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CZI and Gates Foundation partner to improve educational outcomes

The foundations are funding accelerated research and development in how to improve students' writing, math and reasoning skills.

Patience Wait
Patience Wait Contributing Writer

Patience Wait is a freelance writer and former journalist, covering the information technology market for industry-leading trade sites. She has won...

Bill and Melinda Gates, the namesakes of the Gates Foundation. (Suzie Katz/Flickr)

As much effort is put into designing new curricula, helping students use educational technology and providing useful analytics for teachers, far less has been done to take our increased understanding of how the human brain learns and turn it into methods and tools for instruction.

To remedy that, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), created by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, is teaming up with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to seek out ideas for promising research and development projects that focus on developments in three areas:

1. Improving writing, including developing requisite habits, skills and strategies

Effective writing skills — including evaluating arguments and evidence, critical and creative thinking, identifying support for a key idea or process, clear and evocative argument-making — are considered essential 21st century skills that employers seek. But the latest NAEP writing assessment found that the overwhelming majority of American students do not meet proficiency standards. From effective teaching of these skills to standardized assessments, there are a number of areas ripe for exploration, the nonprofits believe.

2. Improving mathematical understanding, application and related mindsets

There’s widespread recognition that math proficiency is a necessary prerequisite in today’s world, particularly for students to be able to access and succeed in STEM and computer science careers. And there are many studies documenting how poor performance in mathematics appears at an early age in many demographic groups, and continues to decline through high school.

There are promising curriculum developments, including increased emphasis on one-to-one learning, aimed at reversing this gap. But “computer-assisted approaches … such as intelligent tutoring systems, have yet to provide the levels of improvement that would allow all students to reach proficiency in [math],” and aren’t available, because of cost and ease of use, to many students and teachers.

3. Measuring and improving executive functions

A student’s success in academics and as an adult correlates with the ability to handle multiple ideas at once, think flexibly and control their actions and thoughts. While this is well recognized, there’s little being done to track students’ progress in these areas, or to identify the kinds of interventions that will help them.

The request for information is not looking for proposals, and will not determine funding based on submissions. Instead, “we will use this RFI to refine our perspective on potential future R&D efforts and to help design future funding programs,” the overview states.

Why are the two nonprofits exploring this? “The creation of scalable innovations in education has been elusive. Education research has been stymied by underfunded efforts that skew heavily towards basic research,” the RFI explains. So the aim will be to collapse the distance between basic and applied research, so that practitioners, researchers and developers will be looking to turn R&D findings into practical instructional practices and tools suitable for widespread adoption.

The deadline to submit ideas is Friday, June 8. The partners have set up a dedicated portal for submissions.

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Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Gates Foundation

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