Bill Gates: Getting schools into the game to engage students

I was ill last week and missed a chance to interview Bill Gates while he was in town. Much thanks to my colleague Jaime Sarrio who stepped in at the last minute and produced an interesting story:

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 the Education Commission of the States’ national forum.

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.”

From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

37 comments Add your comment


July 16th, 2012
11:13 am

Did I read the first part correctly? Track students? Less differentiation? Hey, it might just work.

Proud Teacher

July 16th, 2012
11:19 am

The special education teachers are already in trouble with this. They are going to be evaluated on how well their students improve and/or test? Yeah, right.

Do we really want a generation of gamers?

Fred ™

July 16th, 2012
11:41 am

“Do we really want a generation of gamers?”

Hell no. WHo wants education to be FUN? Who wants kids EAGER to learn. Chain them to a desk and pound that crap into their heads with a 2X4 says I. Beat them until they learn.


July 16th, 2012
11:42 am

At my last school we were required to take our kids to the computer lab weekly to play “motivating math computer games.” The kids HATED them. They rushed through and clicked anything to get through the game. They didn’t care if they won or advanced to the next level. They knew those games were educational and they just didn’t want to play them–they wanted to get finished with them so they could whine and ask to play something “fun.”

I could see their scores and would require them to replay all games they didn’t master. Then they just got angry with me. Math is math–whether its in a video on or a piece of paper. If you can’t add and subtract, and you don’t care if you can or cannot, all the flashing lights and cool sound effects in the world won’t make you care, it won’t make math fun, and it won’t make you learn a darn thing.

Proud Teacher

July 16th, 2012
11:46 am

Fred, get real. Education should be fun. I agree. I try to make every class I teach a fun atmosphere, but there is no substitute for hard work to earn grades. Too many kids want the game to go on and on with no responsibility toward the goal of the standards. I do not believe in “group grades.” The slackers love these types of activities. I believe in an individual earning his own way.

By the way, the ACT, SAT, all AP tests, EOCT, ASVAB, ASSET and other student assessments are all done in the sanctity of a quiet room with no talking, no commiserating over answers, and no support texts. Just when do you think students should be introduced to this academic scenario – before the fun stuff or after the fun stuff? Either way, teachers know this must happen, but your in put here doesn’t seem to recognize this. Hmmmm…..


July 16th, 2012
11:46 am

How does this method help the emphasis on test scores? If students play games (while learning, of course!) how can that be transferrable to standardized testing preparation? After all, I am being evaluated by test scores not educational games. Although, this may help my student survey evaluation, since the students will be allowed to play games in class. (Please note the sarcasm font:).

Gates has multiple unconnected learning approaches, such as large class of 40 students, computerized instruction rather than a human teacher, student evaluations of teachers, educational software games that encourage motivation because the students can “win” in the game… (sigh).

Dunwoody Mom

July 16th, 2012
11:50 am

Just read this quote: “Sometimes bad intentions (profiteering) pretend to be good intentions. (”it’s for the children”).

Proud Teacher

July 16th, 2012
11:57 am

Yes, Dunwoody Mom. There are many who have made a fortune selling things to schools under the heading “For the Students.” More people need to speak out about the need for common sense.


July 16th, 2012
12:12 pm

Dear Mr. Gates,
When was the last time you stepped into a classroom?


July 16th, 2012
12:19 pm

Dear GA BOE members,
When did you decide to hand over relinquish control of GA’s education? Money does indeed buy influence….doesn’t it?


July 16th, 2012
12:24 pm

What I DON’T see here is where students actually create something. Younger students especially do need some basic skill and drill to get a knowledge foundation, and games make that process more entertaining. Older students, however, need opportunities to apply what they learn and to create. None of that is mentioned in this gaming classroom. (Also, where is the part about the time it takes for the teacher to create a second engaging lesson through his/her avatar??)


