Bill Gates is wrong about education

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This text is part of: "I would never send my kids to school" by Piotr Wozniak (2017)

Bill Gates is my hero

Bill Gates was an early guiding light and our inspiration. When Krzysztof Biedalak and I made our first $3 investment in a corporate rubber stamp, which was a post-communist obligation for all companies in Poland in 1991, Microsoft was a multibillion-dollar company. How could we not have been blinded by inspiration? We wanted to write a universally useful piece of software and the world would be ours - we thought. Bill Gates's software philosophy, based on respect for backward compatibility, sheltered SuperMemo on its path to its painfully slow adoption. Software and database compatibility have been preserved for 30 years now. My first pieces of knowledge in medical sciences, typed in on Dec 13, 1987, are still there in my collection, well-memorized and useful. Without Gates and his stance on compatibility, I would have lost all that knowledge to some upgrade hiccup long ago. When Gates moved to philanthropy, he has secured his place on my list of the greatest people who ever walked this planet. Perhaps as many as 30-120 million kids have been saved by Bill's foundation. This begs a vital question: Why is Gates so awfully wrong about education?

Could Bill's great mind be wrong?

Everyone who disagrees with a great mind needs to pause and re-examine. Gates got sensational credentials. He sports a genius mind. He has seen more places that I could possibly ever manage to visit in Google Maps. He has spoken to more great people than I have had a chance to read about. He has visited more schools that I have seen on pictures. He started his forays into education in 1999. In contrast, I started thinking about "the system" only in 2016 when getting ready to write this book. This makes me into a fledgling with an immature point of view. Gates himself is a great example of a brisk student who has turned his skills and talents into a monumental achievement. His credentials are so much better than mine!

Bill Gates's perspective

Could this just be that Gates's perspective is so much different than mine?

He looks at the education system like at the operating system. Measure the performance, look for bottlenecks in the system, fix the parameter here and there, videotape a great teacher, and make others copy the method, and manufacture greatness.

He looks at education like a philanthropic job. Like he treats health problems with mass vaccinations, he looks for a simple formula which could improve the education of the masses with some industrial move? He seems less focused on letting the brightest thrive, and more focused on preventing the weakest from dropping out. He wants to bring up the average using some standardized testing approach.

He looks at education like a big company that needs to be managed effectively with departments, and sub-departments. With a clear division of responsibility. With an industrial goal in mind?

Could this be that this great capitalist shows more socialist thinking than a little well-indoctrinated ex-communist like myself?

There is a different perspective of an employer and an employee, esp. in a creative position. Gates looks at the number of college graduates. I look for specific skills and creative powers. Actual degrees do not matter much if you take time to get into a particular brain.

He looks at students like productive workers. The heretic idea of a longer school day must have come from the factory model thinking. Longer days, more production, more manufacturing.

He looks at education from a societal point of view, while I look at the brain of an individual. He wants to move the masses to high achievement, while I want to produce more little Bill Gateses.

Unlike myself, Bill Gates does not focus on having more Bill Gateses. He focuses on helping the poor, in boosting qualifications of the middle class, and adds "you can't run a society on top 5%". He is right, however, that top 5% can forge a path in education that would inspire all the rest. They cannot be run through a compulsory system set on pushing through the remaining 95%.

Gates's approach would be great for some poorer countries (e.g. in Africa). Where there are no schools, industrial approach and good management could quickly improve health, eliminate poverty, and provide basic education.

My approach is probably more suited to well-developed nations where the industrial approach makes people sick of schooling. With social awareness and education on the rise, we look for more little future Noble Prize winners and future Bill Gateses.

His own kids get the best kind of learning. During his trips around the world, they get to visit places like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. This could spark a life-long passion that could turn them into future particle physicists or another incarnation of Tim Berners-Lee.

Where Gates optimizes for improving the average, I am looking for the optimum of peak intellectual performance.

Last but not least, could Gates's approach be an afterglow of his dropping out from Harvard. I see that over and over again, dropouts seem to suffer from this life-long hangover about what could have been? They tend to over-appreciate the power of schooling or the power of college. In the same way, I might be under-appreciating my own degrees. Gates is the opposite of Peter Thiel who studiously climbed the educational ladder until he stumbled to see the light. Thiel is now one of the staunchest critics of college.

