• Just Visiting

    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


An Education Reading List for Bill Gates

Bill Gates will reportedly read anything to do with education. I have some suggestions. What are yours?

July 22, 2014

According to the Inside Higher Ed report of his on-stage Q&A at the National Association of College and University Business Officers, Bill Gates was identified as a “voracious” reader of education-related texts, be it of “grand treatises” or “bone-dry technical reports.”

Given Gates’ apparent sincerity and desire to improve education at both the K-12 and college and university levels, I believe we can take him at his word. I’d like to point him to some texts that I think are worth his time.

This is my personal, suggested, this-is-just-for-starters reading list for Bill Gates. By its nature it will be haphazard and incomplete[1]. I wholeheartedly encourage others to make their reading suggestions (for Gates and anyone else for that matter) in the comments.

John Dewey on education

Looking at Bill Gates’ approaches to reforming education, he seems to be heavy on so-called “data-driven approaches,” light on philosophy and history.

Discussion of the Gates Speech

On This Week @ Inside
Higher Ed,
John Warner will join
the Lumina Foundation's Zakiya
Smith and Inside Higher Ed's
Doug Lederman for a discussion
of what Bill Gates got right
and wrong. Sign up here for an
email notification when the
weekly audio program is
published Friday.

Reading John Dewey can provide Mr. Gates with some important context. Dewey believed that at its core, education is a social process and students learn best through experience and interaction. All of the current pedagogical vogue of first year experiences, flipped classrooms, and gamification are firmly rooted in Dewey’s philosophies.

In my book, reform that doesn’t maintain learning as a social process at its root is doomed to failure. Most recommended, Democracy and Education and Experience and Education.


Nel Noddings on education

Noddings’ seminal work, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education argues that “caring” is a foundational value when it comes to ethical decision making. It suggests a pedagogy not rooted in outcomes, but core values, and it’s a text I return to every so often to reconsider my own approach with students.

Her later work, Critical Lessons: What our Schools Should Teach is a wide-ranging challenge to the way we present the world to students through their schooling.


What the Best College Teachers Do and What the Best College Students Do by Ken Bain

These books act as bookends articulating what’s most important and meaningful within the academic part of the college experience.

Mr. Gates’ approach to higher education reform, like those of others such as Larry Summers, Clay Shirky, Daphne Koller, Anant Agarwal, etc… conflates the expositing of information with the much more complicated work of teaching and learning. I think these books will broaden this frame of reference when he considers his approach to reform.

Bain articulates actionable, though non-prescriptive, frameworks for both teachers and students to consider the work they do inside the college. After reading these, I’d like Mr. Gates to understand how important it is to preserve these opportunities for all students, not just those fortunate enough to attend places of privilege.


How College Works by Daniel Chambliss and Christopher Takacs

I discussed this book earlier in the year. A sociological study of the most meaningful experiences at college. Some choice quotes from the authors:

“Good colleges have always been fundamentally human institutions.”

“The fundamental problem of higher education is no longer the availability of content, but rather the availability of motivation.”

“Human contact, especially face to face, seems to have an unusual influence on what students choose to do, on the directions their careers take, and on their experience of college. It has leverage, producing positive results far beyond the effort put into it.”

This research suggests that Bill Gates might be taking a fundamentally incorrect approach by focusing on the cheaper and more efficient delivery of education content, rather than student curiosity and motivation.


The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University by Elizabeth Losh

I hope to write about this book in more detail soon, but for now, I'll summarize. Losh takes a comprehensive look at the use (and misuse) of digital technologies in higher education that’s well rooted in history, data, and philosophy, asking us to consider what is baby, and what is bathwater. It is accessible and important scholarship of the highest order and a cautionary tale on believing technology offers any kind of education panacea.


Teaching Machines by Audrey Watters

This book doesn’t even exist yet, and still, I think Gates should read it. Watters will be examining our history with teaching machines, starting with B.F. Skinner and ending with the present day movement towards human/machine (cyborg) integration. It’s going to be an important book from an important contemporary thinker. In the meantime, Mr. Gates can check out Audrey Watters’s blog.


Blackboard: A Personal History of the Classroom by Lewis Buzbee

Simultaneously a memoir and treatise on educational reform structured as a series of essays reflecting on the author's experiences as a student and teacher. Not data driven in the least, but an important and humane perspective on what happens to us as individuals as we engage in education.


Instead of Education: Ways to Help People do Things Better by John Holt

Once a classroom teacher, Holt ultimately became a kind of patron saint of homeschoolers with his twin books, How Children Fail and How Children Learn that attacked public schools as creativity killers and spirit stiflers. If he still lived, Holt would be apoplectic (as we all should be) about the current “academic kindergarten” movement.


The “Academics Overview” statement for Lakeside School, Seattle WA

Since this is both Bill Gates’ alma mater and the place where his children go to school, he might be already familiar with it, but I’d like to recommend a refresher.

I quote: “[At Lakeside] we develop and nurture students’ passions and abilities and ensure every student feels known.”

I quote again: “Each student’s curiosities and capabilities lead them to unique academic challenges that are sustained through a culture of support and encouragement. All students will find opportunities to discover and develop a passion; to hone the skills of writing, thinking, and speaking; and to interact with the world both on and off campus. Lakeside trusts that each student has effective ideas about how to maximize his or her own education, and that they will positively contribute to our vibrant learning community.”

I don’t see a single mention of efficiency, data, scale, standardized testing, or teacher “accountability.”

Do you, Mr. Gates?


I could go on and on, but let’s continue in the comments, and via Twitter as well.



[1] I also note that I don’t claim to agree with every argument in these books. I see them as perspectives worth hearing, regardless of whether one ultimately agrees or disagrees with those perspectives.



Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


We are retiring comments and introducing Letters to the Editor. Share your thoughts »

Back to Top