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The worst teacher I ever had

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I felt that school wasted my time
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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So, one of the advantages of living all over the world was that I got to try out every different kind of school. I got private schools, public schools, religious schools, home schooled. And one of the things I came to realise is what really matters is not so much the school but the teacher. And I had some great teachers, really fortunate. I had some terrible teachers. And one of the things I felt about school is that in general I felt it wasted my time. I spent so many hours of the most precious years of my life sitting in a classroom listening to teachers talk often about the same things over and over again.

And I remember sitting as a child and saying, 'I'll never make my children do this.' And I didn't. I home schooled my children. And I think from the very beginning I had a little bit of an adversarial relationship with the administration of whatever schools I was at. And I remember in kindergarten there was... We had these water fountains which were pipes that had holes drilled in them. And they turned up the water fountain and all the kids could drink at once. But they only turned it up a little bit so the kids actually had to put their mouths down on the pipes and I remember thinking that was really unsanitary. If they just turned it up a little bit more it would squirt up higher. So just as we were waiting for... To be picked up at the end of the day once, I went over and adjusted the water fountain so the kids wouldn't have to put their mouth down, and I adjusted a little bit too much and I ended up spraying all of the kids just before their parents arrived. And the teachers were furious at me, they thought I had done it on purpose. Whereas actually I was just trying to correct an obvious problem and what they had done. But so I often had problems with the teachers or the administration when they did stupid things.

W Daniel Hillis (b. 1956) is an American inventor, scientist, author and engineer. While doing his doctoral work at MIT under artificial intelligence pioneer, Marvin Minsky, he invented the concept of parallel computers, that is now the basis for most supercomputers. He also co-founded the famous parallel computing company, Thinking Machines, in 1983 which marked a new era in computing. In 1996, Hillis left MIT for California, where he spent time leading Disney’s Imagineers. He developed new technologies and business strategies for Disney's theme parks, television, motion pictures, Internet and consumer product businesses. More recently, Hillis co-founded an engineering and design company, Applied Minds, and several start-ups, among them Applied Proteomics in San Diego, MetaWeb Technologies (acquired by Google) in San Francisco, and his current passion, Applied Invention in Cambridge, MA, which 'partners with clients to create innovative products and services'. He holds over 100 US patents, covering parallel computers, disk arrays, forgery prevention methods, and various electronic and mechanical devices (including a 10,000-year mechanical clock), and has recently moved into working on problems in medicine. In recognition of his work Hillis has won many awards, including the Dan David Prize.

Listeners: George Dyson Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: school, teaching, home schooling, administration, teachers, water fountain

Duration: 2 minutes, 33 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 08 August 2017