The strength of knowledge

Three years ago, the Mastermind of Britain competition witnessed its youngest ever champion: Jonathan Gibson. A student pursuing a PhD in modern history at the University of St Andrews at the time. Jonathan described himself as the “black sheep” of a family of lawyers and insisted that the secret to success in quizzing lies not in innate brain power, but in curiosity and dedicated practice. I for one found his enthusiasm and excitement at quizzing rather infectious and the fact that he credited his success down to curiosity, which is one of the five intellectual characteristics that we value at Northampton High School. We believe that with curiosity, we can push the boundaries of our knowledge and relish the discovery of new ideas, and there are no limits to what a Northampton High girl can achieve.

Jonathan, having charmed the nation with his specialist subject knowledge on the musical comedy duo Flanders and Swann, modestly remarked “I wouldn’t say it has anything to do with intelligence in a classical way”. I thought this showed a degree of humility but also was probably a true measure of his own character and intelligence, acknowledging that the more you know the more you are aware of the amount you do not know!

My blog draws inspiration from Socrates, often regarded as philosophy’s martyr. Sentenced to death in 399BC for allegedly corrupting the minds of the youth, Socrates never recorded his thoughts, believing that words lost their meaning. However, we understand his thinking through his pupil Plato’s writing. Plato’s Socratic dialogues feature Socrates in lively conversation on a wide range of subjects, from justice and virtue to art and politics. The central theme in Socrates’ thinking concerns the nature of knowledge, specifically on how most of us have very limited amounts! As Socrates says in the dialogues:

‘True wisdom comes to each of us when we realise how little we understand about life, ourselves and the world around us’. 

Socrates encouraged his pupils to question everything (which is why he was suspected of corrupting the minds of the youth) in order to gain deeper insight to a question or to suggest doubt to a previously held truth. By using his method of limitless questioning, Socrates soon discovered that, in fact, few people knew anything claimed to know for certain.

There is much we can learn from the Socratic method, not least to be wise to the limits of our own knowledge and certainty. Certainty can make us feel secure, but it can also be a barrier to intellectual growth and discovery. As such, we need to take the initiative and trust our instincts and we do not accept artificial limits to our potential. The key here is about actively seeking knowledge, constantly learning, and validating assumptions.

Crucially, we also need to seek knowledge from the best and stay curious, but recognise in humility that we will only ever know a very small amount of what there is to be known. In today’s fast paced world where we are bombarded with information from all sides and we have access to more knowledge than ever before, so many people are quick to accept things as facts without questioning them. Socrates’ quote, “I know that I do not know” is a much needed reminder that we should always be open to questioning our own assumptions and that true wisdom comes from acknowledging that we don’t have all the answers. Questions can therefore help us to define tasks, to express problems and to delineate issues.

At Northampton High, we have Reach cross-curricular weeks for Years 7 to 9 this term. These provide opportunities for our pupils to explore and discover how facts and ideas connect with one another across subjects, and build on the educational research that we learn when we are able to make connections. Additionally, if pupils are excited about a particular topic or theme, linking it to another subject can help motivate and inspire them toward learning across the whole curriculum, and foster their critical thinking and collaboration with each other. Fundamentally, we know that the world isn’t neatly divided into different subjects, so why should classroom education have to be?

Our cross-curricular weeks are complemented by open prep, where pupils are tasked to create an independent project based on a thematic word. In Year 8, the theme is ‘Memory’, while Years 7 and 9 focus on the concept of ‘Time’. These projects are expected to demonstrate higher order thinking skills, including documentation of research, and the school’s characteristics such as curiosity, risk-taking and independence. Teachers are allocated these to mark and there is no ‘normal’ homework set during this term. The open prep approach encourages our pupils to think creatively and outside the box.

In closing, adopting a humble mindset and keeping dialogue open are both essential in a world with competing truth claims, so that we might gain deeper understanding and exercise greater compassion towards those different from ourselves.

Dr May Lee