July 16th, 2012
12:29 pm

Brilliant. My 50+-year-old brother is ADD who tried and failed several times to graduate from high school but couldn’t so ended up getting a GED. He has the highest IQ of our three siblings but the traditional classroom/textbook/lecture model could never work for him. He is now a highly-respected cardiac nurse and excels since his Continuing Medical Education is all online.


July 16th, 2012
12:36 pm

Just as a side note, when do we get to teach our students that constant fun and games aren’t guaranteed in real life? ::sigh:: Like the three teachers above me here, I try my very best to make learning enjoyable in my class but some things like math fact families are difficult to make “fun” on a constant basis. Sometimes the students are just going to have to buckle down and put forth the nitty gritty effort to memorize the danged things.

As for Gates’ idea of a portion of the class playing “educational” games while another portion of the class uses avatar-driven, pre-recorded lessons for independent work, and the other third gets teacher-directed instruction.., well, until somebody coughs up the cash to outfit EVERY classroom with individual computers for EVERY student, these pie-in-the-sky scenarios of game theory as valid educational concepts FOR THE MASSES will forever run into the “great thought, no cash” reality of funding constraints.


July 16th, 2012
12:37 pm

Technology has a powerful role in the classroom. No doubt. If Mr. Gates feels compelled to spend millions on developing educational gaming systems, then more power to him.

However, don’t force me as a classroom teacher to implement the technology if, in my professional opinion, it is not in the best interest of my students. Produce a great product and I’ll gladly implement it into my classroom.

Interesting side note about Gates and the new teacher evaluation models…Is he pushing a better teacher evaluation model that focuses heavily on classroom technology implementation for the sake of the students or for the sake of a profit?

What exactly is Mr. Gates’ motivation?

Dunwoody Mom

July 16th, 2012
12:50 pm

What exactly is Mr. Gates’ motivation?</i?

Ego, control and $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$.

Pride and Joy

July 16th, 2012
1:51 pm

I disagree with Gates’ vision. Technology needs maintenance and lots of it. I don’t want the teacher turning into tech support.
Technology needs LOTS of tech support and excuse me, no freaking avatar can teach as well as a human being.
Chalk and a chalkboard.
A human being with a real educatoin and motivation.
Pencils and paper.
And throw away the dang fax machine. Too many ditto sheets in education.
Technologis IS NOT good for teaching children,
Technology is NOT good for teaching adults.
Technology is a sorry replacement for a human being.

Google "NEA" and "donations"

July 16th, 2012
2:28 pm

I read through the AJC version of the Bill Gates interview—and wonder how your journalist managed to keep her lunch down … with Bill Gates actually suggesting changes to the way teachers teach! Is the man terminally out of touch with teacher union bosses and their Democrat Party lackeys?

And why didn’t the idea of students “advancing at their own pace” beg the question: What if educational outcomes are unequal between RACIAL GROUPS? Was your staffer simply too stunned to react? Surely the Gates Foundation’s funding of Common Core initiatives alone should have forewarned your staffer of more market-based sophistry to come …

I’m assuming the AJC will stand firm in recommending Georgia reject the $500K Gates Foundation donation mentioned, simply because it involves taking money (lucre) from a PROFIT-MAKING entity (Microsoft Corp) !

Jane W.

July 16th, 2012
3:23 pm

Where is Rupert Murdoch when Atlanta needs him?

There is serious money to be made here supplying educated locals with a non-partisan alternative to the AJC and its liberal-leaning blogs!

Teach Forever

July 16th, 2012
3:43 pm

A direct quote from my son: “What if the technology messes up?”
See? Even a 10-yr-old can see drawbacks!


July 16th, 2012
3:50 pm

Google (or go onto twitter and hashtag) “gamefication.”

It’s not just in education.

It’s also not just one thing – it could be anything from having badges for the students to earn to challenges that create levels to actually using learning games…or actually CREATING their own games through sites such as or programming such as scratch and alice.

