Education Funding

Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Asked for Big New Education Ideas. Here’s What They Got

By Benjamin Herold — March 20, 2019 6 min read
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Do schools need artificial intelligence that can “detect and predict learning styles associated with different personality traits?”

What about “an intelligent learning companion that would ask students to teach a simulated digital peer while tracking students’ mathematical understanding?”

Or a new digital tool based on advances in “precision medicine” that would gather information about students’ working memory, attention spans, and ability to manage their thoughts and feelings?

Those are just three of the 465 ideas that left the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative “tremendously inspired and encouraged,” according to a recently released summary of responses to the groups’ joint request for state-of-the-art approaches to education, originally announced last May.

Gates and CZI “share a view that there is enormous unrealized potential for students and that breakthroughs driven by innovation can help students and teachers,” according to the report, titled “Education Research and Development: Learning From the Field.”

The Wisdom of the Crowd: 6 Ideas to Improve Education

Last May, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative requested “state-of-the-art” ideas for transforming education. This month, the groups released a report summarizing the responses they received. Here are six examples of “promising approaches,” as described in the new report, “Education Research & Development: Learning From the Field.”

• Create a “robust digital library of informational texts” that would help students learn to critically assess evidence from multiple sources and write using real-world source material.

• Develop an online platform where students can “upload real-world projects” and “give and receive feedback from peers and creative industry professionals, including through video conferencing.”

• Use “intelligent tutoring and technology-based, personalized learning platforms” to “identify student misconceptions, provide students with actionable feedback, and support individualized opportunities for learning and practice.”

• Reduce “math anxiety among African-American and Latino students” by giving them opportunities to “rewrite math problems from existing curricula based on story problems that are of interest in their own lives.”

• Create a “tablet-based measurement-and-intervention platform” for training teachers to “quickly assess students’ executive functions during regular classroom activities.”

• Initiate a multidisciplinary research project to explore how teaching about executive functions relates to the development of social-emotional skills, including a look at individual differences.

Ongoing investments in such R&D work are expected, although the groups have not yet made any funding decisions, according to a Gates Foundation spokesperson.

The underlying premise of the effort is bold: Founded with the multibillion-dollar fortunes amassed by two of the biggest figures in the technology industry, the Gates Foundation (started by Microsoft founder Bill Gates) and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (started by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg) have teamed up to create an R&D model for K-12. According to the report, the effort will be modeled on DARPA, an agency of the federal Department of Defense that invests in new technologies related to national security, and Bell Labs, a private research and development company now owned by Nokia.

The goal is to support work that “collapses the boundaries between basic and applied research and is focused on immediate problems of practice,” the report says.

Outside observers pointed to the potentially outsized effect that groups as large and well-resourced as Gates and CZI can have on K-12 policy, for better and for worse.

“Both funders seem attached to a fairly technocratic model of change in education, [believing] that a new research-derived strategy will make it possible to ‘fix’ something they see as wrong with schools,” said Sarah Reckhow, an assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University who tracks philanthropic giving in education. “The trouble is that many of these philanthropically funded and technocratic approaches have run aground in recent years, either failing to achieve anticipated gains for students or facing serious political headwinds.”

The three “immediate, high-leverage challenges” that Gates and CZI aim to tackle are:

• Improving students’ ability to write the kind of nonfiction that is increasingly required in college and the workplace;

• Deepening students’ understanding of key math skills and concepts; and

• Strengthening children’s “executive functions,” such as the ability to think flexibly, consider multiple ideas, and regulate their own thoughts, emotions, and actions.

About half the ideas submitted in response to the groups’ Request for Information came from nonprofits or universities. Another 20 percent came from corporations and ed-tech developers. A total of 12 percent came from educators and schools.

Writing, Math, Executive Functions

Poor writing scores on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress highlight the first challenge, according to the report.

“Success in college, work, and life depends upon communicating and expressing ideas effectively through writing,” the document notes.

Among the existing barriers to improving writing, Gates and CZI say: instruction that is too often geared toward the five-paragraph essay and other formats that align primarily with state tests, and a lack of time for teachers to provide students with adequate feedback.

What might help, the groups asked?

Responses highlighted in the report include: programs that connect students with “authentic” audiences, like journalists or people in their neighborhoods, to read and offer feedback on their work; initiatives that support students in “using their voices to advocate for social-justice issues"; online platforms that track the comments and edits students make during peer revisions or “capture qualitative data from students’ ‘messy drafts,’ converting words and sentences into patterns that could provide additional insights for teachers into how their students craft arguments or narratives.”

In math, meanwhile, the two groups highlighted a number of “promising approaches.” Some sounded quite similar to the kinds of personalized-learning software, platforms, and programs already on the market—some of which Gates and CZI already support and a few of which already have a fairly robust body of evidence behind them.

Among the examples in the report: “Intelligent” tutoring systems; a personalized-learning platform that can “analyze student diagnostics in minutes, enabling teachers to quickly understand whether a particular explanation or intervention is working;" and artificial intelligence that can glean data and produce recommendations by scanning student responses on classroom assignments. Also highlighted were some non-tech efforts to create fun, real-world learning environments by grounding math instruction in chess or contemporary policy debates around issues like raising the minimum wage.

And the third big area was improving students’ executive functions—a broad set of non-academic mental and emotional abilities, such as working memory and paying attention—a relatively new area of study. The Gates Foundation was excited to receive 171 submissions on that topic, the group’s spokesperson indicated.

One big existing problem, the report indicates, is that many students, parents, and educators aren’t familiar with the concept. In addition, the field has yet to develop valid, reliable measures for gauging skills like managing one’s emotions. And only a few of the submissions discussed contentious issues of privacy and ethics related to the collection, analysis, and use of such sensitive information.

Still, Gates and CZI highlighted proposals to conduct new research, develop “tablet-based measurement and intervention platforms,” and explore “behavioral ‘nudges’ that target a specific daily behavior and can be taught quickly.”

Many of the suggested approaches highlighted in the new report could also raise concerns about the downsides associated with the expanding role of technology in K-12.

Educational publisher Pearson, for example, recently sparked a controversy when it tested behavioral nudges in one of its instructional software programs that is used exclusively in higher education. Questions abound about the efficacy of AI- and algorithm-driven recommendation engines, some of which have been found to reflect and reinforce racial, gender, and other biases. And many of the solutions touted by Gates and CZI are predicated on further expanding the nature and volume of data collected about students, a trend that is already taxing K-12 officials and lawmakers alike.

R&D for the Long Haul

At the moment, there’s no timetable for funding decisions or official next steps, the Gates spokesperson said.

The hope, though, is that the R&D effort that ultimately takes shape will be able to support efforts to expand promising early-stage research to new applications and contexts.

And the long-term idea is to bring together interdisciplinary teams of educators, developers, experts in human development and learning measurement, technologists, neuroscientists, and others.

“Breaking down the wall between research and practice, and between basic and applied research, offers the potential to dramatically accelerate solutions to problems that stand in the way of delivering better outcomes for millions of students,” the report says.

A version of this article appeared in the March 20, 2019 edition of Education Week as Gates, Zuckerberg Tout Big New Ideas

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