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    Desert Island Discs: the best episodes about education

    Our favourite Desert Island Discs episodes featuring teachers, academics and educators
    Last updated:
    December 3, 2021

    Desert Island Discs has occupied a unique place in broadcasting for more than seven decades. The format of Britain's longest running radio show is so enduringly simple it's entered public consciousness. Each guest picks eight songs to comfort them on their sandy new home, as well as one book and a luxury item. It's ostensibly about music, but the music is really a springboard to discuss each guest's career, personal life, motivations and beliefs. Although there are defining characteristics and through-lines thanks to the consistent structure, every episode feels distinct due to the diverse selection of castaways.

    Last week, Laurie Cohen wrote for the Guardian's Higher Education Network praising the programme as a valuable resource of research data. Cohen, who serves as Professor of Work and Organisation at Nottingham University Business School, has mined the show's archives and found valuable information about how groundbreaking scientists work. The programme has also featured a long list of influential educators and academics sharing the lessons their careers have taught them about learning. Read on for a list of our four favourites.


    Sir Ken Robinson, November 2013

    'If you're not prepared to be wrong you'll never come up with anything original'. So says Sir Ken Robinsons, who's introduced by Kirsty Young as 'part educationalist, part stand-up comedian'. He must be doing something right – his lively TED talk 'Do schools kills creativity?' has been watched by 36 million. He's just as impassioned during this lively and articulate interview, explaining how creativity is 'what sets us apart on the earth as a species'. But he doesn't think creative ideas should be limited to artistic and literary subjects, and asserts 'any field where the imagination is active is an opportunity for creative thinking and achievement'. Elsewhere, he and Kirsty discuss how it's never too late to try something new and why he'd take a quad bike to the island.

    Listen to the full episode here.

    Alison Richard, March 2005

    Richard's career has taken quite a journey. Her 'insatiable curiosity about almost anything' led to degrees from Cambridge and King's. Next, she moved to Madagascar to perform anthropological study on the island's monkeys and lemurs. After leaving the jungle for a teaching position at Yale, she became Cambridge's first full-time female Vice-Chancellor. She describes her battle against Cambridge's 'archaic structure' and expounds on the need to reassess the admissions process, stating 'the greater the array of ways of assessing the students achievements and potential, the better'. And she's no less impassioned when speaking about her love of Miles Davis' music.

    Listen to the full episode here.

    Dame Wendy Hall, August 2014

    As fellow of both the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society, Hall is a groundbreaking web scientist who states 'you can change the world by being a scientist or a software engineer'. She details how she faced 'several glass ceilings' when entering the male-dominated world of engineering in the 1980s, and how her passion for the subject helped her find strength to continue. Hall became the first female Professor of Engineering at University of Southampton in 1984, where she helped invent the Microcosm hypermedia system, widely held to predate the web. Hall reflects with wit and humanity on 25 years of the internet, her love of the Beatles and heavy metal, and why she'd take a printed version of Wikipedia to her island.

    Listen to the full episode here.

    John Sutherland, February 2006

    Sutherland offers a frank and brave account of his 'long and nomadic route' into academia, a moving story of against-the-odds success. He belonged to a working class family with no history of higher education and, abandoned by his parents, was brought up by a series of relatives. Avid reading provided escape from loneliness and led to him landing a place at Leicester University.

    Sutherland's bright academic career landed him jobs at leading universities, but became threatened by his growing alcoholism. With the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, he kicked the habit and landed his 'dream job': Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at UCL. He went on to write his huge and hugely popular Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction, followed by several bestselling biographies, literary quiz books and an autobiography.

    Listen to the full episode here.

    Which episodes have we missed? Let us know with a comment or tweet us @fullfabric.


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