School & District Management

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Wants Teachers to Learn Brain Science

By Sarah Schwartz — November 14, 2018 3 min read
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One of the most recognizable couples of Silicon Valley is on a new education-related mission: to help teachers learn about how students’ brains work.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the philanthropic organization led by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan, is donating $1 million to support the development of teacher professional-learning in educational neuroscience.

The sum will contribute to the expansion of Neuroteach Global, an online PD platform created by the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning, a mind, brain, and education research center based out of St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, Md.

“There’s a ton of human development research and learning science that gives great insights into how to better support student and educator learning,” Bror Saxberg, the vice president of learning science at CZI, said during a call with reporters. “But we don’t really widely reflect those results in how we educate students or even in how we train teachers.”

Neuroteach Global offers 3- to 5-minute online mini-lessons that introduce research-backed teaching strategies. Users can pay for a 1-hour, 3-hour, or 12-hour course; the longest program, which results in a mind, brain, and education certification, costs $400. As part of the program, teachers apply the strategies the learn with their students and receive feedback from online coaches.

The goal is to help teachers understand and apply educational neuroscience—"the science behind how the brain learns, works, and thrives,” said Glenn Whitman, CTTL’s director.

CTTL is currently piloting the program with K-12 and higher education teachers across the country. In the first pilot, 91 percent of participants self-reported improved knowledge of applied educational neuroscience research, said Whitman. The research center plans to launch the first track of the program in January 2019, which they will cap at 1,500 participants, he said.

Part of the CZI grant will be used to subsidize some districts participating in the program’s first track so that teachers can receive the training for free.

Supporting Neuroteach Global furthers CZI’s goal of education serving the “whole child,” Saxberg said. Last year, the organization announced plans to put hundreds of millions of dollars toward funding “whole-child personalized learning,” with the aim of customizing students’ education to their individual preferences and needs.

Tackling ‘Neuromyths’

Experts in the mind, brain, and education field—a research discipline that combines neuroscience, psychology, and education—have called for teachers to receive more instruction in the way that students learn as part of preservice programs.

But only a few universities offer educational neuroscience for aspiring teachers. And while teachers are less likely to believe in “neuromyths” than the general public, many still ascribe to debunked theories: In a 2017 study in Frontiers in Psychology that surveyed nearly 600 educators, about 70 percent endorsed the idea that students have different learning “styles,” like visual, auditory, or kinesthetic. Half of the teachers said that some people are “left-brained” while others are “right-brained,” and that this distinction affects learning. (Research has shown that there isn’t evidence to support learning styles or the theory that people favor different sides of their brains.)

Neuroteach Global lessons stick to learning strategies that have a strong evidence base, said Whitman—when evaluating research for inclusion, CTTL looks to metastudies and results that have been replicated at least once, he said.

But ultimately, it’s up to teachers to evaluate the appropriateness of strategies for their own classroom, said Whitman. “It’s still in the end the responsibility of the teacher ... to look at the research through the lens of their context, their kids, and their school.”

Image: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, greet the media as they prepare for an event in San Francisco. —Jeff Chiu/AP-File

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.