Bottles and Bottlenecks: LearnZillion

Editor’s Note: This guest blog, written by Eric Westendorf, co-founder of LearnZillion, details their work to spotlight and promote high-quality teaching. Before LearnZillion, Eric was most recently a principal and the Chief Academic Officer of E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in Washington, D.C

By Eric Westendorf, LearnZillion

In their book “Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard,” the Heath brothers recommend a strategy called “Bright Spotting.”  Instead of analyzing all the reasons why something isn’t working; find examples where something is working, shine a bright light on it, and build from there.  That’s what we’re working on at LearnZillion, a web app that captures small examples of great teaching through screencasts and shares them with teachers and students.

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 years veteran whose test results indicated that her students were making tremendous gains year after year.   Andrea was not what you would expect.  Movies like “Stand and Deliver” suggest that such teachers are like mini-rock stars; their relentless charisma captivates students and pulls them into their orbit.  Andrea was anti-charismatic.  She shied away from some of the teaching techniques that other teachers used to create high energy and engagement, like chants or claps. 

Andrea’s outstanding quality was clarity.  She had figured out ways to describe and show math concepts that turned something complicated into something simple.  For example, what does it mean to divide a number by a fraction?  Even as an adult, I’d never understood what was going on with division by fractions.  In three minutes, Andrea fixed that problem for me.  I happened to sit in on that lesson. 

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.  This surprised me.  Our test scores were rising and we were getting better and better at understanding where our students stood.  What was going on? 

In today’s climate of teacher accountability, it’s easy to assume that the pressures our teachers face are all external.   Test scores and evaluations weigh on them.  What I came to realize was that the internal pressure was even more powerful.   The teachers at E.L. Haynes wanted to do right by their students.  They had chosen the teaching profession and chosen to work countless hours outside of the normal school day because they believed every student deserved to get the highest quality education; they believed that every student had a right to have his/her needs met.   

The better they got at analyzing the data, the more they understood something heartbreaking.  In spite of their talent and hard work, they couldn’t sufficiently meet the needs of all twenty -five students.  There wasn’t enough time.  They were a bottleneck. 

When you watch an amazing teacher like Andrea Smith teach a lesson like dividing by fractions, it’s easy to think whimsically, “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?

Thanks to funding through the Next Generation Learning Challenges grant, this is exactly what we are working on at LearnZillion.   At a time when it’s common to bemoan the state of our schools, we’re going with the Heath brother’s advice.  We are “bright spotting” great teaching.   We believe that a tool made by and for teachers has the power to break the bottleneck and help teachers meet the needs of all their students.  If you’re not convinced, just ask yourself, “do I really understand what it means to divide by a fraction?”  Then watch this link: http://bit.ly/HP4Sfj

 

For more information about LearnZillion, visit: http://learnzillion.com. You can also follow their work, including their recent “Sundance for Teachers” on their blog at: http://learnzillion.blogspot.com/

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