Interview | Bert Bower Gives Social Studies a Boost

Bert Bower is the founder and CEO of TCI, a K-12 publishing company created by teachers, for teachers. They create classroom experiences that allow students of all abilities and learning styles to succeed. For example, students participate in a tug-of-war to learn about the American Revolution or wear masks of Constitutional thinkers to debate fundamental democratic values. Bert has experienced the classroom from all angles. Beginning as a classroom aide, he then taught social studies for eight years, and finally earned a PhD in Curriculum and Teacher Education from Stanford University. For the past 20 years he’s been crafting innovative K–12 social studies programs by collaborating with teachers and trying out new ideas in the classroom. His goal is to defeat the “silent violence” of stand-and-deliver teaching that leaves youth passive and bored by creating programs that teach students to ponder and participate. Combining proven teaching strategies with cutting-edge technology to successfully reach all learners in the diverse classroom, Bert even wants to reach those students who sit in the back of the classroom and rarely speak. He knows his goals are lofty, but he has witnessed the success of TCI programs around the country and here he tells more about them and why they’ve met with success.

Victor: What does the name TCI mean?

Bert: TCI stands for Teachers’ Curriculum Institute. It’s a mouthful, which is why we are known as TCI. We purposely punctuated the name with the apostrophe at the end of “teachers” to show that we are created by teachers, for teachers.

Victor: When was the TCI social studies curriculum developed? What’s something interesting or relevant about its development history? When did it become an online curriculum?

Bert: In 1989, a group of classroom teachers got together and sketched out the original ideas for teaching strategies that would actively involve kids in the classroom. We were all in the classroom during the day so we’d write lessons at night and then try them the next day with our kids. It was very collegial and fun. After about two years of living this double life, we devoted ourselves full time to TCI. We’re still by teachers, which I think is so important. The first iteration of our online programs launched in 2009, and we’ve been making it more robust and easy to use since then.

Victor: How is the TCI social studies curriculum unique from other similar products? 

Bert: Frankly, I’m not sure there are other similar products. Our philosophy has always been that the more kids are actively engaged in the classroom – in discovering information – the more they’ll learn. At the heart of TCI programs are classroom activities that get kids out of their seats, actively and purposefully engaged in discovering content. I mentioned the tug-of-war earlier. They might also participate in a press conference as a historical figure or take a walking tour of Florence to uncover key information about the Renaissance. Our lessons are carefully thought out to be as interactive as possible yet still remain manageable and easy for teachers to implement.

Victor: Where did the TCI social studies curriculum originate? Where can you get it now? 

Bert: It originated on the kitchen table of my house in Palo Alto, Calif. That’s where we met to plan and debrief in the early days. Since then, we’ve moved out of my kitchen but remain in the San Francisco Bay Area. Our programs are available on our website, Although many customers get our content digitally through an online subscription, we offer print Teacher Resource Kits and student texts.

Victor: I understand you are about to launch a new, fully digital, interactive version of your social studies curriculum. What led to that decision?

Bert: We wanted to make it easier for teachers to do super-creative, engaging lessons. With our subscriptions, teachers can get an entire class interacting with one computer, an Internet connection and a projector. Going digital allowed us to incorporate rich media and drop-and-drag whiteboard technology into our lessons. We’ve created classroom presentations that go beyond Powerpoint or interactive whiteboard technology by delivering over the Internet and allowing teachers to customize their programs and store to the cloud. Being digital opened up more options and allows us to change and improve constantly.

Victor: What is new in TCI 2.0? What differentiates it in the education market?

Bert: We’ve just released new features, particularly in our classroom presentations, that are really exciting. As I said, teachers can customize their presentations by adding images and text to slides or inserting their own slides. They can save as many versions of each lesson as they like to the cloud, allowing them to access it anywhere, anytime. We’ve also reorganized our navigation to make the programs more intuitive for teachers. Another big addition is that the student text and all student materials are available in Spanish. I think that what makes our product different is that it’s not just technology for technology’s sake. We’ve determined how to use technology to make it easy for teachers to engage their students. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that we’re not just about classroom technology. We also offer professional development and enjoy a thriving teacher community that allows teachers to connect and share ideas with one another.

Victor: How does technology change the way students learn social studies?

Bert: From our experience, we’ve seen the way kids thrive on the immediate feedback they get using our Student Subscription. I think kids want to learn and feel successful in school, and they like it when they see they’re getting the right answers. In the classroom, technology allows teachers to bring the world in. We know teachers who Skype with other teachers around the world! What an amazing way to help students understand other cultures and the world around them.

Victor: Can the TCI social studies curriculum be used to ‘differentiate’ instruction?

Bert: Absolutely. As you’ve undoubtedly figured out, TCI curriculum was developed to differentiate. One of the theories we based our strategies on is Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences. Our lessons tap a variety of intelligences – or learning styles – so that all students can grasp content. On a more concrete note, we provide teachers with ideas for differentiating our lessons for specific student populations such as English language learners or advanced learners.

Victor: What is the pricing of TCI? What are the purchasing options? 

Bert: Districts and schools can purchase TCI as an online subscription for teachers and students or in the print version or a combination of both. Subscriptions can be either one or six years.

