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Classroom Technology

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

By Benjamin Herold — March 08, 2019 5 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 fresh ideas that left the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative “tremendously inspired and encouraged,” according to a just-released summary of responses to the groups’ joint request for state-of-the-art new 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 & Development: Learning From the Field.”

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 new effort is bold: Founded with the multi-billion-dollar fortunes amassed by two of the biggest figures in the tech industry, the Gates Foundation (started by Microsoft founder Bill Gates) and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (started by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg) have teamed up to create a new R&D model for K-12 education. According to the new 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.

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, and 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 towards 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?

Among the responses highlighted in the report: 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.” And 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-technology-dependent 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 relatively new area of study. The Gates Foundation was excited to receive 171 submissions on this 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.”

A long-term R&D effort

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

The hope, the Gates spokesperson said, 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.

Gates and CZI are also inviting feedback and further ideas. Email messages can be sent to EducationRD@gatesfoundation.org or EducationRD@chanzuckerberg.com.


Bill Gates, Microsoft co-founder and director at Berkshire Hathaway, is interviewed by Liz Claman of the Fox Business Network in Omaha, Neb., May 8. Photo by Nati Harnik/AP

Facebook CEO and Harvard dropout Mark Zuckerberg delivers the commencement address at Harvard University commencement exercises on May 25, in Cambridge, Mass. Photo by Steven Senne/AP

See also:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.