Bill Gates: Popping Up with Compulsory Proactive Help

Remember the obnoxious, hyperactive paperclip that popped up in Word when you were trying to write a letter? As soon as you typed “Dear,” up popped up Clippy:

It looks like you’re writing a letter.
Would you like help?


You’d been writing letters for decades, but Microsoft insisted you needed what they called “proactive help.” And there was Clippy insisting he could show you how to do your job better. No matter how many times you clicked “Just type the letter without help,” Clippy would pop up again, insisting you must need help.

Your train of thought melted as you tried to remember how to get rid of the dorky paperclip.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Stanford professor Clifford Nass reports, “One of the most reviled software designs of all time was Clippy, the animated paper clip in Microsoft Office. The mere mention of his name to computer users brought on levels of hatred usually reserved for jilted lovers and mortal enemies. There were ‘I hate Clippy’ websites, videos and T-shirts in numerous languages.” Nass observes that “Clippy’s problem was that he was utterly oblivious to the appropriate ways to treat people. Every time a user typed “Dear,” Clippy would dutifully propose, ‘I see you are writing a letter. Would you like some help?’ -no matter how many times the user had rejected this offer in the past.”

And he wouldn’t stop smiling. You’re pounding the keyboard trying to find the “DIE!” function but he keeps smiling.

YouTube offers a hilarious Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me audio segment on the death of the reviled Microsoft mascot. Listeners voted this the funniest segment of all time. The show host Peter Segal says, “One day the engineers at Microsoft said, you know, the people using our products, they’re frustrated, they’re angry, but they’re not insane with rage. How can we focus their rage? How about if just in the middle of doing something, an animated paperclip pops up on the screen and says: ‘Can I help you? What are you doing? Oh, can I see?’”

The segment includes the Bill Gate memo titled “Clippy Must Die.”

But now, teachers across America are discovering that Clippy has been reborn-with Gates barnstorming the country with pronouncements about effective teaching. Never mind you’ve been teaching for decades, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is there popping up with compulsory proactive help, insisting they can show you how to do your job better. No matter how much you beg, “Just let me teach,” Clippy Bill is there insisting you must need help.

Bill Gates was pretty clear about this in his July 2010 address to the AFT convention, “[H]ow do you set up a system that helps every teacher get better?. . . .” And AFT president Randi Weingarten embraced the plan.

Gates asks the rhetorical question, “How do you set up a system. . . ” and then he answers it by shipping hundreds of millions of dollars around the country to create a mania for a system that defines good teaching. The Denver Public Schools, recipient of $10 million in Gates money to overhaul of the district’s teacher evaluation system, came up with a 28-page rubric which certainly raises a few questions. For starters, how many pages does it take before a rubric becomes a checklist?

NOTE: The Denver teacher’s union is partnering with the Denver Public School System in the Gates grant. The Gates Foundation said the $10 million was “to accelerate the district’s human capital reform by implementing an aligned teacher performance management system.” Elsewhere, at Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching sites, the Gates Foundation spent big bucks to define teachers in its image: Hillsborough County Public Schools (Tampa, Fla.): $100 million; Memphis City Schools: $90 million; Pittsburgh Public Schools: $40 million.

Here is one item from the Denver rubric: Student Behaviors: Observable Evidence

Ineffective [Teaching] 1-2 

• When asked what they are learning, students struggle to clearly articulate what lesson is about or can only describe task but not objective(s).

• Students cannot talk about how tasks they are working on connect to objective(s).

• Students ask, “Why are we doing this?”

Approaching [Effective Teaching] 3-4 

• When asked what they are learning, students can read lesson objective(s) where they are posted or describe activity, but might not know activity’s objective(s).

• Students may not be able to talk about how tasks they are working on connect to objective(s).

Effective 5-6 and Distinguished 7

• When asked what they are learning, students can talk about lesson objective(s) and how lesson connects to tasks they are working on and authentic, real-world situations.

