February 2, 2013
AN OPEN LETTER TO BILL GATES
Stop. Pause at least. In the name of all that you hold dear. In order to truly and fully realize that which you have spent so much time, energy and money to achieve and advance in the world of education, hear me out. In order to serve the children of the globe that you some much want to serve, hear me out.
You are a man of great vision. You see integrated systems for what they are. You understand and appreciate the integration of disparate elements, the connections that bind these systems together. Gladwell was wrong, as I’ve told many people: it is NOT the case that any other person who happened to be in your shoes would have made the choices, taken the risks and achieved what you achieved had they just been in your shoes. You, only you, did what you did. Gladwell is a jealous hater of people who achieve. Decades ago you saw and described what the world still does not have but is slowly moving towards: the technologically integrated home. A home where HVAC systems, refrigerators, stereos, etc all operate with an integrated technology controllable remotely via technology and also operated “smartly” by internal technological monitoring. But one example.
In the sphere of education, of child development, you have given millions of dollars. Around the world you have helped countless children with medical support. How you have dedicated your time since stepping down from leading Microsoft to raise the bar for children everywhere, in many ways, is remarkable, praiseworthy, bold and honorable.
But you are misguided, I respectfully submit. That you seek what best serves children and the world I do not doubt. That you have missed some essential things, though, boggles my mind. It’s not possible that you are not aware of them. It’s not possible that the evidence in support of what truly serves children has not been available to you.
The newspaper I read the other day had a story in it about how “Bill Gates says we need to grade teachers”. Really? This is the solution to the problems in education? Even if only a small part of your education reform platform, it’s so far off the mark, so irrelevant to the meaningful first things that need attention that it is misguided. It’s like saying that the PC of 1985 had some issues and that the first thing to turn our attention to was the design of the mouse.
I am not here coming to the support of school teachers. I do not write from the perspective of teachers’ unions. To paraphrase Seuss’s The Lorax, “I speak for the children”.
Education needs repair. That’s an understatement and fails to capture the reality of the situation. It needs overhaul, reform, transformation and evolution. Education, traditionally defined and understood since the 1850s, got off on the wrong foot. And there it remains, hobbled and failing. Poorly defined, it has stumbled along, trying to reinvent itself every decade or so, and continuing to underserve children of all ages. As a result it has underserved society as a whole.
We have big problems. We need big solutions.
Education, properly understood, is nothing more than the process of a human being “becoming itself” -from birth to maturity. It is not about transmitting data or knowledge to the next generation. It is about guiding a child according to the natural laws of human development.
Airplanes fly because the laws of physics became sufficiently understood to allow a massive hunk of metal (yes, I know that the first planes and flying machines were not made of hunks of metal) to achieve “lift”. It amazes me that planes fly. I love them, but it amazes me every time I see a plane in flight that such a thing is possible, yet it most assuredly is. Planes don’t fly because someone wanted a plane to fly, they fly because they adhere to the laws of physics- which are immutable, unwavering and universal. The principles which allowed the first plane to fly are the same principles which allow planes to fly today.
Human development also follows principles of growth and development. The best that we can offer all children is to identify and adhere to those principles. Only then will we be able to serve children in a manner that will meet their needs, and by extension, the needs of society – of humanity.
Mr. Gates, you have it within your power to transform the world. Do you wish to save children from starvation and war? Do you wish to stop the killing of youth in the streets of Chicago? Do you wish to support the elevation of children in the villages of Kenya? Do you long for a world where children everywhere have the ability to “become themselves”? To find that intersection of their talents and their passions, so that they could then offer their personal gifts to the world, contributing those glorious things to the world in which they live? Of course you do. You are a good man.
The universal laws of child development are not a mystery. It is not that we lack the insight and tools to discover that which guides life from birth to maturity. Developmental psychologists, neuroscientists and legions of educators have provided the information that was lacking in 1850. Today the principles have been identified and codified. It is called Montessori.
Montessori is not the name of a cult. It is not the name of a theory. Montessori is simply the name of the woman who turned her eye to identifying what the natural laws of human development are.
Not more did Newton create the law of gravity than did Montessori create the laws of human development. Both merely looked at nature and wrote down their observations and helped the rest of us understand how something in the world operates. Gravity isn’t going away and how children develop isn’t about to change any time soon either.
Since the first child appeared on the face of the Earth children have continued to develop according to the same laws of development. That is why they are the laws of development. The firing of synapses, the process of myelination, the emergence of spoken language, the first smile, the formation of self-esteem, and so on, all happen the same way today, around the globe, as they did 5000 years ago, around the globe.
What Dr. Montessori did for 45 years (1907-1952, the years of her work in education) was to look at the evidence. In her own words, “I did not invent a method of education, I merely followed the child”. Spoken like the scientist she was, she served no ulterior motives. She was not chasing grant money. She was not answering to corporate or institutional interests. She was pursuing the truth of how children grow and develop. She sought one thing: to identify what NATURE has set in motion as to how children universally develop. And that she did.
No one has written a book, published research or found contrary evidence to show that she was mistaken.
Quite the contrary has occurred. All of the science of child development has come to support every claim that Dr. Montessori made. All of her principles of human development have been supported by cognitive and developmental science. The reason why Montessori has not yet toppled the conventional approach to education is the same as the reason why Copernicus’s ideas took so long to be accepted: they were counter-cultural and touched too many vested interests. But universal natural truths have a way of abiding. They do not relent.
The resources exist to find out for yourself.
Mr. Gates, in the name of all that you value, please stop your current focus on changing education. I appreciate your interests and passion, but you have been misinformed.
The best money you can spend to change education and transform the world, and that is not hyperbole, is to spend it on the first 6 years of life. Look into the research of the Nobel economist James Heckman at the University of Chicago (http://heckman.uchicago.edu/ and http://jenni.uchicago.edu/human-inequality/papers/Heckman_final_all_wp_2007-03-22c_jsb.pdf)
Look into the research on self-regulation and executive functions: http://www.devcogneuro.com/AdeleDiamond.html and http://www.devcogneuro.com/Publications/Activities_and_Programs_That_Improve_Childrens_Executive_Functions.pdf and http://www.goodatdoingthings.com and http://youtu.be/faYco1b-IJI and www.aidtolife.org
Of course, Montessori principles extend beyond the first 6 years of life and have been developed and implemented through the high school level to tremendous success. I know you know this: your foundation gave money to a Milwaukee public Montessori high school – the most successful of all the high schools you’ve given money to. Curious?
Thank you for your time.