The multi-billionaire, lobbyist, IT corporate founder of the Microsoft conglomerate and philanthropist Bill Gates is highly opinionated on subjects ranging from HIV-AIDS, to what schools and universities should be doing in providing an educative foundation for the lives of those privileged to be able to gain entry to schools and universities in the United States of America. It is not uncommon for the rich and powerful-once having acquired their status-to pontificate to the rest of us on what’s wrong with our world and society, and to tell us how we should rectify these problems while at the same time telling us how we should be living our lives. There are many examples of this-especially in the United States of America-Donald Trump attempts to impose his myopic world view of business and entrepreneurship on the whole planet yet despises differences within his own country. Oprah Winfry struggled through a tough abusive childhood to find herself able to promote the use of some not so well founded self-help theories on a global population desperate for affirmation of their innate goodness as human beings along with those in desperate need of professional help-it was the latter who often were mis-lead or misinterpreted her good intentions through some of the pseudo-therapist she had on her shows-we all remember one of the off shoots of her talk-show, that Dr. Phil character and his neo-conservative behavourist views on how to solve both personal and intrapersonal problems . And there’s the creativity guru, Ken Robinson who re-discovered his own creativity after years of traditional teaching and learning in the Arts and Drama sectors of education, and has since taken up a crusade against educators throughout the world arguing that they kill creativity in their students, forgetting that most of them were reading and using the ideas of Edward de Bono long before they had ever heard of Ken Robinson. Yes, it’s always possible to critique the world when one is sitting atop of the pile. Although Shakespeare, that great logical, linear dramatist and writer did put it more eloquently “But ’tis a common proof that lowliness is young ambition’s ladder, whereto the climber upward turns his face, but when he once attains the upmost round, he then unto the ladder turns his back, looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees by which he did ascend” (Shakespeare, 1599).
In one of his regular TED talk appearances (those virtual ipod telecasts where people invent new language like ‘framed or tipping point’, or where they regularly turn nouns into inaccurate verb forms and then teachers have to re-teach basic grammar to their students) Bill Gates combines two very disparate topics-seeking a cure for Malaria and curing all the ills of 21st century education (Gates, 2009). The first part of the talk is informative even though Gates isn’t a medical doctor-although one is able to fudge their way through such topics dropping certain terms and phrases into the talk-but he does rely on statistics of mortality to buttress his argument, and releasing non-malaria carrying mosquitoes into the audience is a nice touch and is well received by those present. There’s no doubt that it is money well spent and his philanthropic work in fighting Malaria is a much needed boost for the poorest of countries struggling with this deadly disease and unable to cope through a lack of international investment and corrupt governance.
For a man who unashamedly admits he dropped out of College-almost as a challenge to the whole educational edifice-he has very strongly worded opinions on education and how he thinks it should progress in the 21st century: Testing, IT as preferred delivery methodology, and breaking the National Teacher’s Union’s powerbase in protecting the rights of educators in his country.
Yet, it has been found over and over again that testing alone is not the mark of an educated person. It is simply a means to an end. It provides lots of statistics for people like Gates to ruminate over and ohooh and ahhhh and identify trends and make decisions without considering the impact of their decisions on an individual’s life in any school classroom and to education in general. We do not create and inspire life-long learning simply through testing. Moreover Gate’s visit to one school in the US, where he recounts how the teacher was literally running around the room in an effort to keep kids attentive is praised as inspirational-and a model all teachers should aspire to-in reality and how it is described sounds like the teacher concerned was on amphetamines and more importantly the extent the teacher was able to transmit knowledge is simply ignored and not addressed. And this is often the case with those outside of the teaching profession who choose to critique education for their personal gain and social standing on the wider national and global stage. They simply lack the basic knowledge to understand how a human being learns.
