Who would you put on your education Dream Team? The summer Dream Team at LearnZillion had more than 120 teachers working to create educational lessons aligned with the Common Core standard.
We chatted with Eric Westendorf, co-founder of LearnZillion and former public school principal, to see what it takes to make a team of stellar teachers and how his company is making a difference in education.
What is LearnZillion?
LearnZillion is a web-based application that helps teachers and parents meet the educational needs of every student. As schools implement the new Common Core State Standards, LearnZillion offers a practical solution with an attractive price tag—free.
LearnZillion offers nearly 2,000 Common Core lessons created by some of the country’s best public and private school teachers. Each lesson includes a short video lesson, downloadable resources, assessment items, and a coach’s commentary to help with teacher development.
This single collection of high quality resources allows teachers to plan their lessons—for an entire week, month or year—using a single platform. In addition, LearnZillion lessons can be assigned directly to students to remediate or accelerate learning. Principals use LearnZillion for Common Core professional development and parents use LearnZillion to support homework, knowing their efforts will now synchronize with the school’s. LearnZillion lessons will soon be available in Spanish as well.
Tell us about the inspiration behind LearnZillion’s founding.
The idea for LearnZillion emerged from work I was doing with a group of teachers as principal at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School. I was blessed with a very talented group of teachers. One of those teachers was Andrea Smith, an eight year veteran whose test results indicated that her students were making tremendous gains year after year. She had figured out ways to describe and show math concepts that turned something complicated into something simple.
At the same time that I was observing teachers like Andrea, I was struggling with a problem at E.L. Haynes. We had become very adept at using data to understand our student’s strengths and weaknesses. Nevertheless, the better the teachers got at analyzing data, the more anxious they became. They understood something heartbreaking: In spite of their talent and hard work, they couldn’t sufficiently meet the needs of all 25 students. There wasn’t enough time. They were a bottleneck.
When you watch an amazing teacher like Andrea, it’s easy to think, “I wish I could bottle this.” When the bottleneck problem emerged at Haynes, I began to take this aspiration seriously. What if we captured Andrea’s clarity in a simple way and made it accessible to all teachers and students? What if we put those lessons on a platform that made it easy for teachers to assign them to students (like a playlist) and then check for understanding? And what if we invited other teachers to include their clearest lessons so that teachers had a tool for understanding and teaching every new Common Core standard? Could we get the bottle without the bottleneck? This was the question that led to creation of LearnZillion.
How do you develop the lessons on LearnZillion?
The lessons on LearnZillion were developed by our Dream Team—an outstanding group of teachers from around the country who work over the summer to capture their expertise in a scaleable format. The first summer our Dream Team numbered 20 and this past summer it numbered 123. We learned that something really special happens when you bring together talented, passionate teachers.
This past summer we all met in Altanta for a three day event called “TeachFest.” The second evening we gave folks three options – they could go out on the town and explore Atlanta, watch “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” on a large screen with an open bar, or go down to the hotel’s basement and work on their lessons with their coaches. At 11 pm that evening, there were 50 teachers down in the basement, working away on their lessons.
By the end of the summer some of the teachers had worked through eight or nine drafts of their lessons in an effort to make them shine.
What advice would you give to educators new to edtech? What about edtech veterans looking to try something different?
My advice is to focus on the end users—the teachers, parents, and students. One of the reasons that education products have been crappy for so long is that companies have focused on enterprise sales; they pursue big sales with districts. Winning those contracts has very little to do with creating products that work for teachers, parents, or students.
One of the beauties of the freemium business model (starting with a free base product and then layering premium features on top) is that they get the incentives right. We spend all our time watching how our users interact with our free features. That’s the basis for improving the product and, ultimately, figuring out what districts want to pay for.
What’s one need in education that isn’t being met?
My daughter goes to the school where I was principal. When I was still principal at the school I was amazed by how little transparency I had into what she was learning on a daily basis. Even though I’d hired her teacher and chosen the curriculum, I had a hard time knowing how to support her teacher’s efforts at home.
If I felt helpless, how must other parent’s feel? Even remarkable schools like E.L. Haynes Public Charter Schools have yet to figure out how to activate parents so that teachers and parents are truly working in sync to meet the needs of each student. Both parties want to make it happen, it just hasn’t happened yet. We’re hoping that LearnZillion can contribute to a solution by giving parents access to the lessons students are learning each day.
What new technology or trend in education are you most excited about?
I think schools can become more like the extracurriculars that take place after hours. I used to coach a middle school basketball team. We did three things – drills, scrimmages, and games. When we did drills we isolated important skills, making sure that we could dribble or make a left handed layup with our eyes shut. Then, we tried to put these skills together in a low-pressure scrimmage. Finally, there was the game. That was the real test.
Today, schools spend most of their time on drills, rarely moving into the scrimmage or game situations that challenge students to apply their skills in meaningful ways. I think technology will change that in the next five to ten years. Technology will make drills portable; students can learn and practice anywhere—at home, at school, or at the library. School is the only place, however, where they can come together to participate in “scrimmages” and “games”—opportunities to work with peers to tackle interesting problems. Over time, I think the purpose of schools will shift in an exciting way, so too will the role of teacher. Instead of being the keeper and distributer of knowledge; he/she will be a facilitator or conductor of learning.
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