• Students can communicate larger standards or unit goals, as related to lesson objective(s) (e.g., when asked why a summary is important, students respond that if you can summarize, it is evidence that you comprehend what you’ve read) and real-world situations.

• Students expand on the larger picture that teacher outlined for them (e.g., they make their own connections between content and objective(s) and larger units or life).

So now when a kid in Denver whines, “Why do we have to do this?” his teacher is going to lose “effectiveness” points.

I can report that when I read this rubric aloud at a conference of the British Columbia Teacher Federation, loud laughter filled the hall.

Every teacher in America must look at what’s happening in Denver. You’re next. Nashville teachers, who borrowed from the Gates plan in Memphis, told NPR about what’s been happening to them: Some teachers say it feels impossible. To score at the highest levels, students must demonstrate a mastery of the day’s lesson. But the four-page checklist used to grade teachers is incredibly detailed, down to how handouts are passed around.

I taught in public schools for twenty years and then I started writing about them, closely observing classrooms in 26 states. I’m not much interested in seeing how a teacher passes out worksheets or even how carefully she structures her lesson so that the kids stick to the objectives and the bell always rings in the right place-just after she makes her summary and gives the prelude for what will come tomorrow. I want to find out if that teacher is tough and flexible and clever and loving. I want to be sure she’s more nurturing than a halibut.

I want to know how a teacher responds when a kid vomits (all over those neat lesson plans). Or somebody spots a cockroach under her desk. Or a troubled boy lies down on the floor, rolls up in a fetal position, and quacks like a duck. Or the boy with yard-long official Boston hospital-diagnosed reading disability offers to read his favorite riddle of the day from a big book of dinosaur riddles.

I want to know what the teacher does when the bird appears in the window. Philosopher-scientist David Hawkins pointed out that there is an essential lack of predictability about what’s going to happen in a good classroom, not because there’s no control but precisely because there is control, of the right kind. In Hawkins’ good control classroom, the teacher doesn’t base her decisions on lesson plans shipped in from some Gates-financed Common Core Curriculum committee or even lesson plans she herself devised the week before. Instead, the teacher’s guide is her own close observation of the actual children in her classroom.

Such a classroom finds room for accidents, the unexpected happening that directs attention in some new way. Suddenly there it is. The bird flies in the window, and that’s the needed miracle. If the teacher is ready for and is able to make educational capital out of the interests and choices of children and out of this accidental appearance of the bird, then great things can happen. If the bird coming in the window is just a nuisance, interrupting the planned lesson, then the teacher doesn’t deserve it, and in fact, it never happens.

If you deserve it, the bird will fly in the window.

The most wonderful satisfactions of teaching happen in the blink of an eye and are usually unplanned and unexpected. You can miss their importance and lose their sustenance if your eyes are glassily fixed on the objective your lesson plan promises you’ll deliver that hour. We teachers must not let Bill Gates or Arne Duncan steal what matters in the classroom. Although the media and the U. S. Department of education insist that money talks loudly, carries a big stick, and must be obeyed, teachers must not let themselves be bamboozled or victimized. Anyone who has read anything about the way Gates ran Microsoft knows that, like Clippy, he was utterly oblivious to the appropriate ways to treat people. And still is. In short, he’s a bully. A memo he wrote to staff in 2003 was leaked and created quite a stir. In describing Windows XP, Gates used such words as: Backwards. Unusable. Totally confusing. Pathetic. Completely odd. Weird. Scary. Slow. Garbage. Not usable. Crapped up. Crap. Absolute mess. Craziness. Terrible. When a journalist asked him about this e-mail, he replied, “There’s not a day that I don’t send a piece. . . like that piece of e-mail. That’s my job.”

“That’s my job.” There you have it. And here’s the lesson we must take from it: A teacher’s job is different. Very different. We must stand up and shout out this difference. Shout it out and celebrate it. Teachers didn’t sign on to work for Bill Gates, and it’s time to stop tolerating his abuse. Bring on the ‘I hate the Gates Foundation’ websites, videos, and T-shirts. Occupy Gates. Save our classrooms.


