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How Bill and Melinda Gates Want to Transform Teaching

You know how Bill Gates helped change the way people all over the world work, play, and communicate? Now he and his wife, Melinda, are talking about changing the way we teach and learn.

This week, to mark the return to school for millions of American students, Bill and Melinda are posting a series of blog entries in which they ponder the ways education could be transformed by technology. The posts are worth a read whether you’re a teacher, parent, or student. (But teachers especially should listen up: These two want to make your job easier.)

Remember, this is a guy who has already changed the world with technology, a couple of times over. And the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has committed some serious resources — $1.7 billion from 2010-2014 — to K-12 and post-secondary education in the United States. So these blogs could in fact be an indication of what they plan to do.

Sharing the knowledge

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In the modern world, computers are constantly collecting massive amounts of data about what we all do, which marketers then use to make deeply informed decisions about how to sell us stuff.

Data collection in the classroom isn’t so advanced. Teachers still do most of it themselves, by hand. “Most teachers spend hours grading homework and tests and then copying everything down into spreadsheets they made themselves,” says Gates. There is a better way to do that, he says — perhaps many ways.

In one of his blog posts, Bill points out a real-world example. One charter school system in California moved assignments to the school network, where computers could be used to analyze how well kids performed the work and then predict how they will do on future assignments. Teachers then use online tools to share that data with other teachers.

Networking teachers

“There are 3 million teachers in the United States,” says Melinda in this post. “And they do almost all of their work on their own — teaching students, preparing lessons, solving problems — because their colleagues are down the hall in their classrooms, doing the same thing.”

Technology could connect teachers so they could get help from colleagues in other classrooms, other schools, even other states. And once teachers reach outside their own classrooms, good ideas could spread virally, saving everyone from creating every lesson from the ground up. “Once they’re outside of their old silos,” writes Gates, “teachers are going to unleash each other’s powers in very exciting ways.”

Learning from mistakes

“Throughout my career,” says Bill, “just when I was feeling self-satisfied, someone would come along and show me a better way to do something. I would look at their code and think, ‘I’m so bad at this.’ And then I would get to work on sharpening my skills.”

In this post, Bill sits down with a great teacher — Lyon Terry, who was named Teacher of the Year in Washington — to discuss how to teach students the fine art of learning from mistakes. (They also talk about ways to keep good teachers in the classroom instead of moving them on to administration and how to give teachers more input in education policy.) It’s nice to hear Gates talking about his own mistakes; it’s also inspiring to hear from a truly great educator.

Making teachers great

Melinda Gates agrees with that last bit. In her role with the Gates Foundation she says she gets to talk to lots of the country’s best teachers. In this post, Melinda tries to capture what it is that makes a teacher great.

She does a good job of breaking that down, and it’s worth a read. But her real takeaway is that, no matter how inspired or skilled or engaging such teachers may be, they have one thing in common: “They can’t do it alone.”

“They need support from parents, administrators, and legislators,” she writes. “One of the things we’re trying to do at the foundation is to help teachers get that support.”

In other words, teachers are the solution to what ails education, not technology. But technology can certainly help them, and the Gates Foundation is looking for ways to make that happen.