September 21, 2014

How Bill Gates And A Sydney Professor Made History


IN 2008, shortly after Bill Gates stepped down from his executive role at Microsoft, he often awoke in his lakeside mansion near ­Seattle — which took seven years to build and cost $63 million — and walked downstairs to his ­private gym.
Then, during an hour on the treadmill, Gates, a self-described nerd, would watch DVDs from the Teaching Company’s Great Courses series. On some mornings, he would learn about geology or meteorology; on others, it would be oceanography or US history.

As Gates was working his way through the series, he stumbled upon a set of DVDs titled “Big History” — an unusual college course taught by Australian professor David Christian. Big History did not confine itself to any ­particular topic, or even to a single academic discipline. Instead, it put forward a synthesis of history, biology, chemistry, astronomy and other disparate fields, which Christian wove together into nothing less than a unifying ­narrative of life on Earth.

Christian explained to the camera that he was influenced by the Annales School, a group of early 20th-century French historians who insisted that history be explored on multiple scales of time and space. Christian had subsequently divided the history of the world into eight separate “thresholds”, beginning with the Big Bang, 13 billion years ago (Threshold 1), moving through to the origin of Homo sapiens (Threshold 6), the appearance of agriculture (Threshold 7) and, finally, the forces that gave birth to our modern world (Threshold 8).

Christian’s aim was not to offer discrete accounts of each period so much as to integrate them all into vertiginous conceptual narratives, sweeping through billions of years in the span of a single semester. A lecture on the Big Bang, for instance, offered a complete history of cosmology, starting with the ancient God-centred view of the universe and proceeding through Ptolemy’s Earth-based model to the sun-centred versions advanced by thinkers from Copernicus to Galileo and eventually arriving in the 1920s with Edwin Hubble’s idea that the universe (by then understood to contain many galaxies besides our own) was expanding.

Gates marvelled at the class’s ability to ­connect complex concepts. “I just loved it,” he says. “I thought, God, everybody should watch this thing!” At the time, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had donated hundreds of millions of dollars to educational initiatives, but many of these were high-level policy projects. Gates, who had recently decided to become a full-time philanthropist, seemed to pine for a project that was a little more tangible.

Gates had been frustrated with the state of interactive coursework and classroom technology since before he dropped out of Harvard in the mid-1970s; he yearned to experiment with entirely new approaches. “I wanted to explore how you did digital things,” he tells me. “That was a big issue for me in terms of where education was going — taking my previous skills and applying them to education.” Soon after getting off the treadmill, he asked an assistant to set up a meeting with Christian.

A few days later, the professor, who was ­lecturing at San Diego State University, found himself in the lobby of a hotel, waiting to meet the billionaire. “I was scared,” Christian recalls. “Someone took me along the corridor, knocks on a door, Bill opens it, invites me in. All I remember is that within five minutes he had so put me at my ease. I thought, ‘I’m a nerd, he’s a nerd and this is fun!’” Gates told Christian that he wanted to introduce Big History as a course in high schools across America. He was prepared to fund the project personally, outside his foundation, and he wanted to be personally involved. “He actually gave me his email address and said, ‘Just think about it,’” Christian recalls. “‘Email me if you think this is a good idea.’”

A few days later, Christian emailed to say that he thought it was a pretty good idea. The two men began tinkering, adapting Christian’s course into a high school curriculum. Gates, who insisted that the course include a strong digital component, hired a team of engineers and designers to develop a website that would serve as an electronic textbook, brimming with interactive graphics and videos. The site, which is open to the public, would also feature a password-protected forum for teachers to trade notes and update and, in some cases, rewrite lesson plans based on their classroom experiences.

Gates, who was familiar with the limitations of large bureaucracies, insisted that the course be pitched to individual schools rather than to entire districts; that way, he reasoned, it could grow organically and improve as it did so, just like a start-up company. In 2011, a trial of the Big ­History Project debuted in five US high schools; the following year it was extended to two Australian schools, Narara Valley High in Gosford, NSW, and Nossal High in Melbourne. 

Since then, Gates and Christian — along with a team of educational consultants, executives and teachers — have quietly accelerated its growth. This year, the project will be offered free to more than 1200 US schools; in ­Australia, 108 schools are teaching Big History, with 500 more engaging with the online resources, exposing about 3000 students to the program.
If all goes well, the Big History Project — which has expanded to Korea, the Netherlands and Scotland — will be introduced in hundreds more classrooms by next year, and perhaps thousands more the year after that. Christian has said that he hopes it will become a core part of the curriculum in schools and universities around the world, not to replace existing courses but to sit alongside them.

