Bill Gates: Teachers are like athletes, artists, social scientists. Really?

Bill Gates Metaphor Crap

In his interview with the Wall Street Journal, Bill Gates presents three metaphors for teaching.

Q: Do you think it is possible for school districts to build great teachers?

A: Absolutely. But the amount of research into what great teachers do has been so slow that you can’t make huge improvements in the average….Even professions like long-jump or tackling people on a football field or hitting a baseball, the average ability is so much higher today because there’s this great feedback system, measurement system.

His first metaphor is athletic.  Is a teacher like an athlete?  Can teachers get feedback on their performances like athletes get on theirs?   Is teaching like performing on a field of competition?   It is not.  I know.  I was a K-12 teacher.

Gates’s second metaphor:

Q: What is the boldest effort that has come from the $290 million you’ve awarded to restructure teacher personnel systems?

A: We video a great teacher and then she watches it and comments on her video, saying, “that kid’s foot is jerking. I’m not making this interesting enough.” Just the narrative of a great teacher talking through what she did right, what she could have done better, is so informative.

This metaphor is aesthetic.  He describes the beauty of listening to an expert teacher’s reflections, but he does not use aesthetic language.  He says it was “informative.”  What was he informed about?  I guess it was about a student’s foot jerking and a teacher’s desire to engage that student.   He missed the point of what he was seeing and hearing because he did not experience the beauty of a great teacher critiquing her attempts to engage students.

His third metaphor explains why he missed the aesthetic essence of teaching:

Q: What will be your measure of whether this project was a success?

A: Ten years from now, if we have a very different personnel system that’s encouraging effectiveness and our spending has contributed to that, we’ll feel good.

This metaphor is social scientific.  Like all who believe teaching is an applied social science, Gates believes teachers should be “effective.”  This is like saying poets should be “effective.”  There is nothing wrong with “effective” poems, but the very idea completely misses the point of poetry.

Teaching, like all art forms, is about appreciation.  It is about teachers appreciating their students and their subject matter, and students reciprocating with appreciation for their teachers and lessons.  The art of teaching is in modeling what is beautiful about the educated person and teaching what is ugly about the uneducated one.

Here is Gates’ last interview response, talking about “effectiveness” again.

Q: Are you disappointed schools have been slow to embrace technology in the classrooms?

A: You can’t blame them, but oh yeah, I’m disappointed. The dreams of the past—whether it was public TV being rolled into the classroom to teach Spanish, or the film projectors or the videotapes or the computer-aided instruction drill systems—the hopes have been dashed in terms of technology having some big impact. The foundation, I think can play a unique role there. Now, our money is more to the teacher-effectiveness thing, and technology is No. 2, but I’ll probably spend more money on the technology things.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Cut the crap

Dear Bill:

If you can’t see the beauty of an expert teacher, and if you can’t use the language of aesthetics to describe an art, just keep your money.  Would you donate to make symphonies more “effective?”   Of course not.  So why do you try to make the art of teaching more “effective?”

Watch and listen to the great teacher’s reflections, again.  Are you not moved by the beauty of her relationships with her students?  What about her reflection on failing to get the attention of a student?  Are you not moved by her modeling and teaching the six virtues of the educated person?

If you don’t appreciate the beauty of these relationships and this work, keep your money.  If you appreciate their beauty, use your money to promote the art of teaching with all the politicians and educational administrators who hang on your every word.  They (and many teachers, too) need to be reminded that teaching is an art.  That is the only metaphor we need for teaching.   Teachers create relationships and activities that engage young people in living educated, beautiful lives.

Think about your own great teachers.  Were they “effective,” or did they share their appreciation for you and the subject matter?  I can hear your answer now — “They were both.”  That is right.  Appreciation is the means to effectiveness.  Appreciation is evident in the modeling of the six virtues, but effectiveness means something different in every teaching/learning situation.

I don’t want teacher-artists to chase “effectiveness” because that turns them away from modeling the understanding, imagination, strong character, courage, humility and generosity of our educated human nature.  That is their main job.  Any questions?  (You can always find me at




There are no comments yet...Kick things off by filling out the form below.

Leave a Comment