A six-year Teacher Subscription can be as low as $225 for an elementary program and up to $825 for our high school U.S. history program. Student Subscriptions are between $37 and $70, depending on the grade level.

Victor: What are some examples of TCI in action? 

Bert: TCI lessons get students out of their seats and working together. We know that interaction – if it’s purposeful – increases learning. One of the most popular strategies in our programs is called Visual Discovery. Teachers project a rich image as largely as possible. Students answer a series of questions spiraled in difficulty. Questions always begin with What do you see? Just about every student can answer this question. Teachers might spend 20 minutes on an image, asking increasingly more complex questions. Then, some students are assigned a person or object in the image and come to the screen to act out what the person might be thinking or doing. We have so many great activities that teachers love – the American Revolution tug-of-war, the “dot game” that recreates Cold War hysteria, exploring a sunken ship to learn about European explorers – I could go on and on with examples.

Victor: Who is TCI for, and who is it not for? 

Bert: TCI is for teachers who are collaborative and innovative and, perhaps most importantly, teachers who have good curricular leadership. TCI tends not to do well in schools where there is not a strong emphasis on learning. We’ve seen TCI work in large urban schools and in smaller, suburban settings. In every case, the district had a history of curricular leadership.

Victor: How do educators feel about teaching with TCI?

Bert: One of our goals at TCI is to help teachers experience classroom success. What we mean by that is the success of seeing when a student “gets” a concept, or when a struggling student experiences good test results, or of having students come back years after they’ve left the classroom to reminisce about the things they did in social studies class. We hear about these successes all the time. I think teachers like that the lessons have been thought out for them, but that they can make them their own. They can add their own content and expertise; they can tweak procedures for specific learning groups. We have so much respect for what teachers do, and I think they get that.

Victor: How do students feel about learning with TCI?  

Bert: Students don’t want to be bored. I truly believe that they don’t want to sit in the back of the room, disengaged and disinterested. We help them get involved. We hold them responsible for their own learning and give them the tools. Students like TCI. They like experiencing content instead of reading a book and answering questions on a worksheet.

Victor: What kinds of results are you seeing with schools using TCI?

Bert: A few years ago, we participated in the California History-Social Science adoption for middle school. We expected that some schools might adopt our programs. As it turns out, we underestimated things a bit! We were one of the most adopted programs, with many districts adopting our History Alive! programs across all three middle school grades. We’ve tracked the test scores in those districts and have seen great results.

TCI districts have out-performed the California state average each year since the adoption. One Bay Area district saw the percentage of kids performing at the proficient and advanced levels increase 23 percent since adopting TCI. Even high-performing districts increased their test scores after adopting TCI.

Victor: Does the TCI social studies curriculum align with standards?

Bert: Absolutely. We develop curriculum to meet state and national standards. We even have a database on our website that shows teachers how our lessons meet their state standards. Another wonderful benefit of delivering our content digitally is that we can augment it to fulfill specific state standards. We’re constantly adding content to meet standards and help teachers.

Victor: What formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to creating TCI? 

Bert: It began when I was a student aide at Carpenteria High School in a small community in southern California. The district had a high number of migrant-ed students, and I saw them getting nothing out of their education. I thought it was outrageous that they weren’t engaged in class. I saw one particular student, Javier, who just zoned out in class because he couldn’t grasp the content the way it was presented. Since then, in my own teaching career, and when I was with D.C. Heath and then at Stanford getting my Ph.D., my goal has always been to create curriculum that would engage Javier. There’s no reason that Javier couldn’t be successful. It’s been my mission to make sure that students like Javier are engaged and develop a love for learning.

Victor: What are some of your thoughts on education these days? 

Bert: We’re seeing a lot of struggles. There’s no doubt that we’re in dire straits and many districts are struggling with shrinking budgets, with no light at the end of the tunnel. But I don’t think we should let a good crisis go unused. I think we can turn these tough times into an opportunity and bring change to education in a way we haven’t been able to do in many years.

Victor: How does TCI address your concerns about education?

Bert: I think you can talk all you want about class size, learning communities, distance learning and the other educational issues in the news. But no matter how much you rearrange and change standards, it’s still one teacher, four walls and 36 sweaty adolescents in a room. Teachers still have to teach. So they get books. The purveyors of those books are three big publishers who are delivering 1950s rote education of “read the book and answer the questions.” These publishers are dictating what kids learn. I don’t think that’s what kids need. We need super-innovative curriculum that melds content with pedagogy. TCI has done that, and that’s why we’ve been successful.

If we really want reform in education, we have to change how we teach. We’ve given teachers all the tools and support they need to teach content meaningfully.

Victor: What else would you tell educators or leaders in education about the value of TCI?

Bert: Don’t listen to me! Go talk to a TCI teacher and see how using TCI has transformed their classroom and teaching. We say it so often that I’m sure people are sick of hearing it, but I’ll say it again – TCI is by teachers, for teachers. We want to empower teachers. Kids are great, and they need strong programs that engage them.

Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education?

Bert: I am optimistic about the future of education or I wouldn’t be here. This is a dark time for many, but we’ll rise out of it, inspire students and improve achievement.


Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to:

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