Personalized Learning

Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Team Up to Seek ‘State of the Art’ Ideas for Schools

By Benjamin Herold — May 08, 2018 5 min read
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The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative are teaming up on a new research-and-development initiative aimed at identifying “state-of-the-art” educational strategies and bringing them to the classroom.

The focus is on spurring development of new measures, new ways of teaching, and new technologies for tracking and supporting students’ writing ability, math skills, and “executive functions,” such as self-control and attention.

In a new Request for Information released today, the groups wrote that researchers from fields as diverse as education, neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and technology are generating exciting new ideas about how people actually learn—but that information “has not yet been translated effectively into methods and tools for teachers and students to use in the classroom every day.”

Such “research insights must inform ongoing development of tools and instructional approaches that will enable students to overcome math, literacy, and other learning challenges and at scale, in order to reach millions, if not billions, of students,” the document reads.

The focus of the new efforts is on identifying promising new developments and ideas in three main areas:

  1. Improving students’ writing (especially non-fiction).“The skills connected to writing—evaluation of arguments and evidence, critical and creative thinking about solutions and sources, identifying support for a key idea or process, clear and evocative argument-making—are frequently cited as 21st century skills in high demand by employers,” the Request for Information states. “Yet, the majority of high school graduates are not prepared for the demands of postsecondary and workplace writing.”

    Among the areas where the groups hope to see improvements: comprehensive writing solutions, new metrics for measuring student progress and proficiency in writing, and new tools to promote more collaboration and better feedback.

  2. Improving students’ mathematical understanding, application, and related mindsets. Here, the language of the personalized-learning movement (which both organizations support) is clear: There already exist promising approaches that “help teachers to address individual students’ needs by mirroring the same personalized approaches used by the best 1:1 tutors,” the document states. “Highly personalized learning experiences and tools have the potential to analyze student responses to understand barriers to student learning, provide immediate feedback, and apply immediate and effective remediation to students when needed.”

    Among other things, the organizations are specifically looking for tools that can further personalize math instruction via a focus on the “whole student"—including children’s mindsets, beliefs, attention, and “affective” or emotional states.

  3. Measuring and improving students’ executive function. “Student success in academics and in future careers is associated with their ability to wrestle with multiple ideas at once, think flexibly, and regulate their action and thoughts,” the Request for Information states. “There is much to be done to track and improve students’ progress on [executive function] development and connect it to real-world benefits, especially for those who are most at-risk.”

    Areas of focus here include advances in techniques for tracking children’s development of these skills and abilities, interventions (including “technology-enhanced programs in or outside of school”) designed to improve desired behaviors, and supports for teachers.

The Gates Foundation is a traditional charitable foundation, chaired by Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Over the last decade-plus, the group has dedicated hundreds of millions of dollars a year to such education-related causes as promoting small high schools, changing the way teachers are evaluated, and supporting development of the Common Core State Standards. Last October, the Gates Foundation announced a strategic shift in focus, including a new emphasis on “locally-driven solutions” and “innovative research.”

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, meanwhile, is a newer entity, founded and led by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan. Structured as a limited-liability corporation, CZI is free to make charitable donations, invest in for-profit companies, and engage in political lobbying and advocacy, with minimal disclosure requirements. The venture-philanthropy group has announced that it will give hundreds of millions of dollars annually to support a vision of “whole-child personalized learning” that aims to customize each child’s educational experience based on their academic, social, emotional, and physical strengths, needs, and preferences.

Last June, the two groups announced their first substantive collaboration: a $12 million joint award to an intermediary organization known as New Profit, which in turns supports organizations working to promote personalized learning.

In their new Request for Information, the Gates Foundation and CZI said that technology is not the focus of what they hope to spur, but it is expected to play a role.

The groups also emphasized that their new plan is currently in draft stage. Individuals, nonprofit groups, universities, private companies, and government-sponsored labs are invited to respond, with the expectation that those groups’ input will in turn shape the foundations’ funding plans moving forward.

No decision has yet been made as to how much money the groups will ultimately invest in the new R&D effort.

Why this new partnership, and why now?

“The reason our two philanthropies have decided to join hands in this effort is simple: We believe the scope and importance of this work exceeds what any single organization can or should undertake alone,” wrote CZI president of education Jim Shelton and Gates Foundation director of K-12 education Bob Hughes in an op-ed published today by Fast Company.

“The purpose of the initiative is not to mandate anything. It’s to learn from the work that’s currently happening in classrooms, universities, entrepreneurial efforts, and research centers throughout the country.”


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.