‘Big History’ the Next Step in Bill Gates’ Education Advocacy

Bill Gates seems unstoppable in his efforts to identify big ideas about public education and then spend some of his vast fortune to get them started in schools across the country.  In recent years, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has spent billions on different types of educational ideas that Gates thinks will help public education. There have been initiatives such as a small schools idea, which Gates walked away from when he did not get the planned results, says Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post.

Gates was behind the teacher evaluation systems idea that linked evaluations to standardized test scores.  Gates spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for the pilot program even after many evaluators, researchers and educators suggested that the idea was flawed.  And, of course, there is the promotion of the Common Core State Standards which his foundation bankrolled and used $200 million for building political support across the country despite Common Core having been criticized by both the right and the left. The foundation also funded a plan with the Council of Chief State School Officers to evaluate students’ work for things like creativity, called EdSteps

In March, the American Federation of Teachers stopped accepting grants from the Gates Foundation for its innovation fund after having received more than $5 million from the foundation.

Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, told Politico, “I got convinced by the level of distrust I was seeing — not simply on Twitter, but in listening to members and local leaders — that it was important to find a way to replace Gates’s funding.” Last month Weingarten added “Instead of actually working with teachers and listening to what teachers needed to make public education better,”  Gates’s team “would work around teachers, and that created tremendous distrust.”

Now, Andrew Ross Sorkin of The New York Times, has published an interview with Bill Gates and David Christian, entitled “So Bill Gates Has This Idea for a History Class…”, in which Gates explains the ideas behind the Big History Project.

Gates was listening to the Teaching Company DVDs of Christian’s Big History course. Christian, an Australian professor, whose Ted Talk on the history of the universe got 4 million hits online, says he was influenced by the Annales School, introduced by 20th century French historians, who believed that history should be “explored on multiple scales of space and time”.

This was something that US schools need to use in their high schools, thought Gates. Christian and Gates met, and after some reflection decided that this was an idea worth trying.

The two wanted the course to be pitched to individual schools rather than entire districts.  The reason was to allow the course to “grow organically” and improve, like a start-up company.  In 2011, Big History began in five high schools and is now in 1,200 schools from Brooklyn, NY to Ann Arbor, Mich.  The course has also been adopted by Gate’s alma mater, Lakeside Upper School in Seattle.  Along the way, Gates and Christian have added to their staff a number of educational consultants, executives, and teachers who are located, mostly, in the Seattle area.

“The current thought is that in another three years, the quality of the material, the tools that let people add in new chapters and things, the broad awareness will be such that the community takes it over, and it achieves whatever natural level it’s going to get to,” Gates said.

Sorkin said that he thought this project boiled down to being “a class that Bill Gates wishes he had taken in high school”.  Now, his interest in this type of class might lead to something big.

Strauss concludes:

“And there you have it. Bill Gates likes something; Bill Gates pays to get it into schools. It may be a good idea. It may be a bad idea. It doesn’t matter, because Gates has the money and clout to inject it into wherever he wants to inject it.”

Both writers report that there are many people who are put off by Gates’ audacious entry into the world of education.  Their questions remain: is this an effective way to teach history, and does Gates’ ability to pay make this the right way to change curricula?