news and that desert island question again…. =-.

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  6. says

    I agree what's the point of knowing the states and caps if you don't know where they are. I bought wood puzzles from Timberdoodle and it's all 7 continents each puzzle piece is a country or state with capital on it. My kids are 6 and they are having fun learning this way.
    .-= Rana´s last blog ..Permanent spot… =-.

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  7. Lori A. says

    I had to learn all the states and capitals in school…To be honest, I couldn't tell you all of them now! I guess it really isn't *that* important. :)

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  8. Doug says

    My kids have been taking tests and failing this for years. Even in 9th grade. The problem is that they use it once a year and then forget it. I cannot remember capitals at all. My question is, what is the practical application of learning this information when they can find it on a map or the internet? I have been discussing this for years with educators and the only expanation they can give is that it is important. Nobody can give a practical application of this knowledge. If it is so important, when will I use it and how? If you require someone to memorize something and then they do not use it on a regular basis, it will be lost or they will recall the wrong answer. It is better to teach them how to find the information when they need it.

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  9. says

    i agree. i think map work is far more important and a familiarization with the location than memorization of facts. i never understood why learning the state bird and so forth were so important to teachers either. just having maps in my home on the walls have done so much to enhance my own education.
    .-= melissa stover´s last blog ..Lisa Leonard designs =-.

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  10. Mikki says

    In the classical method of education, rote memory work is a fairly large part of early education. One reason has to do with the physical activity of memory work. It actually builds new neural pathways, and a skill that allows quicker memory work later in life. It is like building muscle and reaction times through physical activities.

    The second reason for memorizing facts at a young age is to build a framework for future learning. Our Classical Conversations co-op includes a lot of memory work for the elementary grades. They learn one history sentence/song each week, and 8 points on a timeline (from creation to modern America.) Veritas Press cards are the backbone of this. After doing this for two years, my 13 year old has a really strong framework for understanding history – as he now begins to work more on the reasons behind events in history. Ex. He knows who crowned Charlemagne, is familiar with many Popes, and figures in the Reformation, and knew what year Nelson Mandela came to leadership in South Africa. (He was able to tell me this when we were watching a special on PBS.)

    It is a little like the study of mathematics. In the beginning, you need the memorization of addition, subtraction, and multiplication facts. This builds the framework for future growth in logic and higher math classes. You can't progress unless the basics are covered.

    "The Brain that Changes Itself" by Norman Doidge includes fascinating life stories about people who have worked through learning challenges through a variety of "brain exercises." It is NOT talking about any particular method, but many many personal breakthroughs that are amazing!

    By the way, in geography this year, they are drawing their way around the world. Each week they draw four review maps, and 4 new maps of a different region in the world, with names and capitals. They focus on one new region for two weeks. He will understand the world news far better than 90 percent of most Americans, just because he actually knows where to find the countries that they are talking about. (Once again, building a framework.)

    The junior high and high school years still add more facts, but work with the natural "why" and "prove it" tendencies for children in those years. With a solid foundation built on a wider knowledge base, they can really wrestle with why things happened in the past, or present. My 13 year old is learning to search for answers and reasons in many locations now. The internet is a great resource, but if you have a stronger library of facts in your own brain, your search time can be defined more closely and shortened considerably.

    Sorry for the long winded explanation, but we love what we have been seeing these last three years. DS1 has more discussion questions than I could dream of answering at this point in time. It is exiting to see how he is growing.

    BTW – both of my children LOVE the http://www.sheppardsoftware.com geography games.

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  11. Mugglemama says

    I couldn't agree with you more! I taught my kids to identify, spell, and label all of the U.S. states when they were in 2nd and 5th grades. After that, I taught them to do the same with all of the countries of Central America, South America, and Europe. This year (they are now in 3rd and 6th grades), we will learn the countries of Africa and Asia, and my youngest who just turned 5 is starting on the U.S. states (we'll only cover about 12 of them this year unless he wants to do more, and he already knows 8 of them). The two older kids and I are also doing state capitals right now, but I really have no idea why, except that as you said, it was a staple of our educations when we were young. We happen to live in a capital city and have visited the state capital a few times, so they understand that is where our state's governmental stuff occurs, but other than that, I can't think of a reason anyone needs to know the state capitals either, LOL! It seems MUCH more important to me that they are familiar with where various countries are, and where they themselves are geographically in relation to the rest of the world. We do a unit study (including photos, travel channel episodes, youtube videos, music samples, etc.) of each country and/or continent as we learn the maps, as well. I want them to get visuals in their minds when they hear the name of a certain country or continent, and truly have some concrete knowledge of the region.

    I seriously cannot think of one thing I ever used my knowledge of the states and capitals for. Oh well, we're learning them anyway. The kids are having fun with it and we'll have them all covered in less than 3 weeks, only requiring about 10 minutes per day. If they hated it, or if it was going to require much more time than it does now, I probably wouldn't bother with it, since I can think of no situation later in life in which they'll need to know them.

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    Joy Reply:

    @Mugglemama, That sounds like you have a fantastic system going for you. I hope to get back into geography a bit more this next term. I love your approach; it's right up my alley!

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  12. says

    Rote learning of facts is what kills enjoyment of a subject. The same applies to history. My kids love history – because we focus on the 'story' not the dates. I just get them to learn about 10 key dates by the time they graduate so they can put events into historical context. My mom could never understand how we all loved history so much as to her history is synonymous with dates and dry facts – until she spent some time with us and listened in on the books we read. Learning really can be very enjoyable – if it is approached the right way.
    .-= Meryl van der Merwe´s last blog ..So – you want to Teach your Kids Geography? updated Tue Mar 30 2010 8:24 pm CDT =-.

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  13. says

    Hi Joy, I am not from the US but I'm fascinated by it. I started memorizing the States and their capitals when I was 9 and perfected it before summer vacation was over. My friends would laugh at me and my pointless efforts but I still enjoyed studying about the US and geography in general.

    This is a great post! I am teaching geography to my almost 7 year old with a big world map on our wall at home.

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  14. says

    We learned the state capitals as a by-product of playing with the Melissa and Doug license plate game. The board has license plates for each state mounted on it. They're attached to the board and you flip them over when you see the license plate in your travels. On the reverse side is the state name and capital city. We had so much fun finding them and learned a lot about geography by playing the game. My son now knows where each state is located (except for Alaska since it's in the wrong place!), it's capital and usually something about it based on what the license plate looks like. We also came across several Canadian provinces in our travels, so we learned about them as well.

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  15. Steve says

    Hi, great post, I also found I great site with some geography games where you can learn capitals, flags, it has some interesting quizzes about famous towns… very interesting site, i would recommend to anyone to try it. Here is the link: http://geographygames24.com/

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  16. says

    THANK YOU for posting your free curriculum on this topic. I just printed the entirety of it off. I also love the site you linked to (SheppardSoftware) and I think my girls are going to LOVE IT! Thanks!

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  17. Shelley says

    I learned my US geography (including but not limited to state capitals) by a very simple and low tech solution: I had a placemat with the US map on one side and the world map on the other. Staring at that thing up to three times a day, it's impossible not to absorb at least some information!

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