Bill Gates's formula for success

I see Gates's own life as a simple formula for success in science, engineering, or life in general:

  • healthy childhood of few concerns (preferably without the relegation to daycare)
  • healthy approach to schooling with pranks, rebellions, disobedience, and freedom
  • minor trajectory nudges within the push zone by inspirational tutors. If tutors are not parents, this might be the most expensive part of the formula
  • breakthrough passion, e.g. for tinkering with computers or software
  • healthy education, possibly interrupted by some breakthrough decision (e.g. Let me drop out from Harvard to set up the greatest software company in the world)
  • relentless lifelong pursuit of goals born from that youthful passion

Only Bill Gates truly knows it, but my understanding of his life story is that his future was determined by just one major factor: getting his hands on a computer. He was good at math and programming. So are dozens of kids in my neighborhood. My thinking comes from the fact that I was also strongly affected by my first contact with computers.

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
When I got my first computer in 1986, ZX Spectrum, I was 24 and experienced wild elation with computer's obedience in executing my commands. I told the computer what to do, and it did it perfectly without asking questions. That was wonderful. I started writing my program for planning my day on paper long before I got the computer on my desk. I was eager to see it work! As ZX Spectrum would load programs from a cassette tape, I could not easily dream of having SuperMemo. It needed access to some disk drive. I got my first PC with a 360 KB floppy disk drive only in 1987.

The above hypothetical formula for educational success is simple and effective. Only a few might ever dream to replicate the scope of Bill's success. If that formula does not bring serial Nobel Prize winners, it should at least bring up a great deal of happy and fulfilled individuals. Freedom to explore the world is essential and it is denied to a great deal of kids in the modern world. When Peter Thiel pays kids to drop out from college, he looks for this type of free thinking experience that can change one life and then can change the world.

My attempt at employing Gates's formula

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
I am happy with my achievements in life. I have followed the formula employed by Gates. However, there were some exceptions. Perhaps I could use them as an excuse for not being as wildly successful as Bill? I was sent to daycare, and I am sure this slowed down my development. The time I spent with my brother was more intellectual and inspirational by two orders of magnitude. However, he was a student and could not babysit the little me for ever. In later years, I was forced into a degree of conformity by an ever-present threat of being enlisted by the army in service of the Warsaw Pact. In 1986, I was finally free of the army service, and could finally drop out, however, I was not ready. There was no market economics culture in Poland of the 1980s. I read about entrepreneurial science in Science in 1989 (Oct 31, 1989). This was the first time when it occurred to me that my research into memory might actually be a seed of a business. Initially, though, my passions led me in the direction of a PhD. Schooling told me that science done by entrepreneurs is inferior to science done in academia. I thought of SuperMemo as an opportunity to earn money for a trip to America. It seems that while Gates was fast to mature as a little entrepreneur, I needed 28 long years to even start thinking of my own business.

Reconciling Gates and Woz

Gates wants better teachers, better education, verification, testing, measuring, carrot-and-stick for teachers, etc. In contrast, I stand with Steve Jobs. Jobs told the kids to rebel!

Gates believes that the key to the great future education system is the teacher. He is almost right. If we could populate present schools with great teachers, I wouldn't ever need to write this book. The problem is that a great teacher is simply a truly great man. Great teaching requires a degree of genius. We need millions of those great people. How can we possibly hope to produce hundreds of thousands of little Bill Gateses if this process is supposed to require another million of Bill Gateses in teaching positions? I know some of them, but we need the whole army. Without greatness, there is no great teaching! Bill's thinking is understandable: identify what a great teacher is, and reproduce. He noticed that a Master's degree does not make much difference in the formula. Nor does it determine a great programmer or a great artist. The same refers to seniority and experience. They do not help much. Teacher incentives may not work either. Things can get better with better pay, but the cost is astronomical. The pay may affect the selection but is less likely to affect individual quality. In the end, this might actually add to the race to put a tighter screw on kids! Moreover, Holt and Gatto can testify that great teachers are often first to be fired by the system. Gatto goes as far as saying: We don’t need state-certified teachers to make education happen — certification probably guarantees it won’t.

If reproducing a formula for a great teacher was that simple, we would identify what human genius is, in general, and try to reproduce. However, for that universal job, we need genius teachers, and the circle cannot be squared.

Mass production of great teachers is as hard as mass production of genius.

Gates admits that we do not know the reproducible formula for a great teacher. Perhaps he would then be interested in my reproducible formula for a great student, like himself. Gates says "the private high school I attended, Lakeside in Seattle, made a huge difference in my life. The teachers fueled my interests and encouraged me to read and learn as much as I could". The keyword here is "fueled" (as opposed to "tutored"). In the millennial interview with Larry King (2000), Gates revealed what I see as the key element of his time at Lakeside high school: "I got plenty of free time". What determined his greatness was his great passion rooted in the learn drive. From a very young age, Bill always loved to learn and always showed great talents and skills for math, science, programming, etc. The best thing that teachers could do for Bill was to get off his back. In his own words: "my math teacher let me go off and do independent study and computer stuff". That was also the trick that helped me determine my own life path.

