Wanted: Visionary Research to Accelerate Gains in Education



The Gates Foundation and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative recently teamed up to put out a call for information to explore "whether transformative education solutions can be developed through an accelerated research and development (R&D) effort." The hope here is to find keys to spark dramatic instead of incremental change in a field that often feels like a brutal slog.

More specifically, the two funders are interested in "state-of-art" and "bold" visions around how kids develop math and writing skills, as well as "executive function," which includes things like memory, self-control, attention and flexibility of thinking. At this point, there’s no funding attached to the request—it’s strictly a learning mission—but it lends insight into where the two mega-funders are heading. Both are anxious to find breakthrough learning approaches that can fast-track efforts to improve education. 

It's not surprising to see these two funders collaborating in this spirit. 

When Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan unveiled their philanthropic game plan in late 2015, in the form of a letter to their newborn daughter Max, they talked about the big transformations they hoped to see in the 21st century—including around education. They wrote of the possibility that coming generations will be able to "learn and experience 100 times more than we do today." 

Yet improving education has historically been among the toughest challenges for philanthropists. Again and again, ambitions plans by foundations and major donors in this area end up yielding few dramatic gains. No couple knows this better than Bill and Melinda Gates, who've given billions for education over nearly 20 year, often with disappointing results. Still, the couple has stuck with such funding, calling themselves "impatient optimists."

Now, in this latest foray, CZI and the Gates Foundation are opening a broad and intriguing inquiry into how better research and development might speed along progress in education. 

The request for information is open to individuals, groups or collaborations, both inside and outside the education community, including practitioners, universities, university-affiliated research centers, not-for-profit research institutions, professional development organizations, government-sponsored labs and public and private companies.

The funders are looking for solutions that are based in evidence or accepted theories. Research should inform development of tools and instructional approaches to help students learn math, writing and the other skills listed above. The ability to scale is another thing the funders plan to look for in submissions. In the past, they write, the "creation of scalable innovations in education has been elusive." One big problem Gates and CZI point to in the request is the gap between what researchers learn and what makes it into the hands of teachers and school leaders. Often, important basic research findings gather dust on the shelf. A key to overcoming that problem, Gates and CZI believe, is to "create incentives for practitioners, researchers and developers to work together to translate advances in knowledge into practical instructional practices and tools with the potential for widespread use."

Readers who follow IP's coverage of biomedical research will know that many philanthropists have embraced this same approach to accelerating breakthroughs on health. Much of the funding in that space goes to translational research aimed at applying findings from basic science to cures and treatments that help patients sooner rather than later. Promoting better collaboration is increasingly part of such efforts. This is a core element, for example, of Sean Parker's push on cancer immunotherapy, as we've reported. In their own health science funding, both CZI and Gates have also sought to advance better collaboration. 

Bill Gates has often stressed the need to invest more in research and development for education, which he's said is underfunded in comparison to the money spent elsewhere in the field. Less than 1 percent of  government funding for education goes to research and development.

“So I do think that is something where philanthropy does have a fairly unique role to play, whether it’s in the near-term of evaluation of things that are very clear, or even taking some things like learning agents that are completely unproven,” Gates has said.  

In 2017, Gates announced a new education strategy and the intention to invest about $1.7 billion in grants in the field over the next five years. About a quarter of that, or $425 million, will go to research and development, Gates said in his October remarks.

CZI is more of a newcomer to large-scale education research. It has made no secret of its faith in technology to change the world for the better, and has made personalized learning a centerpiece of its education work. Last year the initiative added about 100 engineers to its payroll. In his 2017 annual letter, Mark Zuckerberg touched on the role he believes technology can play when it comes to scale.

“One challenge we’ve seen in education is that there are many brilliant teachers and school leaders who create new kinds of schools based on new models of learning—but those schools usually only serve hundreds of students, while most children still do not have access to them,” he wrote.

Zuckerberg pointed to CZI’s partnership with Summit Public Schools as proof technology can turbo-charge the spread of a promising model. The Summit Learning Platform is a free online tool CZI developed with the schools to make personalized learning easier for teachers. Personalized learning is an area where CZI is already making big investments in innovations that have the potential to make it easier to tailor teaching to meet individual students’ needs. This is a fast emerging area surrounded by many questions that could be answered with better research. 

While technology has not been front and center in the Gates Foundation's education work, Bill Gates is also excited about the new possibilities here. The country is poised at a point where technological advancements in education have a big impact, Gates has said.

“Broadband access in schools is reaching 90 percent. Students and teachers have access to more affordable and more powerful tools for learning. Educators are seeking each other out and sharing ideas in digital communities. And there are promising developments in neuroscience, cognitive psychology and behavioral economics.”

In recent months, more information has emerged about the Gates Foundation’s plan to fund networks of schools and ideas that originate with local stakeholders within those networks. About 60 percent of funding over the next five years will support work in the networks.  Now it would seem, we’re getting more insight on where the research and development funds will go.

Submissions are due June 8.