Education? Chickens? What’s the Difference?

We all know Bill Gates is an expert on education issues. Almost everyone who isn’t actually working in a classroom says so.

It turns out he’s also an expert on ending poverty using chickens. Or something like that.

Bill Gates has been upsetting teachers for years. He’s spent a fortune to push education initiatives that he liked, even though educators thought they were, at best, a waste of money. Now he’s insulted a Bolivian government minister by doing the same thing. But this time, it’s over chickens. And the minister reacted publicly in a way teachers simply do not.

I wouldn’t say that teachers haven’t been reacting to Gates’ education initiatives. That push back is just hard to hear over the media trumpeting his every word on the subject.

So, what’s the problem the all-knowing Mr. Gates plans to solve with lots of money and chickens?

This time, the philanthropist has come up with a way he thinks will people who live in extreme poverty in poor countries around the world can improve their lives. How? By raising chickens. He wrote about it here in a piece “Why I Would Raise Chickens,”.

Bravo could have a huge hit with a reality show based on Bill Gates raising chickens. I’d watch. At least the first episode.

Anyway, not everyone believes the co-founder of Microsoft is an expert in poultry farming.

Bolivian Development Minister Caesar Cocarico rejected Gates’s offer of hens, saying: “How can he think we are living 500 years ago, in the middle of the jungle not knowing how to produce? Respectfully, he should stop talking about Bolivia.”

Reuters notes that Bolivia has a thriving poultry business.

Ok, I understand that Gates is trying to use his wealth to do some good in the world, and that many of the ideas he champions, both to fix education and poverty, probably come from advisors. The man is certainly to be complimented for wanting to spend his fortune to help people, and for that he is miles ahead of other rich folks who’s goals are generally limited to gathering even more money.

However, I agree with Diane Ravitch when it comes to the appropriate response to Gates, Zuckerberg, and other billionaire education experts.

Wouldn’t it be great if public schools and superintendents could respond like that to Bill Gates? Something like this: “We are professional educators and we know what we are doing. Please don’t offer money to try out your experiments on our children. Please take your advice and your money elsewhere.”

You’ve Been Personalized

When it comes to anything dealing with education reform and technology, who is the first person you want to talk to? Bill Gates, of course. A billionaire is the all-purpose expert on everything.

And so The Verge went to that source of all knowledge for a short interview following Gates’ keynote address to the ASU GSV Summit, something the New York Times calls “The Must-Attend Event for Education Technology Investors” (according to the headline quote on the event website). Considering other featured speakers included Condoleezza Rice, Guy Kawasaki, and Common, the focus was probably far more on investors than education.

Anyway, there’s not much substance in the discussion with Gates, especially as it relates to the title of the piece: “Can AI fix education?”. But the thread that caught my attention has to do with his perception of “personalized learning”, starting with the fact that he’s not even sure what it is.

Well the term “personalized learning” doesn’t have an exact definition. In general, the idea is that people progress at a different rate. If you’re ahead of what’s being taught in the class, that’s not good, you get bored. If you’re behind, then they’re using terms and concepts that create a general impression of “Hey, I’m not good at this.”

And the idea of personalized learning is you always know yourself where you are on a topic, that you have the sense of what the tasks are, how much there’s left to do to achieve certain levels. So there is more personal agency.

However, it’s the writer himself who summarizes all that’s wrong with this concept of “personalized learning” in one sentence from his introduction to the interview.

It’s a diffuse set of initiatives, led mostly by private companies, to develop software that creates individual lesson plans for students based on their performance, coaching them through trouble spots until they have mastered the subject at hand.

The concept of “personalized” learning shared by Gates and many of the edtech entrepreneurs listening to him at this conference, is of a mechanical process that is done to the students. Learning that is organized and programmed for them, with no input from the child, other than the data collected based on responses to tasks on the screen. Everything is about “performance”.

There is really very little about the learning process described by Gates and his interviewer that is “personal” at all. Certainly no one will ask the student about their interests, aspirations or skills, much less incorporate them into those “individual lesson plans”. And true personal learning doesn’t exist without total involvement of the person.

By the way, Will Richardson has a good take on that part about Gates’ approach to that phrase “personal agency”. Go read it.

Bill’s History Class is Not New

So Bill Gates Has This Idea for a History Class…

Anyway, that’s the headline and, considering that Gates already thinks he knows how to fix American education, it’s not a big stretch for him to replace the traditional high school history curriculum.

