FHM Knowledge and Loaded Skills

In the ‘New Lad’ heyday of the mid-90s, when cigarettes, alcohol and football were all you needed to be a ‘ledge’, one was presented with a binary choice for lad-based news: ‘Loaded’ and ‘FHM’ were the clear market-leaders.  Nuts and Zoo were a little too low-brow, aimed more at the 13-year olds lacking the confidence to buy pornographic magazines in their local WHSmiths and GQ was a little too high-brow, not to mention that fact that it contained fashion shoots involving men.

FHM and Loaded contained a glossy mix of supposedly true laddish tales, a 24 page glossy shoot of a lady whose first name ended in ‘i’, some sports and some music that it was ok for a lad to like (Oasis, Cast, Space etc).  A ‘dilemmas’ feature occasionally made an appearance, presumably to massage the grey matter of the readership.  This would include questions such as:

‘Would you ‘do’ The Coors if you had to ‘do’ the bloke too?

Which would you prefer, a mermaid with the top half of a woman and the bottom half of a fish, or the top half of a fish and the bottom half of the woman?

If you could have ten points to spend on women, and supermodels were 10, women you knew were 2 and ‘lucky dip’ was 1, how would you spend your points?

If these aren’t actual questions from FHM, they are close enough to the brain-teasers posed by the mag, and they make for a brand of rather tasteless sexism.  I think we’ve moved on.

However, these needless and pointless questions aren’t so very different from the question of ‘Knowledge v Skills’.  We have admittedly move into a more highbrow line of questioning (perhaps even beyond GQ’s remit), but I don’t think the dilemma is any more valid as a question.  It is surely desirable to have both.  It is even possible to possess ‘skills’ in isolation, without background knowledge?  It is certainly possible to hold in one’s mind a large collection of disparate facts, which may be useful when it comes to questions of pure factual recall (pub quizzes) for example, but does this even constitute knowledge?  No-one articulates better what I mean than Richard Feynman – here he is talking about the difference between ‘knowing the name of something, and knowing something’:


It is clear that the people Feynman criticise possess a certain degree of knowledge, without the skills of analysis to make that knowledge useful. However, how can you begin to use your skills of analysis if you don’t even know that it’s a bird making the noise?

Knowledge and skills have little in common with the ‘traditional v progressive’ debate, though some may argue that the method of direct instruction favoured by those in the former category promotes the importance of knowledge and the pupil-centred approach favoured by the progressives promotes skills-based learning, but to look at things in these terms is too simplistic and binary (almost in the mold of an FHM article writer).  

Every teacher must agree that the passing on of knowledge is to some degree their raison d’etre – this is evident in the quote from Joseph O’Neill, who states that ‘the human race refreshes itself in complete ignorance’.  However, no teacher would ever intend to pass on that knowledge without making connections between the material being delivered.  I watched the marvellous BBC4 series ‘A Tale of Three Cities’ last night, which focused on Paris in 1928.  The series moved effortlessly around the Culture, Politics, Art, Architecture and Music of the City, all placed in clear historical context.  I can’t imagine how one could have appreciated the programme without knowledge of how these things came to be, but it takes a certain degree of skill to understand how these things are connected.  ‘Only Connect’ has been the theme of my Third Form teaching this year, and I have tried to prove that connections can be made between seemingly disparate things.

I cannot imagine anything more dull than skills-based teaching – the passing on of knowledge is one of the most joyful parts of being a teacher.  Having said that, to think that I was merely preparing pupils for a tilt at the ‘Eggheads’ would be pretty disappointing too.  In much the same way that Baddiel and Skinner will always be linked to the laddish mid-90s through ‘3 Lions’ and ‘Fantasy Football’, it’s impossible to de-couple knowledge from skills.  It’s not an either/or question- if it’s those you’re after, stick to your back-copies of Loaded.

Creative Juices

Richard Feynman is one of the greatest minds of the 20th Century. He won a Nobel prize for Physics in the 1960s; he was involved in the atomic bomb project at Los Alamos when only in his early 20s; he helped to compile the report which unearthed the reason for the disaster on the space shuttle challenger. That’s all pretty impressive. Perhaps even more special than all this is the fact that he was a brilliantly clever man who was able to inspire every person that he talked to, from fellow Nobel-prize winning scientists to interested laymen. The Horizon documentary in which he is featured is the best programme ever made about science, and I challenge anyone not to find themself drawn in and fascinated by his view of the world. And yet there are things he claims to find difficult to explain: he states that at one time he was trying to explain to his father the emission of a photon from an atom as it moves from a higher state to the ground state. His father asks whether the photon was in the atom ahead of time, and he states that it was not, and it is the moving between 2 states that allows the photon to be emitted. He likens it to when his son told him that he could no longer say the word ‘cat’ because his ‘word bag was empty’. We do not have a ‘word bag’, i.e. a finite number of words we can use, nor is the number of times we can say any particular word limited. The words are not in our bodies ahead of time; we form them, just as the photon is not in the atom ahead of time.

If anyone is still reading this, I think this is an example of why Feynman would have been such a brilliant teacher – his use of analogy is so good, which is why he can explain even difficult concepts to anyone who is willing to listen.

All this serves to introduce what I was really thinking about, and that is the limit to one’s ideas and creativity. Is there a limit to this, just as we might have a limit to the number of times we can say the word ‘cat’? I’ve been a teacher for 12 years (just starting my 13th) and it’s a good job that I have moved around from School to School and between roles in these Schools. I’ve felt that each of my moves has co-incided with the time at which I felt my creativity in that particular role was on the wane. After 5 years as a Head of Department that my creative output was on a downward slope. I’d had a lot of ideas, but I’d rather exhausted them over a 5 year period. But it seems like I’m not alone. Many hugely creative artists (note that I’m not comparing myself to these people) seem to run out of steam after a certain amount of time: Paul McCartney once changed the face of British music, now he churns out instantly forgettable pop pap. You can include Mick Jagger here too. There’s the notorious ‘3rd album’ problem faced by singers/bands, and it’s often at this stage that later songs just sound like less good versions of what’s gone on before (hello Oasis). Salvador Dali was a real artistic original (though Bosch was doing the same thing about 450 years earlier), though when you look at Dali’s work, the same themes/ideas come up time and time again. Francoise Sagan – wrote Bonjour Tristesse at the age of 19, and precious little of note afterwards, and there’s many authors in the ‘one masterpiece’ club (Harper Lee, Margaret Mitchell).

Some ideas clearly run their course, and there’s no need to keep flogging a dead horse, whilst others are cut in their prime, and leave you desperate for more (12 episodes of Fawlty Towers, and 100 of Birds of a Feather hardly seems fair). To keep being creative takes a very special individual, or ones that are able to reinvent themselves. I’m not sure that many would compare Leonardo da Vinci and David Bowie, but these are the two examples that came to mind first, and I do like to write these blogs in a stream of conscious-esque manner. Da Vinci is probably the greatest Polymath of all time, and he managed to remain creative all his life, and Bowie is one of those artists who seems to be willing to produce total tosh at times (Tin machine) in order to maintain his creative streak – this provides us with genius such as ‘Heathen’ and ‘Hunky Dory’. Only one idea is needed to make us rich, but it’s those people that retain the ability to be creative right through to the end that I find most impressive.

Here’s some classic Feynman (may need watching twice!):