By Jaime Sarrio
Check out the classroom of the future, Bill Gates’ style: Students are grouped according to skill set. One cluster huddles around a computer terminal, playing an educational game or working on a simulator. Another works with a human teacher getting direct instruction, while another gets a digital lesson delivered from their teacher’s avatar.
This kind of “game-based” learning is one of the priorities of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a nonprofit founded by the Microsoft creator.
Last year, the foundation announced it would invest $20 million in a variety of teacher tools, including this and other technologies geared toward changing the way teachers teach and kids learn.
Gates sat down with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week while he was in town speaking at an education conference.
The billionaire philanthropist said there are lessons to be learned from the enthusiasm kids have when playing video games, including that winning can be a motivator and that students should be able to move to the next level when ready.
“We’re not saying the whole curriculum turns into this big game. We’re saying it’s an adjunct to a serious curriculum,” he said.
The introduction of the new Common Core initiative, a set of consistent standards that’s been adopted by Georgia and 44 other states, provides an opportunity to spur the creation of these games. Enter the Gates Foundation.
Two years ago, the nonprofit brought together 20 of the country’s best assessment designers with 20 of the world’s best game designers to discuss creating games that engage kids more deeply, said Vicki Phillips, director of the college ready strategy for the Gates Foundation.
Now the foundation is working with the Center for Game Science at the University of Washington on a free, online game called Refraction. As students play, their progress is visible to the teacher on his or her computer, allowing the educator to see instantly what concepts students understand.
The idea is that in coming years, there could be a digital mall full of low-cost or free online games teachers could download to use with the entire class or individual students.
“Part of what we’re trying to do is make more robust the array of things teachers have access to at their fingertips that are aligned to standards, that are high quality, that engage kids though technology and let [teachers] be the orchestra leader,” Phillips said.
It’s early in the development phase, and the foundation is still trying to figure out how to do this game-based technology well, Gates said.
The foundation will play a role in researching and developing this new technology, work that isn’t likely to be done at the federal or state level.
“It’s definitely going to make a contribution,” Gates said. “Motivation is such a huge part in what ends up differentiating student outcomes. Everyone has the ability to do fantastic work at a high school level. It’s just without the right teacher and the right motivation you don’t always get there.”
The Gates Foundation has given Georgia at least $500,000 to help teachers meet the standards of the Common Core and is continuing its other work, mainly around the construction of a new teacher evaluation system.
The foundation funded technical support for Georgia as it was drafting its Race to the Top application, a key component of which is better measuring of teacher performance.
And it has given $10 million to Atlanta Public Schools to fund the system’s “Effective Teacher in Every Classroom” program, which centers on using academic growth to see how much value a teacher is adding to the classroom.
Gates said states are now doing the “hard work” of implementing new evaluation systems, and in some cases not providing enough resources to ensure they are properly introduced. That includes retaining important elements such as student feedback and peer evaluators.
“We’re trying to encourage the states to put the resources in, even if it is a few percent of the payroll,” he said. “If you’re going to do it, it deserves to be done well.”