The story began when Bill had some time on his hands following his retirement as Microsoft CEO and started watching a series of lectures by Australian professor David Christian titled “Big History”. In his classes, Christian wove together topics from history, biology, chemistry, astronomy and other disparate fields “into nothing less than a unifying narrative of life on earth”.1

A lecture on the Big Bang, for instance, offered a complete history of cosmology, starting with the ancient God-centered view of the universe and proceeding through Ptolemy’s Earth-based model, through the heliocentric versions advanced by thinkers from Copernicus to Galileo and eventually arriving at Hubble’s idea of an expanding universe.

In the worldview of “Big History,” a discussion about the formation of stars cannot help including Einstein and the hydrogen bomb; a lesson on the rise of life will find its way to Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey.

Gates thought this approach could be used to replaced the standard chronological approach to teaching history in high school and started working with Christian to adapt his work.

I don’t often agree with Gates, about his ideas for education reform or much else, but in this case he’s on to something. In most high schools, the major curriculums are highly segregated, especially when it comes to math and science. As a result, students get a very unauthentic view of the world.

However, before praising Gates and Christian too highly, it needs to be pointed out that “big history”, the idea of using interdisciplinary approach to understanding history, is not at all unique.

In the 1970’s, science historian James Burke wrote, produced, and hosted a wonderfully entertaining series for the BBC (later shown on PBS) called Connections, an “alternative view of change”. In the series (plus two sequels and a half dozen books) Burke takes a storytelling approach to illustrate the many links between science, philosophy, world events, art and more, all with great humor, a sense of curiosity, and a large dose of caution about our reliance on technology.

The original series is on YouTube, although somewhat difficult to find,2 so if you have 50 minutes or so, watch part 1 to get a good idea of Burke’s pre-“big history” approach to explaining how our current world developed from seemingly unrelated connections in our past.

Anyway, original or not, Gates’ idea to punch holes in the silos in which we keep high school academic subjects is a good one, something that’s long overdue. I’m just not sure he is the person to make it happen.

The All-Knowing Mr. Gates

Recently Bill Gates spoke to members of Microsoft’s Faculty Summit “on the future of education, programming and just about everything else”. I guess if you’re that rich, you must be an expert on pretty much anything.

So, what did the omniscient Mr. Gates have to say about education? For one thing, that he has not made any mistakes in funding his experiments.

Gates acknlowedged during the session that some of his work might have unintended, negative consequences, but not this one. “In the education space,” he responded to a question from the audience, “I frankly don’t see that much of a downside.”

No unintended, negative consequences. I guess, just like the Zune, we’re supposed to forget the billions and years spent on creating “small” schools, the concept that was supposed to revolutionize the American high school. Not to mention his current misguided and unsupported-by-any-research advocacy for “value add” teacher assessments.

Of course, Gates is also a major supporter of online education.

But, Gates acknowledged, we’re also a way out from online education achieving its full potential. We need to develop better understanding of what makes a good online course (“just sticking a camera in front of someone … who has a captive audience [won’t cut it]“) and how to replicate non-lecture experiences like lab time and study groups. We also need to figure out how to supplement the cognitive and social development that comes along with attending school in person (although, he noted, MOOCs might also be able to help teachers focus on these things).

I’ll be very interested to hear the all-knowing Mr. Gates explain how one teacher is supposed to support the cognitive and social development of 5000+ MOOC students. Especially in a one-way format like the Khan Academy, of which he is a major advocate.

And just so you don’t think Gates is only wrong about education, consider his view of the American intellectual property system, which he claims is “working very well”. For someone with lots of IP lawyers, he’s probably right.

The view from on high is so much better than the one here on the ground, isn’t it?

Lecturing in High Def

At the risk of being declared obsessive, I have one more rant about the educational philosophy of Bill Gates based on the Fast Company interview with him. This time, his vision of that classic instructional tool: the lecture.

That’s one more goal: to revolutionize the lecture in terms of cost and quality. The idea that you can store video essentially for free should mean that anyone can watch the best lecturers in the world. Rather than a student getting one of 3,000 people across the country who try to teach beginning physics or statistics or remedial math, through a process of comparison, competition, and improvement, you get someone who is pretty special and has the budget to do something fantastic. Lectures should go from being like the family singing around the piano to high-quality concerts.

Transform lecturing by giving them better production values.

The high-budget video of a concert may look and sound better, but you’ll probably learn more about music by actually singing with your family around the piano. I’m betting Gates didn’t learn computer programming by watching someone talk about.