Denver Public Schools, Framework for Effective Teaching Evidence Guide, Version 3.1 2011-2012

Blake Farmer, “Tennessee Teachers Find It Hard To Make The Grade,” NPR, Oct. 20, 2010

David Hawkins, “The Bird in the Window,” The Informed Vision, Algora Publishing, 2002

Joseph Heck, Dinosaur Riddles, Aladdin, 1982

Clifford Nass, “Sweet Talking Your Computer,” Wall Street Journal, Aug. 28, 2010

Peter Segal, “Clippie Must Die,” Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me, NPR, 2008

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  • Jane Sharp

    I was an elementary principal for 20 years and am now a member of my local School Board.  I agree with the majority of this post.  In particular I liked  “I want to find out if that teacher is tough and flexible and clever and
    loving. I want to be sure she’s more nurturing than a halibut.” 

    However, I want to add knowledge and enthusiasm to which I think some of the questions included in the Gates check-list do allude.  Some of my most hopeful moments occurred visiting the classrooms of  teachers who showed the characteristics the author noted  - but who also showed deep knowledge and interest in the information and skills she/he was imparting.  Communicating the pure joy that learning can be is a very important characteristic for good teachers and accurately getting that pinned down on a check list is questionable.

    My most agonizing moments were visiting classes where the teachers appeared as uninterested and not much more knowledgeable than the students.  These latter were the target of much of my work.

  • Susano

    It sounds to me as though you were the kind of evaluator teachers-and children-needed. I entered teaching on an emergency credential-with no student teaching, no nothing. I was lucky enough to have a department chair who visited my classroom once a week, stayed about 10 minutes, and offered me a small suggestion for improvement. He saved me, and I’m forever grateful. I think teachers need a conversation, not a checklist.

  • Cindy Lutenbacher

    Thank you, Susan.  I wish that somehow we could clone you and Jane Sharp to be the respondents/evaluators in every classroom.  How do we do that?  I mean it.  There are way too many principals who don’t have a clue about what is meaningful in classrooms, and they should not be the ones visiting classrooms and giving feedback.

    In Finland, I understand that teachers aren’t fired for being poor teachers, but are, instead, helped to improve until they are good teachers.

    I teach at the college level, but those birds in the window are just as important as they are in kindergarten through twelfth grade. 


    This comment is not about Clippy but it is about something I found valuable in the Gates recommended professional training done by Life Long Learning Associates.  One of the most valuable things they did was to present  examples on a bookmark to re-focus attention to the importance of the different types of questions, with examples, that could be provided to students to model questions and shift their thinking from answers to critical question formulation.  This comment is not in support of the Gates Foundation except in regards to their recommendation of Life Long Learning , Associates in California.

  • Weilunion

    When I taught kindergarten, first, second and third grade in migrant communities and LA we kept two seperate books.  The ‘Enron’ book for the principals and the ‘reall lesson plan book’ for our ‘real work’.

    Standards was the issue then, coming out of Ravitch;s 1984 version of A Nation at Risk which was a bullet for us all.  I understand she has changed her tune but at that time during the REgan coup we had thousands of thousands of refugees we now call ‘aliens’ pouring in the country from the dirty wars of central America.  There was no way we would compromise our teaching by capitulating to the dunces.

    Teaching critical thinking must be the issue and then developing standards to assess it the other.  Many of us are not against ‘standards’ we are against the standards of the one percent.  Everyone needs to be assessed, from the tennis player to the student:  the issue is what we teach them and how.  Unfortunately most do not know what critical thinking is, even though they use it, have no vocabulary for it and thus have no idea how to assess it.

    This is the tragedy: we are not talking about what it means to be an educated person and then working backwards to develop curriculum that we can use alternative assessment, like portfolios, project assessment etc to measure.  Until we broach this issue I am afraid we will be an anti-standard movement which is simply not cogent.

    You all have standards that you use to measure your own performance don’t you?  A ‘criteria’ which means a standard by which one judges?  I think so. 

    Thanks, Susan


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