A Science Funder Zeroes In On a Critical Question: How Do Teachers Learn and Change?

Photo: MB Images/shutterstock

Photo: MB Images/shutterstock

For years, the James S. McDonnell Foundation has been known for its work funding scientific research on cognition and the human brain. That’s starting to change as the foundation works to bring what it’s learned into classrooms.

The funder recently kicked off a $24.5 million program to support research into how teachers learn and change. The foundation isn't entirely new to work on student learning, which it's funded in the past, but its primary focus is on science and research. The board became interested in moving back into education because the research on cognition that the foundation had funded for years seemed to have little impact on actual classrooms, said Susan Fitzpatrick, president of the St. Louis-based foundation.

“Our goal in the past had been ... to generate this knowledge, but the translation into practice was not really an integral component of what we were doing,” Fitzpatrick said. The foundation decided to take a closer look at this challenge, which is a familiar one for science grantmakers: What can be done to ensure that research has greater impact on people's lives in the near term? 

A study group wrestled with that question for a year and a half before settling on teacher learning. The group reasoned that much is known about how children learn, but to incorporate that knowledge into the classroom, how teachers learn and adapt their work needs to be better understood. The more effectively teachers are taught, the more quickly research-backed interventions and reforms will make it into classrooms, Fitzpatrick argued.

Education advances “require that the teacher change, learn, adapt their practice, and yet we knew very little about how that process happens,” Fitzpatrick said. “If you think of how hard it is to change your own behavior, your own practice, why would we expect this to be easy?”

“A lot of what teachers are doing in the classroom is happening in real time and is potentially very demanding, and a lot of the interventions actually add to that cognitive load,” she added. “We don’t really have a good sense of ... the best way to support these interventions in the classroom that makes them less cognitively demanding on teacher cognition.”

On the surface, the program is a departure from McDonnell’s recent work, which largely supports research on the brain. However, Fitzpatrick sees it as more of an evolution than a pivot. “It’s building on a tradition that we’ve had here at the foundation. It has moved us into a very different part of the territory than we’ve been before,” she said.

When the board approached Fitzpatrick about moving into education work, she was initially worried about whether the McDonnell Foundation, with its endowment of about $430 million, would be able to move the needle in a meaningful way. It’s a field crowded with heavy hitters like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation, and now the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and other tech-backed philanthropists.

It’s worth noting that as McDonnell focuses specifically on teacher learning, some of those heavy hitters are taking up teacher preparation more broadly. CZI recently announced several grants for projects that support the professional, social and emotional well being of teachers. The grants were modest for a funder of CZI’s size, but are valuable indicators of possible future funding from the initiative.

Related: Teaching K-12 is Brutally Hard. Here's How CZI Is Offering Support

Still, by homing in on the science of how teachers learn, Fitzpatrick thinks McDonnell has the opportunity to carve out a space for itself and make a difference.

“If you’re a foundation that’s our size, which is small in comparison to those foundations, where we would have a small amount of money, maybe $5 million to invest per year, you really are going to find a niche,” Fitzpatrick said. “You can work locally, here in St. Louis, work in a few schools, do something like that. Or you can say, ‘What’s a question that really nobody is focused on right now?’”

The McDonnell Foundation went with the latter, and in so doing, revealed that grantmakers of this size often work differently from huge philanthropic outfits like Gates or CZI. Medium size funders are under more pressure to be cutting edge and fund promising ideas overlooked by others, Fitzpatrick said. The hope is that once the ball is rolling, and a new field is developing, larger funders will start to pick it up and a foundation like McDonnell can move on and look for its next opportunity.

McDonnell's strategy on teacher learning, in other words, is to play a catalytic role. Fitzpatrick hopes that the foundation is planting important seeds with its new funding. At the very least, McDonnell plans to continue to support the program at two-year intervals for the foreseeable future.