People hear “gaming” and automatically think of the stereotypical, 30-something loser, living in his parents basement…probably the same people who think twitter is just a bunch of people talking about what they had for lunch.

I’m not 100% on board, but I’m also very intrigued. I used elements of gamefication in my classroom last year, and plan to incorporate more this year (as well as flipping).

Jane W.

July 16th, 2012
4:14 pm

@CCMST — Relax. @Google “NEA” and “donations” is spoofing the profit-phobic mindset and the GAE/NEA union bosses who bottom feed off it.


July 16th, 2012
4:50 pm

@Jane W. ??? I am relaxed. And I tend to ignore one-note, thread-hijacker comments that reference a “union” I don’t belong to. I just wanted people to know that this idea isn’t new, exclusive to education, or Bill Gate’s proprietary idea.


July 16th, 2012
5:09 pm

An effort to improve education OR a ploy to make more money by selling more technology and software?



July 16th, 2012
5:13 pm

How do nonstop gaming and fun prepare students for the real world, in which tedious and boring tasks must be accomplshed every day? After Bill Gates has taught in an inner city poverty- stricken classroom for a year, then let him tell me how to teach. Until then, he needs to listen to the teachers or shut up.

Truth in Moderation

July 16th, 2012
5:14 pm

“Effective Teacher in Every Classroom”……Should read “Affective Teacher”, because what they are really doing is closing the assessment loop (teacher-student-assessment) to assure that Bloom’s Affective Domains (levels 3-6) are implemented to produce the State’s correct attitudes, values and beliefs in easily controlled future voting citizens.

Also, speaking of slavery and Africa, Mr. Gates is spending quite a bit of time and money over there to make sure that there aren’t too many people. He loves financing the vaccination of kids, even at gunpoint, because according to his TED talk, they work great for population control!

Google "NEA" and "union"

July 16th, 2012
5:15 pm

@CCMST ??? Brandy/teacher&mom/RonF is channeling you above …

Ed Johnson

July 16th, 2012
5:23 pm

“Check out the classroom of the future, Bill Gates’ style: Students are grouped according to skill set.”

Skill set? So now it’s children reduced to a skill set?

But why be surprised. Better yet, why would anyone think children might grow up to represent anything more than the economic value of their “skill set?”


July 16th, 2012
5:44 pm

Wow. I am surprised by the number of people who oppose Mr. Gates’ ideas. I appreciate his attempts to improve education. However, I firmly believe that effective, motivated, caring teachers are what makes and will continue to make the difference in the education of our children. All the technology in the world will not better educate the students. The teacher makes the difference between a mediocre and excellent classroom experience. Oh, and I speak from experience. I have taught in the public school system for 17 years.


July 16th, 2012
5:47 pm

Wow. I am surprised by the number of people who oppose Mr. Gates’ ideas. I appreciate his attempts to improve education. However, I firmly believe that effective, motivated, caring teachers are what make and will continue to make the difference in the education of our children. All the technology in the world will not better educate the students. The teacher makes the difference between a mediocre and excellent classroom experience. Oh, and I speak from experience. I have taught in the public school system for 17 years.

Proud Educator

July 16th, 2012
5:49 pm

Ah…Bill? Teachers are doing this already. It’s called differentiated instruction and flexible grouping. In fact, Bill, I have a number of already existing teaching strategies that I can discuss with you for a consulting fee, then you can dress them up and make billions selling them to school systems.

Hey Bill

July 16th, 2012
10:35 pm

When are you goint to actually get teachers imput so see how to fix things. Just because you built one of the most successful companies in the world it doesn’t mean you know jack squat about teaching.

William Casey

July 16th, 2012
11:17 pm

@GOOGLE: your defective “one-trick-pony” argument is tiresome. At least when I retired (2006), the GAE/NEA had so little influence in Georgia classrooms, that your assertions are laughable. Have you spent even ONE DAY in a Georgia classroom?