Christian was a young history professor at Macquarie University in Sydney when he began incubating his own form of cross-disciplinary scholarship. “I remember the chain of thought,” he says. “I had to do prehistory, so I have to do some archeology. But to do it seriously, I’m going to talk about how humans evolved, so, yikes, I’m in biology now. I thought, to do it seriously, I have to talk about how mammals evolved, how primates evolved. I have to go back to multicelled organisms, I have to go back to primeval slime. And then I thought, I have to talk about how life was created, how life appeared on Earth! I have to talk geology, the history of the planet. And so you can see, this is pushing me back and back and back, until I realised there’s a stopping point — which is the Big Bang.” He pauses. “I thought, ‘Boy, would that be exciting to teach a course like this!’”

Christian delights in recounting the first year he taught his history-of-everything course, in 1989, at Macquarie. “We didn’t know what we were doing, but the really magical thing, and I think it’s what still drives me today, was the ­reaction of the students,” he says. “What this course can do, however it’s taught, is validate big questions that are impossible to even ask within a more silo-ised education.”

The Macquarie course quickly became oversubscribed and within a few years Christian was receiving calls from other universities, asking for advice on how they might offer something similar. In 2005, he received an invitation to speak at a conference in the US, where he was spotted by a scout for the Teaching Company, which asked him to tape the class in its studios. The 48-lecture DVD set was released in early 2008. Gates was one of his first viewers.

As well as teaching at Macquarie, Christian, 67, now travels the world as something of an evangelist for the Big History Project. (His TED Talk, The History of Our World in 18 Minutes, has been viewed more than four million times online.) Since introducing the course to high-school students, he and Gates realised they needed to make a few adjustments to help it catch on. They have monitored teacher feedback closely and decreased the course in size from 20 units to 10. True to Christian’s original style, however, the high-school course links insights across subjects into wildly ambitious narratives. A class on the emergence of life might start with photosynthesis before moving on to complex cells, multicellular organisms, Charles Darwin, and the landmark discovery in the 1950s of DNA’s double helix shape.


“Most kids experience school as one damn course after another; there’s nothing to build connections between the courses that they take,” says Bob Bain, a professor at the University of Michigan and an adviser to the project. “It’s like if I were to give you a jigsaw puzzle and throw 500 pieces on the table and say, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m not going to show you the box top [so you can see] how they fit together.’”

Since starting his foundation in 2000, Gates, 58, has donated about $30 billion to organisations focusing largely on global health and development. The Gates foundation has spent more than half a billion on educational causes, which provides some context for the comparatively modest $10 million he has personally invested in the Big History Project. Nevertheless, Gates has tracked this venture as he would any Microsoft product or foundation project. The Big History Project produces reams of data — students and teachers are regularly surveyed, and teachers submit the results from classes, all of which allows his team to track what’s ­working and what isn’t as the course grows. “Our priority,” he tells me, “was to get it into a form where ambitious teachers could latch onto it.”

Gates is forthright about the challenges the project has faced, particularly early on. Few schools had teachers who were willing or able to instruct a hybrid course; some schools wound up requiring that two teachers lead the class together. But perhaps the largest challenge is Gates himself, or at least the spectre of him. To his bafflement and frustration he has become a polarising figure in the education world. This owes largely to the fact that, through his foundation, he has spent more than $200 million to advocate in the US for the Common Core State Standards Initiative, something of a third rail in education circles.

Gates has financed an army of policy groups, think tanks and teachers’ unions to marshal support for the new rules and performance measurements that have been adopted by 44 states. Many education experts, while generally supportive of the new goals for reading and maths skills, have been critical of the unilateral way in which the policy appears to have been rolled out.

On some level, Gates’ experience in pushing through the Common Core seems to be a large part of what so excites him about the Big History Project: this small initiative, largely unburdened by bureaucracy, relies on technology and teachers who willingly submit to all manner of data analytics. Big History may one day become an heir to Western Civ or World History, but in my conversations with Gates that didn’t seem to be his goal; it was more personal. Really, Big History just seems like a class that he wished he could have taken in high school. But he wasn’t a billionaire then. Now, a flash of inspiration on the treadmill might just lead to something very big.

By Andrew Ross Sorkin



With thanks to The Australian
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