“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. So is a lot.”


A new initiative by traditional academics insists that very small children should first be taught a rigorous programme of structural theory and have a good knowledge of the scientific application of forces before being allowed to play with building blocks.

OK, this time just kidding, but admit it, for a moment there you were willing to believe it!

Meanwhile All Change Please! recently read an account of a prospective employee, who when asked a knowledge-based question in an interview, admitted he didn’t know the answer, but that when it became important to the work he could suggest various ways in which they would be able to find out. The employer was impressed, both with his honesty and resourcefulness, and he got the job.

Or as US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld so clearly put it in 2002: ‘Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.’

In contrast, reading much of Gove and Truss’s spin or the writings of traditional academics, one could easily believe that an abundant store of known knowledge is an essential and the only prerequisite for any future employment, and at the same time not a single child has been taught a single piece of knowledge since the 1960s. This is of course, all complete nonsense. The reality is that the majority of children in the majority of lessons have continued to be formally taught existing knowledge. Indeed there is current trend in the production of resources intended to support teachers who have never used a project-based learning approach before.

And if All Change Please! reads just once more the supposed myth-busting  revelation triumphantly proclaimed by traditional academics that ‘you can’t look everything up on the internet’ it will scream. Let it make something clear. NO ONE IS SUGGESTING THAT CHILDREN SHOULD NEVER BE TAUGHT ANY KNOWLEDGE.

All so-called ‘progressive’ teachers of any worth recognise the value and importance of knowledge. What they do however is to question the type and amount of knowledge needed and to try and relate it as much as possible to practical application rather than abstract theory. They are also keen to develop children’s abilities to independently discover and learn – and question the reliability and validity of – new knowledge.

What’s really missing in the education system though is a structured programme of the development of thinking and learning skills, properly coordiated, monitored and rewarded across the whole school, instead of the current very patchy, haphazard exposure children might or might not encounter, depending on which teachers they just happen to have that year. When that finally happens then perhaps we will really be able for the first time to assess how effective or not it is.

OK, quiz question for budding traditional academics. Who is supposed to have said “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. So is a lot.”? No cheating now…

In case you were away from school the day that was covered, the answer is Albert Einstein. All Change Please! is happy to admit it didn’t previously know that. Indeed it was only after searching online to discover the source of the earlier saying “A little learning is a dangerous thing” that it discovered Einstein’s version. Sounds like a little searching might be a good thing.

Of course, a little knowledge can, as it is said, be a dangerous thing (as Gove has demonstrated through his lack of knowledge of teaching and learning). but so is too much. As well as more specialists we need more generalists who are able to see and work with the bigger picture. And as All Change Please! might just have mentioned once or twice before, what we’re currently completely failing to do is engage in any sort of debate about exactly how much formal ‘just in case’ knowledge of a given subject is now appropriate, and what that knowledge can best be delivered’ as it now can be, ‘just in time’.

Instead of nervously looking over our shoulder at the future while grasping to keep hold of an ever receding past, we should be striding positively towards tomorrow, learning from the mistakes of yesterday. Or as someone else once sang:

There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow

Shinin’ at the end of ev’ry day

There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow

And tomorrow’s just a dream away.

Now I wonder who wrote that? Well, this time it certainly wasn’t Einstein. But there’s a clue in All Change Please!‘s last post.

One comment on ““A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. So is a lot.”

  1. On the side of £2 coins is the inscription “STANDING ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS”. The phrase was taken from a letter by Sir Isaac Newton to Robert Hooke, in which he describes how his work was built on the knowledge of those that had gone before him. “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

    The phrase was not entirely Isaac’s, it was adapted from much earlier uses including one from Greek mythology where a blind giant carried his servant on his shoulders to help him see (and see further).

    I think we can safely say that Gove is using none of this wisdom as we adapt to life in the 21st digital century. We already know and understand many more things than those that have gone before us, including Newton and Einstein. By standing on their shoulders we see further still. But are some of us able to adapt, utilise and take advantage of that better view? Have we the skills to make that view/information better/useful?

    A bunch of facts and data means nothing unless you know how to put that information to good use. Something again Mr Gove doesn’t seem to have grasped.

    I use the internet to find (and remind me about) data and facts, what I might do with that information is the clever bit. I don’t necessarily need to learn the data, it’s available almost any time anywhere and is brought in according to need and task in hand. I absorb and interpret the knowledge accordingly through the practical application of it and/or by general interest which then leads on to further research and data/factual findings which might of course lead to further information for others to find and use later.

    Dates, facts, names, orders, rarely stick in my head for long… there is just too much information out there to keep track of it all and nowadays it’s on hand whenever there’s a need for it. There’s no point in getting all the kids to remember facts for an exam, it’s what they can do with the facts, how they can utilise them and manipulate them according to need. Knowing how to find out and research something and then turn that into something truly useful and unique is perhaps the real skill whether it be an intellectual/academic and/or manual/physical need.

    If I were doing my exams tomorrow, I’d want an internet connected computer next to me so I could look up the important facts and details, and then for my exam mark to be based on how well I answered/interpreted the questions/problems rather than if I’d remembered which year a certain thing happened, what the exact chemical symbol is for some element, if I’d managed to recall the functioning of a Bessemer Converter or the exact hex value for red when converting an rgb/cmyk palette.

    In my opinion, Mr Gove’s view of the world provides a very narrow and limited path to follow and leaves out many different types of people and more importantly, well-established methods of learning while at the same time destroying, offending and belittling values the rest of us find so important. All the while he is taking many steps backwards and instead of standing on the shoulders of giants he is cowering behind them and blurting out eloquent complimentary pontifications that otherwise mean bugger-all and make no sense to the giants or when analysed by all those around that actually know and care.

    Anyway, that’s just my £2’s worth!

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