New Frontier: A Funder Invests to Connect Teachers to the Best Research on Brain Science and Learning

PHoto: DGLimages/shutterstock

PHoto: DGLimages/shutterstock

The latest grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative leans heavily into the funder’s unabashed belief in the power of technology to improve education and its emerging role as an unexpected champion of K-12 teachers.

CZI is putting up $1 million to expand the reach of Neuroteach Global, an online professional development platform that uses research-backed strategies in mind, brain and education strategies.

Researchers have made big strides in understanding the brain and how kids learn, findings which have major implications for teaching. But getting the new knowledge into classrooms has been difficult, with professional development for teachers rarely tapping into the best research-backed strategies.

CZI isn’t the only funder working to get the latest research into teachers’ hands. The James S. McDonnell Foundation, a funder best known for supporting research on the brain, recently put up big money to study how teachers learn and change. The funder invested nearly $25 million in the project after realizing much of what the foundation had discovered about learning and the brain rarely made it into classrooms. The solution, McDonnell decided, was to figure out how to teach teachers more effectively.

Getting back to CZI, the funder has recently emerged as a big supporter of teachers. In the last year, CZI has made several grants to ensure teachers get the professional training and social and emotional support they need as educators.

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

The funder is also a big backer of education technology. CZI has made no secret of its belief that technology can tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges. Education is no exception. It’s invested huge resources in the Summit Learning Platform, a free online platform that makes it easier for teachers to bring personalized learning into the classroom.

Neuroteach Global is a tech-based strategy to get teachers the professional development support they need. The app helps teachers access and translate the most up-to-date research on the brain, cognition and education, so that they can incorporate it into their classrooms. The app itself applies what researchers have found are the most effective ways to teach and learn, to make sure teachers absorb and remember the information in the long term.

The program is based on training available to teachers at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Maryland through the school’s Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning. If the school sounds familiar, it’s likely because Episcopal made headlines a few years ago when President Trump’s youngest son Barron enrolled.

With the launch of Neuroteach Global, teachers outside the elite private school can access the same preparation and training. The $1 million from CZI and an additional $625,000 from the Omidyar Group will allow the platform to reach an additional 1,500 teachers. Right now, the platform is running a pilot program, also funded by CZI, that includes 800 teachers, which will wrap up in December. The expanded run will include teachers from public school districts in Colorado and Maryland and a state agency that works with schools in Iowa.

The Summit Learning Platform speaks to the potential an app like Neurotech Global gains by teaming up with CZI.  The platform started started out as a partnership between Facebook and Summit Public Schools, a charter school provider. CZI took over its development, and the platform is now used by 3,800 teachers in more than 380 schools. But the spread of Summit has not always gone smoothly, facing pushback in some communities, including in Connecticut, from parents who raised privacy concerns and students who didn’t like it.

With funds to expand to 1,500 teachers, Neuroteach Global has found a powerful ally in CZI. But this support also comes with downsides, given the organization’s links to Facebook and its co-founder, at a moment when the tech giant is mired in controversy around its privacy policies and other issues.