Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s Head of Education on Supporting the Well-Being of Students, Educators

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With schools reopening and the challenges children face remain the same, philanthropy in education plays an important role in how schools innovate and address many of these issues.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) has been one of the top education charities for several years now, but it does not operate as a traditional foundation. The focus is not only on granting subsidies, but also on active building.

Like other charities, CZI also has program staff who help provide grants. These scholarships help build a body of research on student learning and development. CZI is also working to transform education systems itself by connecting organizations and community leaders. However, unlike other philanthropists, CZI also has a team of in-house engineers, learning scientists, and product developers who help build tools and services for educators and students.

Given this unique position in the education ecosystem, I was curious how CZI shapes the challenges of the present moment – and what they believe is the most important support that students and teachers need right now.

“Our education system is really structured and designed and built to be kind of one-size-fits-all,” Sandra Liu Huang, chief of education and vice president of product at CZI since 2018, recently told me. “But in recent years I think we’ve seen very clearly that students are not just a brain that comes in, where they download content and that’s all, but students develop adults and people.”

According to Huang, student wellbeing is one area where the role of philanthropy can currently have the greatest positive impact. Student well-being enables academic learning and achievement and allows students to thrive as adults. Focusing on these connections is essential “because equipping students in this way will strengthen the fabric of our country for years and generations to come.”

For students to perform well during their learning journey, they need to feel safe, confident and involved, Huang said. “Our vision and hope is that the school system can really recognize what students need as they think about how to improve learning.”

To bring this vision to life, CZI is trying to use new tools and new interdisciplinary ways of thinking, Huang told me. Her team focuses on taking what they know from research about how students learn and develop, as well as the best conditions conducive to learning, and then apply that to “make it really practical and useful for teachers.”

This element of making new classroom innovations teacher-friendly is essential to CZI, Huang said, “because teachers deserve better tools to make this really doable and possible. What conditions must be met to help school leaders think about supporting teachers in this as the goal of education? Not just transferring knowledge, but really equipping students holistically, reflecting on their learning process and putting what we know from learning science into classroom practice.”

That focus on teachers as the place of change, Huang said, is supported by what they’ve seen in recent years. “[We] have seen teachers as great sources of innovation because they had no choice but to innovate,” said Huang. “I think we’ve seen that innovation is possible, and teachers really see the need to think about student well-being as part of their learning package.”

Another important part of CZI’s work is leveraging its expertise in tool making, more specifically by thinking about how software and product development can be philanthropic tools, which is a relatively unique perspective.

“[CZI is] think about how we can turn what we know about those practices that can work in the classroom into actionable, useful practical products that can help teachers implement some of these research-based practices in their day-to-day teaching and in their day-to-day interactions with students,” Huang said.

This is one of the big reasons that CZI was the first to invest in building the Summit Learning platform. They then built an app called “Along,” which “really establishes a connection, an essential part of mentorship, and aims to make it an easier practice for teachers to do effectively. We bring research-backed, students tested questions and put them within the reach of educators within a product experience that welcomes students,” said Huang. “We are very excited to continue to work and iterate on this product because we believe that the teacher-student connection is just one essential piece of the puzzle.”

Another program in which CZI has invested heavily is an outside organization in Madison, Wisc. called “Healthy Minds Innovations.” The group developed the Healthy Minds app “that really thinks about teacher well-being, and really helps teachers go through podcasts and classes to think about how they grow in their awareness, connection, insight and purpose,” said huang.

Finally, CZI also collaborates with communities in researching and applying innovation. For example, they’ve supported the Black Teacher Collaborative, the Character Lab, and Kingmakers of Oakland to get feedback from teachers and students about what works and what resonates, making it easier for both students and educators. Kingmakers, for example, ‘really works very deeply with their local community to think about how we can support black youth? How do we understand from the community and the caregivers and the families what they mean when they want their students to be leaders and develop well. So that’s an example of going local,” Huang said.

The sheer breadth and inclusiveness of CZI’s philanthropy is striking, but this integrated process of building across the educational spectrum may be just what it takes to address a range of challenges so interdependent and deep in nature.