Are you smarter than Bill Gates?

2nd June 2016 at 10:01
Bill Gates may be a genius, but he's no teacher

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If you are reading this article, I suspect that you probably have more expertise in the field of education than Bill Gates and the other members of the corporate/political class who have given us our current test and punish reform policies. I know that I do. I've been a full-time educator since 1969, and now that I'm retired, I have much more time to stay up to date on educational theory and practice, which happens to be the field where I earned my doctorate.

Since we may not have Bill's IQ, which at least one website claims to be 160, I need to define what I mean here by smart. Unlike Bill Gates and his wife Melinda, I maintain that we are smart enough to know that this system is failing, while they haven't seemed to figure it out yet. In this field therefore, I am smarter than Bill and you probably are too.

Are you exceptional?

In Outliers Malcolm Gladwell tells us that psychological studies have demonstrated that great artists and people with great expertise got there after putting in at least 10,000 hours of serious effort and focused practice. Even Mozart didn’t make great music until he hit this number. It takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery in a field. In Bill's case, he probably had logged this amount of time in the field of computer science by the time he dropped out of Harvard. This was due to the fact that he had unprecedented access to computers from middle school on well before personal computers were common.

As for his experience in education, I doubt that he has put in his 10,000 hours studying and observing how students of all abilities think and learn. On the other hand, I have been involved in education since I started teaching in 1969.  I usually worked far more than forty hours a week until I left the profession to care for my wife who had ALS. A conservative estimate would put my total hours over 80,000. During the last thirty years of my full-time work, I spent a great deal of time observing and evaluating teachers and students, and as Yogi Berra once said, "You can observe a lot by watching."

Since my wife passed in 2009, I have been blogging almost every day and reading and summarizing the most salient books I can find for educators. During this period alone I have approached another 10,000 hours, and I think that these hours have been far more beneficial to my understanding of the field than those I logged when I worked as a full time teacher and administrator.

In the same book, Gladwell points out that in basketball, once you get to a certain point, height stops mattering. Michael Jordan was only 6’ 6”. Nobel prize winners come from Harvard and Holy Cross. With IQ, once you get to about 120 you are smart enough to win a Nobel prize or make other outstanding accomplishments in the field of your choice. As many other authors have noted, hard work, focus, and determination are hallmarks of people who accomplish anything of note.

Not all tests are created equal

When asked about parents opting kids out of tests by Gwen Ifill for the PBS News Hour, Bill's response was: "it would be very unfortunate out of this if people thought, oh, we shouldn’t test students, we shouldn’t test doctors, we shouldn’t test drivers." While I agree with Bill that tests can be good, I would remind him that not all tests and testing methods are good.

The most effective tests for learning happen when students are asked to retrieve information they have recently studied. It has been shown that efforts to retrieve what we have tried to learn are more effective that further study of the same material. I think he also knows that prompt feedback can aid learning. Does he know that students and teachers never see how they did on each question on state tests?

I recently took a test to get a motorcycle license. When I handed it in, it was graded while I watched. Had I failed, I could have studied some more and taken it again until I passed. I suspect doctors get prompt results as well.

If I asked Bill should we give tests to some students who have absolutely no chance of passing, he might agree that this is a bad idea. Unfortunately, this is just what we are doing. Does it make sense to give the same test to all students regardless of their academic ability simply based on their born on date? This would be like telling a high school teacher to give the same tests to their AP classes and their special education classes. All educators know this makes no sense. How come Bill and the other people driving policy don't seem to know this?

What experts are the experts using?

I do admire Bill and Melinda for trying to make a difference in a number of important fields such as fighting disease, poverty, and hunger. I suspect that when it comes to these fields, Bill relies on experts in the field for the necessary expertise. If they are doing the same in education, I would like to know which experts tell them that our current testing system makes sense.

Of course schools and teachers should be accountable, but the policy makers have resorted to the easy and inaccurate approach of giving every one the same test at the same time. If I'm a parent, I want to see what my child is able to do with the help of the teacher. There are ways to test student skills and knowledge that reflect where they are at. Students should be taking tests they are ready for, given immediate feedback, and opportunities to try again. It should be possible to see how much progress a student makes each year, but one-size-fits-all tests don't get it done in a way that informs their future learning.

If you have access to Bill Gates or any other powerful member of the corporate/political class responsible for education policy, please encourage them to read this and to start tapping real education experts for assistance. 

Dr. Doug Green is a retired STEM teacher and principal. This article originally appeared on his extensive website. He tweets @DrDougGreen.

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