Bill Gates, a desert island and the wedge

Bill Gates was recently asked how he would feel about the possibility of being cast away alone on a desert island, without any contact with the outside world. There would be no phone, and no internet.

He didn’t much care for the idea.

Although, he said, he might welcome the time to think, perhaps write and certainly to read (the interviewer allowed him three books – the Bible, the Complete Works of Shakespeare and a book of his choice – he chose The Better Angels of our Nature by Stephen Pinker ), the life of the contemplative hermit was not for him:

“If I had an idea about malaria eradication, do I get to tell someone about it?”


“I think I’d be trying to get off [the island] before too long”

My castaway this week . . .

Gates was the guest of one of the BBC Radio’s most enduring and best-loved programmes, Desert Island Discs. In each 45 minute programme, the host, Kirsty Young, asks some of the world’s most interesting people to imagine they are cast away on an island. How would they feel? Would their lives to date prepare them for the experience? By way of consolation, they are able to choose 8 pieces of music that would give them solace in their isolation – the eponymous Desert Island Discs.

Most guests choose music that has personal meaning from over the years, and as they reminisce, the conversation flows richly: in fact the programme itself is the antithesis of its own premise:  Desert Island Discs is all about sharing and communication rather than the isolation of the castaway. The Gates interview was no exception.\


young-bill-gates-41Bill Gates would have made a poor islander – and he knew it. A solitary existence would not suit. The interview revealed his deep urge to learn by communicating with others. Over the years, he recalled, much of his thinking was developed in conversation with his business partner, Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft.

Castaways at school

The urge to communicate and share ideas is deeply entrenched in the human condition. If it is denied, people get frustrated. This is as true of teenagers as it is of adults. A hypothetical desert island is one thing. Unfortunately for many students, school itself can become a very real desert island, where they can feel cut off from others, unable to absorb new ideas or share their own.

Why is this? In my view, young people are seldom required to learn the language of a subject in a systematic way. The language of Science or Maths, for example is, in a real sense, “foreign” and has to be learned. Students therefore need to study “Science as a second language” before they can really understand “Science”. However, when they are shown how systematically to build the vocabulary of a subject and are properly coached in its use, more teenagers are capable of rising to the challenge of difficult material than may have been expected.

From dependence to independence

This takes time, however and at the very beginning of a course, or when teaching a new idea, you have to accept a student’s dependence, and teach accordingly. However, even at this stage, there is only one aim in mind – to coach the language skills students require to be weaned off this dependence. For me, this means explicitly developing their understanding and use of both specialised and general vocabulary. Gradually, as they gain mastery over the language they need to use in order to communicate their ideas, students move from the thin end to the thick end of independence, and start enjoying themselves:

Independent learning

The importance of coaching

We cannot assume that teenagers master the meaning and use of new words merely by being exposed to them. Words need to be explored and their use constantly practised. Like athletes, students need coaching, and while mastering the specialised use of language does not happen overnight, with constant, purposeful practice and the supervision of a knowledgeable coach, experience shows that it does happen over time. The ability to share ideas more effectively – in writing and in conversation – follows. Students get off their desert island.

For more about coaching teenagers for independence contact Andy:

Meanwhile, here are a few ideas about language skills and coaching for independence in Years 12 & 13 / Grades 11 & 12:

To listen to Bill Gates on Desert Island Discs, click the link


Andy Homden