Don't get lost in the Black Hole of Knowledge

Robert Nurden on the courses that combat ignorance
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A friend of mine takes delight in putting people through the rigours of a simple parlour game he calls the Black Hole of Knowledge. It goes like this: all the participants must confess to aspects of life about which they have always been ignorant, while feeling that the rest of the world is fully clued up. Alternatively, they may admit to believing they were right about something for years, only to discover later they were wrong all along.

People come clean about not knowing how to place a bet or mend a fuse, or ignorance about the meaning of words or well-known political or historical figureheads. Although the participants are fearful at the time, they almost always admit to it being a cathartic experience in hindsight.

Because these areas of ignorance increasingly exist in the workplace, a training company in Leicestershire has decided that it's time to use the black hole syndrome as the starting point for an idiot's guide to getting clued up. The You Hardly Dared Ask Company offers friendly beginners' one- or two-day courses on aspects of modern working life - public speaking, computers, money, dress sense, even 20th-century history. No question, it says, is too stupid to ask, and the over-45s are particularly welcome.

"All of us have subjects about which we know little or nothing, many of which have become a vital component of modern working life," explains Douglas Skene, who organises the courses. "With the pace of modern life, we are often left feeling not only foolish and inadequate but also uncatered for." For this reason, it is not only individuals who approach the company but employers on behalf of a group of staff.

The course that attracts the most applicants is, not surprisingly, computing. A large proportion of the over 45s - many of them bosses who have until recently dictated letters to their secretary - have recently been overtaken by the breakneck speed of IT developments. In response, they have tried to bring themselves up-to-date by enrolling on computer courses or at least tried to get some keyboard skills. The problem is that they invariably find the jargon on conventional courses is not fully explained and that within minutes they are floundering, only to leave at the end of the day in an even more confused state.

Judging by the positive feedback from participants in the weeks since the project started, the You Hardly Dared Ask Company's original approach to learning has hit a raw nerve. There are few short cuts, it seems, to good old-fashioned learning.

John and Jean Attwood, a retired couple attending the one-day computer course held by the company, said they welcomed the step-by-step approach in which it is assumed no one knows anything. "We enrolled on a beginners' computer course at Warwick University, but jargon such as software and hardware was never explained properly to us," said Mrs Attwood. "This course is better structured and students dictate the pace of learning. We're not frightened anymore."

The company, whose logo depicts an ostrich with its head in the sand, aims to provide "friendly beginners' courses for those outside the ostrich cage". The informality is helped along by the comfortable surroundings of Noseley Hall, an 18th-century stately home near Leicester, and not least by the three-course lunch with wine.

Co-founder of the project, James Barrow, explains the gap in the training market that the company seems to have identified. "Employers spend over pounds 100bn each year on training in this country," he said. "The problem is that they are really only interested in training people for specific jobs. People need more general knowledge, but it must start at the right level. "

A self-employed fashion designer on one of the courses wanted to make the switch from manual design to computer-generated graphics. "This is an excellent course for people like me who are in a hurry," she said. "I recently lost 40 hours of work when a commission went missing in the post. I had to do it all over again, but if I'd designed it on the computer, I could have just sent it down the line again."

"What we are looking at here is another form of illiteracy in the workplace," said Dr Steve Blinkham, chairman of Psychological Research and Development, a consultancy. "It is tremendously hard for an older person to admit to their deficiencies and they will hide them when they can. It is a massive problem that is only just being realised. Another underlying issue is that people have been promoted when the demands of the workplace were very different. They may now be out of their depth."

The You Hardly Dared Ask Company, Smithy Building, North Kilworth, Leicestershire LE17 6HQ; tel: 01858 880682; e-mail:; website: