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Bill Gates Said a Stupid Thing About Learning

Bill Gates, the richest man in the world1, commented that "constructionism," a theory of how people learn, is "bull***t."  Lest someone accuse us of quoting Mr. Gates out of context, here is the context:

  • "[S. Khan] takes a dim view of the constructionist idea that students won’t really understand math unless they discover each principle on their own. "Isaac Newton would not have invented calculus had he not had textbooks on algebra." Bill Gates is even more scathing: "It’s bull***t,"" he says. "If you can’t do multiplication, then tell me, what is your contribution to society going to be?"2

"Scathing" is putting Gates’ comment mildly.  But, before analyzing why Gates’ remark was stupid, we need to dive into several theories of learning and instruction.

First, direct instruction. That instructional theory says that a teacher (or a worksheet) should simply tell students a fact and the fact will go into their heads and then the students will know that fact. And, the way to insure that fact goes into the students’ heads is to tell them that fact over and over … and over again. If the fact you are telling them is that 2+2 is 4 or that 2 x 2 is 4, that theory of instruction does seem to work. But if the thing you are telling them is an explanation for why any number to the 0th power is one, repetition doesn’t typically work as well.3

Next, constructivism (upon which constructionism is built). Constructivism says that learning is an active process; an individual might listen to a teacher lecturing, but to understand, the student must actively relate the words that the teacher is saying with what the student already understands. Indeed, rather than lecturing, John Dewey, a prominent educator, suggested that a better instructional practice would be for teachers to

  • "… give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking…. learning naturally results."

Boiled down, constructivism is really just "learn by doing" — a theory of learning that ES learned from his mother as she "pointed out," on a daily basis: "Don’t just sit there, do something!" And, amazingly enough, when ES got up off his bottom and did something, ES learned.

Finally, constructionism. "Constructionism"4 was a term invented by Seymour Papert, who was a constructivist5, during the heyday of the Logo6 programming language7. Simply put, constructionism8 says that the act of constructing a computer program to, for example, display a circle on a piece of paper, helps a learner understand the equation that describes the circumference of a circle, 2πr. In creating a computer program in a programming language9 a learner has to confront his/her understanding of all the elements of that equation. And, most likely, when a learner runs the circle drawing program for the first time, a circle is not produced – but something else is drawn. The act of debugging the computer program (an external representation) helps the learner debug their understanding (an internal representation) of a circle.

Lots of good jargon in that paragraph!

Now, if one is a total, hardline, constructivist then yes, the hardliner might well advocate that drilling a child on their times tables is not the right way to learn how to multiply. And so, in that particular situation, Mr. Gates has a point.

But the reality of the classroom is this: good teachers are pragmatists, not hardliners. Good teachers use direct instruction for those topics for which it makes sense, e.g., drilling on the times tables, and they use constructivist instructional practices (i.e., learn-by-doing) for those topics for which that learning theory makes sense, e.g., understanding why any number to the 0th power is one.

Mr. Gates, who didn’t finish college, who taught himself what he needed to know in order to build a Basic interpreter which in turn helped him to start Microsoft, couldn’t possibly believe that learn-by-doing is a "bull***t" theory.  Thus, if he had known that "constructionism" is just "learn-by-doing", he wouldn’t have labeled "learn-by-doing" as a bull***t theory. Mr. Gates should have known that that "constructionism" is just "learn-by-doing" and thus his remark is stupid.

And it is a dangerous remark since people listen to Mr. Gates. Indeed the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is making a major impact on higher education10 and, their foundation is making a major impact on K-12 (e.g., with its focus, for one, on merit pay for teachers11). Does the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation believe that "learn-by-doing" is bull***t and that teachers who employ learn-by-doing instructional practices are "bull***t" teachers?

We heard it, you heard it, and Mr. Gates surely heard it — heard our parents tell us what to do when we did something stupid. Do you think Mr. Gates will heed that advice?


3 Just in case the reader missed it that was an HUGE understatement. Do YOU know why any number to the 0th power is 1? How many times did your math teachers (plural) try to teach that concept to you? While you might have been able to repeat the words right after your teacher said it… 10 minutes later… POOF... GONE!

http://learning.media.mit.edu/content/publications/EA.Piaget%20_%20Papert.pdf See E. Ackerman’s wonderful article about constructivism and constructionism.

9  Logo, a programming language, was purposely created to hide the ugly elements of programming but bring to fore the value to learning that programming affords.

About the Authors

Cathie Norris is a Regents Professor in the Department of Learning Technologies, School of Information at the University of North Texas. Visit her site at www.intergalacticmlc.org.

Elliot Soloway is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of CSE, College of Engineering, at the University of Michigan. Visit his site at www.intergalacticmlc.org.

Find more from Elliot Soloway and Cathie Norris at their Being Mobile blog at thejournal.com/beingmobile.

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