This reminds me the great formula for helping kids get interested in science by Neil deGrasse Tyson: "Get off their back!".

Gates keeps speaking of "motivated students". However, he somehow perceives lack of motivation as an inherent inborn quality, while it is the family, society, or the school system that bear prime educational responsibility. We should remember that, health permitting, we are all highly motivated as toddlers!

Bill says: "If you’re a motivated student, it’s way better to be learning now than at any time in the past." - Bingo! Motivation is the key ingredient, and I wish Gates focused on that component! If you are a well-motivated student, you do not even need a teacher!

Of many Gates's ideas about education, I like the grants for students to help them get to college most. Even if this is the exact opposite of what Thiel does. As long as the grant goes to kids to pursue their dreams, college or business, their specific pathway to great goals is secondary.

Gates liked an online lecture on crystallography, but bemourned the fact that confusion makes people drop out. He thinks "social structure and support" is what is needed to persist. I say we would better focus on learntropy. Gates's is old-fashioned thinking. In future education, there will be crystallography for Bill, and crystallography for a 5-year-old. And the latter will be no worse, no less scientific, and no less fascinating. We do not want "social structure" to push the kid through. We want "knowledge structure" that matches kid's cognitive capacity and her current status of knowledge in particular.

Only a natural learning process based on a powerful learn drive, and a powerful passion can produce great individuals. This is how we can produce great teachers, and future Bill Gateses.

My formula is simpler. It is not multi-billion dollar investments, or great management. The key to great education is in the brain! All we need is a bit of freedom to unlock its potential!

Bill should get the biggest clue from an effort to teach his own kids. He says "Teaching’s hard! You need different skills: positive reinforcement, keeping students from getting bored, commanding their attention in a certain way. I’d be better at teaching the college-level stuff".

Herein, he should recall an old maxim that applies to all healthy brains undamaged by schooling: "I love to learn but I hate to be taught". It is easy to forget that truth at the stage when, for a broadly-read adult like Bill, no reading or no lecture seems difficult. Bill Gates's brain is well primed with knowledge and no "learning material" will cause discomfort, or fidgeting, or daydreaming. He loves the crystallography lecture and fails to see why others give up easily at first comprehension obstacle. In healthy learning, giving up, or rather deferring and re-focusing should be the norm. Kids should not bang their heads against brick walls of hard material. Any material that lets them make the next step is good and desirable. Bill expects this "focused, goal-oriented, college mode" to get transplanted to a young brain, while the learn drive thrives on prior knowledge that is fragmentary in youth. Nearly all adults want to see kids advance to "college mode" fast.

Nearly all adults take an adult-centric point of view and this might be one of the greatest dramas of modern education.

For the way the brain develops, we have no way of remembering how our own brains worked when we were kids! We need to rely on science to explain this back to our adult selves!

Gates was surprisingly late in the internet revolution and seems to be surprisingly late in the education revolution. But his genius will help him mend his ways. He has the right to invest, over-invest, or mis-invest his resources. There are many long-term benefits to costly lessons. In addition, there has been a world of good accomplished until now.

There is a place for Bill Gates in my plan. Freedom and learn drive are not a formula for everyone. We also need a management system for factory model schooling for everyone who needs help. This is a great area for governments and philanthropists.

Message to all education philanthropists

Do not invest in schooling in the industrialized world. This brings miniscule returns on investment. Invest in bringing the web to all kids in all corners of the world. This will change this planet!


Summary: Bill Gates is wrong

  • adult-centric point of view is one of the driving forces behind the failure of modern education
  • healthy childhood of few concerns without the relegation to daycare is the root of greatness
  • best formula for helping kids get interested in science by Neil deGrasse Tyson is: "Get off their back!".
  • passions born in childhood change lives
  • relentless lifelong pursuit of goals born from youthful passions is a solid formula for success
  • mass production of great teachers is no easier than mass production of genius
  • in development, minor trajectory nudges within the push zone by inspirational tutors are welcome
  • pranks, rebellions, and disobedience at school are an expression of freedom and may foster better learning
  • grants for kids to get to college are as good as grants for kids to skip college. All support for the youth is welcome
  • dropping out of college can turn out to be a good thing