Nobel Laureate and President of the Royal Society Sir Venki Ramakrishnan was being interviewed on BBC radio recently. Here is someone who is about as respectable as you can get. Yet being questioned about his education he was happy to say that he was a poor attender at school and at university. One trick he explained at university was to sit in lectures by the window so that after the register had been called, and the lecturer had turned his back to write on the board, he could climb out of the window and go off for a coffee.

It reminded me of Bill Bryson’s tales of school and that he was the worst attender in his high school. He was regularly hauled up for his poor attendance. At one meeting with the careers counsellor she had trawled through career options given his poor school records and in the end said; “It doesn’t appear that you are qualified to do much of anything.” He replied; “I guess I’ll have to be a high school careers counsellor then!”. For this response he was marched to the principal’s office (and not for the first time). It’s a shame that the school did not recognise his obvious comedic talents instead of punishing him.

Another example is of a boy in Bolton, Lancashire with no interest in his schoolwork. He tended to spend time with his mates or watched comedy VHS tapes that he had recorded. He gained one GCSE then after school did a series of seemingly dead-end jobs such as in the bingo hall and at the local cinema.

Because he enjoyed cracking jokes and fooling around he started to do some stand-up comedy gigs in local pubs. Eventually he developed a comedy stand-up act. He was officially entered in the Guinness World Records book for the planet’s biggest-selling stand-up tour. His ‘Tour That Doesn’t Tour Tour… Now on Tour’ show sold 1,140,798 tickets in 113 arena dates between February 2010 and November 2011, earning him a place in the 2013 edition of the book.

His name is Peter Kay and he has also won awards for his comedy acting.

His time when he was seemingly loafing and doing nothing was actually a crucial time of learning for him. He learned from watching comedians the art and craft of doing stand-up. He also used his time in the bingo hall and at the cinema to listen to people so that he could learn the potentially funny things that went on in daily life.

Looked at from a short-term point of view he was a complete failure. Taking a longer view it’s the opposite. He was, and continues to be, a brilliant self managing learner.

This is also true of the scientist Venki Ramakrishnan and the best selling author Bill Bryson. Whilst everybody is to some extent self managing in their learning, clearly not everyone is as effective as these three. Hence our developing Self Managed Learning. What we try to do is to create structures and processes that support effective self managing. However even within these structures and processes we have to be patient.

In SML College we’ve seen students who seem not to have settled and not to be doing much eventually get the idea and go on to successful careers. Patience is absolutely crucial in our work because structures and processes are not magic. Trying to force it is often unhelpful and it requires high levels of trust in young people from adults working with them to avoid inappropriate pressurising.

Ian Cunningham, December 2018