Wednesday, March 2, 2011
Forget Bo...Bill knows
Bill Gates is once again declaring the solution to the problem with education. Plenty of others have given worthily interesting responses. Here, for example.
I comment here on a different aspect. I find it interesting to have read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, in which he fawns (a bit) over Gates as an example of what one can accomplish when you get the magical 10,000 hours of practice at something--in Gates' case, computer programming.
Gladwell's thesis is that time and place circumstances--to get the necessary 10,000 hours of practice--have made opportunity for the phenomenal success stories like Gates'. Gladwell rather weakly argues that that we'd be better off as a society if more people got the kinds of opportunities to develop virtuosity in something, as Gates did.
The interesting part, especially when you read about Gates' somewhat simplistic claims (get the best 25% of teachers to take on 4 or 5 more students, so all students can be in front of a great teacher...?), is that, by Gladwell's reckoning, Gates' mother had an enormous impact on his development. His and several other mothers at his high school got together to help their sons start a computer club--one of the first of its kind in the country, and then helped connect that club to various important Seattle players in the nascent computer world. These activities (add-ons to his school life) got Gates a jump start in computers. Then his and his friends' finagling their way into a University of Washington computer lab, when they weren't supposed to be using it, got them even further ahead of their peers.
In short, Gladwell tells a story filled with more auto-didacticism than teacher-governed learning. This is not to say that there weren't important teachers in Gates' life, but he's not exactly the poster child for the teacher-driven success.
So, what exactly is it that makes Bill Gates so well-qualified to make these rather facile recommendations? His enormous success, of course. Trouble is, solving computer problems, or creating new solutions (in search of a problem that needs solving) with computers isn't much like teaching children. It would be great if those youngsters were coded as series of binary numbers. Alas, they are not.
As Neil Postman has pointed out, more technology has never really made us any better at the fundamental issues of life. But living in a technopoly, we think it has.
Posted by Andrew Milton at 9:19 PM