At the weekend I spent an evening with some friends of a friend, all of whom are working on their PHDs in Engineering and Physics. I always find it fascinating talking to people from very different fields to my own, and I found out about lots of interesting research work they were doing.
A conversation with one person stood out. Currently completing his PHD in physics, looking at using layers of carbon of the thickness of a single atom to create superconductive, transparent panels for solar cells, and super miniaturised transistors for use in computer chips. This material has the potential to revolutionise the way we produce electronics.
As Ken Robinson famously asserted, in terms of the education system these people are close to the top of the pile. They are successful products of the system, or so you would think.
We got talking about my work, primary education. His opinion? He learned more that he has applied in his PHD work from working on his parents farm than from formal education. In fact, he admitted that in secondary school he regularly skipped 3 days a week.
In his opinion it was the demands to solve real, immediate problems that encouraged him to learn the skills he needed to do groundbreaking research in physics. Formal schooling didn’t provide that, bunking off and working on a farm did… in a way that was transferable to highly academic research.
When asked to describe his job now he replied, “I basically go into the lab and play”. ‘Play’ with smashing up graphite atoms and seeing what happens, then finding practical uses for the results. I wonder what school would be like if more children and young people were given similarly inspiring resources and the permission to ‘just’ play.