Learning, Innovation & Tech

Bombs & Breakthroughs

Bill & Melinda's Field Trips

CJW, November 8, 2010 8:00 PM


" . . .the methods of engaging students are different.
The work and learning is positioned as 'life to text' rather than 'text to life'. . ."
                                              - Dennis Littky, co-founder,  Big Picture Learning

by C.J. Westerberg

One of the more interesting and apparently overlooked questions in the much-blogged, much- critiqued interview with Bill Gates, from this writer's viewpoint, had to do with how he and his wife, Melinda, get involved with their children's education.  Not your typical parents by any means, but for a voyeuristic view: 

"PARADE: You and Melinda have three school-age kids. Are you involved in their education?
BG: Last year our family traveled for three months, and we did some home-schooling. I taught math and science. We went to the Large Hadron Collider, the giant particle accelerator in Switzerland. We went to a toilet-paper factory, a garbage dump, an aircraft carrier, and a coal plant. I also found great educational material on the Web, including short videos at Khanacademy.org."

With the exception of the Hadron Collider from a personal standpoint which would give me nightmares about black holes forever (The only time I can recall our daughter getting really spooked was at the Planetarium in New York at about the age of nine when she witnessed ominous visions  of meteorites hitting the Earth with an earnest narrative voice-over by Robert Redford describing the "what if" scenes  . . . you get the picture.),  I actually think the Gates' itinerary is a pretty cool list of activities and makes one think of the myriad of potential field trips in our own backyards.  (Garbage dump?  I can do that!)

We know that children who are exposed to more real-life outside- the-class-wall activities guided by parents and schools, usually having to do with level of income in their household, tend to do better in school and in life.   And we thought we were so swishy with visits to block-buster Broadway shows (American Idiot being an eye-opener about bad choices early in life),  artier small shows, visits to symphonies and museums and travel, depending on the budget of the moment.  We probably take for granted the full potential of the nature bonanza outside our back door where we now live, a big difference from our earlier years living in Manhattan where we would joke about how kids think food comes out of an elevator from a delivery boy. 

In spite of the unimaginable wealth of the Gates family, their message of parental involvement in education outside of school by exposing our children to different real-world venues is a good one.  So is the supplementation of education with on-line enrichment through programs like Kahn Academy, which best of all, is free and covers a staggering number of topics.

On a related note, The Gates Foundation is a supporter of  Big Picture Learning schools (I know .  . . what education initiative doesn't The Gates Foundation support?), which is something we've been following quite closely, as a group of public and public charter schools.  One of the primary tenets of Big Picture high schools and the newly launched UnBound college program, which serve mainly under-served urban youth, is the concept of of relevant curriculum allowing students to "do real work in the real world".   An excerpt from a recent essay about Big Picture's evolution by Dennis Littky, co-founder:

In 2010 students need more than a high school degree to be successful. They need technical training and skills, and they need to become greater thinkers and doers. Big Picture Learning has decided to turn college education on its head, just as we did with high school education. In the fall of 2009, in partnership with Roger Williams University and with support from the Lumina Foundation and the Nellie Mae Foundation, we started a college. The college is being built around student interests, real work, and a personalized curriculum. The goals of Roger Williams remain the same; the methods of engaging students are different. The work and learning is positioned as 'life to text' rather than 'text to life'. One of our students is working with a design/architecture firm, doing drawings, presenting at conferences, working in the field, and helping with actual building, all while being mentored by brilliant designers in the field. Back at campus, seminars are set up to broaden the students' thinking through readings, discussions, and writing. Each of the students is at a different internship and brings with him or her that specific knowledge to the liberal arts seminars. Our program - "College Unbound" -  is a three-year, year-round program.

A good idea for us to get out once in while.
Out of our silos, out of the house and out of the classroom. 


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Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. Because everything grows out of work. You do something and it kicks open a door.
Chuck Close, artist, 'Charlie Rose', Creative Brain

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