Gates quoted some alarming statistics from within the United States of America-30% of youth drop out of US high schools before graduation, and 50% of minority students drop out too (he didn’t define this term so we were not clear what he meant and TED talks for the most part deny the audience questions, as if their speakers are talking ex-cathedra like some secular Pope)He claims that students from low-income households in the US only have two choices when they leave high school-jail or a college degree. I found such rhetoric while totally inaccurate, misleading and sensationalist. At one point I thought I had mistakenly tuned into Fox News and the Bill O’Reilly factor, but when I checked my iPad (yes I admit to now being a member of the cult) I was still listening to a TED talk. So I waited to see where he would lay the blame for this profoundly disturbing nihilist view of his country’s lower income youth population and the social and economic inconsistencies in its educational sector. Is the cause of falling educational standards to be found in the very nature of the advanced capitalist corporate based economy the United States of America uses to prop up its ailing democracy? No. Could it be the gross inequalities created for generations by its totally bankrupt economy? No. Could it be to do with its increasingly absurd popular culture and its obsession over celebrity status and fictionalised lifestyles as portrayed through film, television and reality TV programs which for the most part its population are fixated with in their spare time? No. Could it be an obsession with fantasy, plastic surgery, Botox injections, Joan Rivers and fast food? No. Could it be that terrorists from another part of the world have bypassed all the homeland security measures and infiltrated the country and planted some kind of mind numbing anti-learning compound in the water supply of the whole country? No. Then what could be the problem? Teachers! That’s right, there just aren’t enough great teachers teaching American kids how to learn. According to Gates most are doing a terrible job-that’s right! He used test based results (from where we do not know) to generalise that for the most part teachers throughout the United States of America are failing in their professional duties. Moreover their Union protects them too much and their contracts do not allow for sufficient monitoring of how they carry out their professional duties. In a crude analogy to a factory production line he argued that unfettered access to any classroom should be the right of school administrators- suggesting that he has no basic understanding how schools and Colleges operate, how they promote teaching effectiveness and how teachers, while being specialists in their respective disciplines are also the bridges bewteen competing curricula inititiaves, student learning, student social and personal crisies, and parents and guardians demanding a say in the whole educative process. Furthermore, in a sweeping generalisation and equally dubious claim he asserts that teachers who gain a Master’s degree as part of their commitment to life-long learning and professional development do not make any difference in the classroom from teachers who chose not to undertake a Master’s degree. These assertions are being shouted from the highest hilltops by a man who unashamedly proclaims to the youth of the world how he dropped out of College. What makes a difference is that amorphous term the ‘great teacher’ His solution is more testing and more ‘great teachers’
Firstly, education and life-long learning are not about test results. While summative assessments and testing provide some measure of a student’s success they do not provide the whole measure. One needs to look beyond the classroom into the lives and families of the students who have been mis-represented by Gates in his overall assessment of education in the US. The corporate culture from which he has done very well is largely to blame for the gross inequalities in his society’s families, and its education system. Charter schools were set up to counter the failing public school system and while they are for the most part successful it is more to do with the fact they are held to be more accountable for students achievement and teachers work very hard together to achieve student success. It could be the same in public schools, but for the many social issues teachers must confront daily in their classrooms. Instead of going to a well known very successful charter school to confirm his bias, Bill Gates ought to go into some of his country’s poorest school districts and see what kind of great teachers there are struggling against the social justices and inequalities and corrupt local officials while trying to provide an education to the youth of his country. He could start in Shannon County school district, South Dakota, and then move on to the North Forest Independent School District in Houston, Texas. Or instead of investing a million dollars into edX spend 10 million in some of these poorest schools-inspire and motivate teachers and students don’t undermine them through profoundly naïve and unfounded assertions about the state of education today. Secondly, as a Master’s degree holder I say to someone who dropped out of College- do not underestimate the value of a Masters’ Degree-it becomes an area of specialization which builds on the initial foundations of knowledge gained in an undergraduate program and is of enormous benefit to any teacher who wishes to be an excellent role model for life-long learning to their students. It is through such a commitment to study and learning that we are able to inspire youth to pursue an education. Thirdly, you cannot create ‘great teachers’ through allocating money for merit pay or lessing their access to job security and benefits. Great teachers emerge from a system whihc provides them with more than adequate resources, good benefits, appropriate training opportunties, professional development opportunties-including studying for a Master’s degree and a PhD. and small class sizes whereby one person; i.e the teacher, can constructively engage with each student on a professional and inter-personal level; rather than rushing around a room like an eltie athelete trying to maintian a large class’s attention.
Bill Gates emerged from a different world. He gave up his opportunity to experience what a College based education is like and how it creates, promotes and inspires a learner. He chose the savage competition of the corporate sector with its fierce, highly competitive values and its arrogant disregard for the notion of an educational sector critically appraising its own system and the system from which it is derived, along with an individual’s opportunity for their emotional, spiritual and intellectual growth within that system. The irony and conundrum today for Bill Gates and others is that Microsoft Inc; Apple Inc; and the various other purveyors of IT gadgetry live in a bubble. They are the 21st century bubble boys and are far, far removed from the reality of teaching and learning today. They create the IT distracters which are being integrated into formal learning environments without any conscious awareness of their effects on student learning and student success. The IT sector and its representatives are not only attempting to usurp the educational sector and eat up fought after funding for educational programs to sell their products; but are seeking to lay the blame for falling educational standards at the very feet of those who have been coerced into embracing educational technologies and edutainment –the teachers. In this particular TED talk Gates comes across as arrogant, uniformed and as an anti-intellectual; someone who wants to destroy education; rather than a serious committed philanthropist who is working collaboratively for educational reform. With such an attitude and unconscious awareness of his dislike for formal learning he is better advised to focus on eradicating malaria rather than inadvertently eradicating education.
Gates, B. (2009, February). Bill Gates on mosquitoes, malaria and education. Longbeach, California, USA.
Shakespeare, W. (1599). Julius Casear. Stratford-upon Avon: William Shakepeare.