My problem with the game theory is that good educational games require reflection while most “fun” games merely require reaction. There is a VAST difference in the experience. There are gender issues I won’t even get into.

I applaude Mr. Gates interest in education and do not believe his interest is monetary. It’s “legacy.” What I hope he understands is that technology must be tailored to EACH AND EVERY teacher as well as each and every student. Monumental task. People who have never taught, no matter how well-meaning, seldom understand that teaching is an art as well as a science. Sending Michelangelo into “help” Picasso would not have improved Picasso’s work. Or vice versa. I suppose that if you’re satisfied with “paint-by-numbers,” you’re OK.

HoneyFern School

July 17th, 2012
7:16 am

Interesting article this week in Newsweek about how being online (including games and simulations) have changed the wiring of our brain, in some cases mimicking the brains of people addicted to drugs. Brains also demonstrate less plasticity the longer we are online.

Bill Gates has some interesting ideas, but make no mistake: there is motivation beyond philanthropy here. “Re-designing” education, especially to focus on the technology he is creating, is a cash cow for him (and the various other organizations he supports). He has done some wonderful things for education, most notably being a loud voice for change and advocating for small schools like the Big Picture Schools, but in the background is profit motive. Of course he should make money, but how interesting is it that most of his suggested reforms are technology-based? I do hope his primary motivation is “legacy,” but only time will tell.

Ole Guy

July 17th, 2012
3:06 pm

This whole concept of “grouping” makes me wanna vomit! Some well-respected guru, idolized by simple virtue of the fact that he has amased millions upon millions, comes up with some pop “new school culture” bull dung, and everyone is mezmorized. While the grouping concept MAY have some validity in the earlier grades, it should be completely discarded…certainly before the late elementary grades. Kids have to learn, early on, that it is THEY who must adapt; get with the program, and do whatever it takes to catch up, keep up, and accel. All this grouping business does is allow these kids the luxury of expecting slack in that which is expected of them.

We often hear platitudes, emanating from politicians and leaders in education, business, and the sciences,, over the necessity of geting kids ready for the global economy; an-ever-expanding presence on the world arena, and, quite simply, GETTING A GD JOB. Does anyone out there (whose not on LSD, or some other mind-altering agent) honestly believe the “world” (defined as the job market) is going to wait on this younger gen while they “get into groups” and decide to get with the program? Let them experience, early on, the “heat” of missed objectives; of not quite making the grade. Let THEM, right then and there, decide if they are going to simply roll over at the first sign of difficulty, or reach through the fires of adversity and grab the objective.

I know this entire line of reasoning may seem completely foreign to many out there…young adults and, sadly, the not-so-young. Look people, I’m no shining example of rousing success, however, in all honesty, I cannot remember…outside of small group projects…ever seeing this grouping stuff. ALL my classmates, from day one, were held to ONE COMMON SET OF STANDARDS. At certain “waypoints” in our educational odysee, we could ALL do arithmetic; we could ALL recite (and USUALLY understand) the standard verbiage which emanated from our forefathers…in other words, we were (more or less) prepared for the nasty ole world which was soon to hit us square between our baby blues. This was NOT achieved through grouping. We learned, early on, that…in school, as well as in life…that you either hack it or pack it…become part of life’s solutions or simply lead of life devoted to keeping the solution-makers; the producers, busy.



July 17th, 2012
8:39 pm

And while Gates is researching and perfecting his technology, Sal Khan will have provided millions of videos and seminars on Khan Academy-for FREE. I’m not against technology or even some gaming in the classroom. BUT can we get the class sizes down first, and have the schools back up to full Teacher and Teacher support staffing before we start plunking down money for gaming technology?


July 17th, 2012
11:23 pm

3schoolkids – Khan Academy receives funding from the Gates Foundation. It also uses gaming elements such as earning badges and achieving levels.

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