Bill Gates and “Big History”

You might not have caught it, but on September 5 The New York Times ran a story titled “So Bill Gates Has This Idea for a History Class…” The story talks about Gates’ ongoing partnership with David Christian, an Australian academic who’s “Big History” series caught Gates’ attention. With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the “Big History” concept has turned into a major initiative across America, as Gates has been pushing high schools and colleges to adopt the course, described in the article as “a multifaceted historical account of any given subject through a friendly user interface.”  Apparently these efforts have been crowned with some success.

I haven’t seen any of the “Big History” course ware or the original course series dvds, so I can’t judge, but the description on face sounded interesting. In this day and age, we’re always trying to make our courses more cutting edge, more innovative–especially if “we” are young faculty anxious to make an impression on the job market. My first thought, then, was that there could be a couple things to learn from the project.

So, I was very interested to see Brian Sandberg’s blog post today, titled “The Problem with Bill Gates and ‘Big History.'”  Sandberg’s critique comes down to two major points, connected by Gates choosing the what and the how of courses “based on what he personally finds intriguing”: 1) “This is education reform as entertainment,” and 2) “This dangerous model of educational ‘reform’ threatens to reduce education to a delivery device for corporate interests and whims, removing researchers and experts from curricular decision-making processes.”

I’d be interested to read more reactions to the NYT story, and to Gates’ initiative in general. Of course, the Foundation’s support of the Common Core system does not inspire confidence. But having observed technology-heavy curriculum development, I can assure you there there is no such thing as a “pure” curriculum development process free of external considerations. As soon as you lock onto a delivery system, a brand, a publisher, you’re in some way limiting innovation and development. Heck, even in non-technology driven curriculum development I’ve seen similar dynamics at work. So, on face, a tycoon’s enthusiasm for a particular type of curriculum or course doesn’t phase me one way or another, at least initially. On the other hand, having been a spectator to the collapse and/or scaling back of MOOC efforts at various schools around the country, and also having observed or read the rather ridiculous results of corporate-driven education policies, I’m not a believer either.

Ultimately, innovation costs money. It’s a sad fact of life, but patrons are as important these days as they were during the Renaissance and Enlightenment eras. So, before choosing sides in the “Big History” debate, I’d like more data and information.

 

2 Replies to “Bill Gates and “Big History””

  1. “As soon as you lock onto a delivery system, a brand, a publisher, you’re in some way limiting innovation and development. Heck, even in non-technology driven curriculum development I’ve seen similar dynamics at work. So, on face, a tycoon’s enthusiasm for a particular type of curriculum or course doesn’t phase me one way or another, at least initially.”

    I wanted to respond to this part, because I think it misses what is so dangerous about Bill Gates’ brand of education reform. I taught high school in the years when his “reforms” were just beginning. You’re right. We had anthologies and pre-printed materials from those textbook corporations. The difference then was that those materials were put into my classroom–they were not mandated for use. I, as a professional, had the freedom to supplement those materials and ultimately even to choose not to use them at all. It was more work for me, but I was a professional, and I was allowed to utilize my expertise.

    Fast forward half a decade. Every time I speak with friends who are still teaching secondary, they say the same thing–that freedom is gone. They teach the corporate materials and they teach to the corporate test, or they lose their jobs. Tenure has been weakened. The evaluation system is now based not on how well you teach, but rather by how well you have drilled your students on the material deemed appropriate by the Gates Foundation. Everything about these reforms, including the high stakes evaluations that have turned a professional environment of support and collaboration into one of servitude and fear, came directly from Bill Gates (in fact, the evaluation system that is being used in our schools now was recently scrapped by Microsoft as ineffective, and Gates STILL pushes for it in our schools).

    What makes Gates’ reforms different from the types of limitations in previous forms of innovation and development is that the professional freedom has been stripped. Previous reforms were cooked up in a vacuum, but when they went into the schools, teachers had the right to choose how to make those materials work for their students. Gates’ reforms assume that all students are the same, and that teachers are just too stupid to do anything as well as he could (even though he has never set foot in a public school as either a student or a teacher). Gates has used his money and his influence to both introduce new curricula AND to strip teachers of their professionalism that would allow them to question said curricula. If he had limited himself to the former, I would give him some slack, but the latter shows his true persona.

  2. Hey Scott, thanks for the comment, though if you read closely it should be clear that I’m completely open to this “Big History” stuff being evil; I’m at the information-gathering stage right now. That being said, I would say that my, admittedly more limited, experience in K-12 was different from yours. What I saw a decade ago was curriculum being locked and teachers gradually losing the freedom to teach to anything but the test. They never, from my experience, had the freedom to simply “not use” the “preferred” textbook. Granted, this was in Texas, so perhaps, depending on your views, that’s not surprising. At the same time, what I think *was* missing a decade ago was the corporate model that fired teachers for teaching a crappy model and then getting bad results (Texas *has* been a leader in corporate university education, from what I’ve heard). The utility of specific tests and curriculum was up for debate, sometimes bitter and entrenched, but debate, not “teach-it-or-be-fired.” I want to hear from my friends currently teaching K-12, but again, I haven’t picked up the vibe of “de-professionalized servility” from them lately, whatever they think of the Common Core (which by all accounts is crap…oops, that probably wasn’t a “civil” thing to say).

    Also, while I think you’re right that in an ideal world Gates would think up this great curriculum idea, throw money at it, and then leave the professionals to debate its effectiveness and improve its utility, that kind of altruism doesn’t exist today, if it ever did. And as I said, I’ve had a 50-yard-line seat in seeing how corporations, technology, and curriculum development work together in university curricula, and I’m not sure you have to cast Gates as an evil genius to point out that the model has very serious flaws. So, I don’t think I’m missing the danger of Gates Education Inc., but patrons *will* insist on their cut.

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