School & District Management Opinion

An Interview With LearnZillion Founder Eric Westendorf

By Justin Baeder — September 26, 2012 6 min read
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I’m intrigued by any effort to reduce our perpetual re-invention of the wheel in education, so it’s with great interest that I’ve followed the progress of LearnZillion over the past few months. LearnZillion isn’t a nonprofit; it’s a “social venture” that offers free lessons from great teachers, but it’s not what you might expect.

This summer, LearnZillion hosted a massive “TeachFest,” flying over 100 teachers to Atlanta to record screencasts of their best lessons. Some 1500 lessons are now available for free on LearnZillion’s website. I caught up with company co-founder Eric Westendorf, who is a former school principal, to discuss the platform.

On Performance: What prompted you to start LearnZillion?
Eric Westendorf: A group of teachers and I started creating the prototype for LearnZillion when I was a principal at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. We were trying to solve a problem. We knew what lessons our students needed but we didn’t have enough time to teach each one the right lesson. To create more time, and to share best practices across classrooms, the teachers began to capture their expertise on screencasts. We posted them on a homemade website and coupled them with a short quiz to help us track student progress. Fast forward, and thanks to a lot of help from our partners, we’ve grown LearnZillion into a platform with over 1500+ lessons that any teacher, parent, or student can access.

How is what you’re offering similar to and different from Khan Academy?
Khan Academy is a remarkable site. We’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from Khan because he’s proven that you can use screencasts as an effective medium for teaching and learning. We use that same medium, so we are similar in that sense. We’re different, however, in our focus. Khan is creating a university for the world. He has all sorts of courses that range from art history to computer science and these courses are targeted toward the self-directed learner.

We have a more specific focus. We want to help teachers and parents meet the needs of their students in the K-12 setting. As a result, we focus on math and language arts and every lesson is built from the Common Core State Standards with a focus on research-based pedagogical approaches. We also offer “coach’s commentary” videos that explain why a specific lesson was taught the way it was. These are helpful in the professional development of teachers.

This speaks to another difference. We are creating a community of teachers who are contributing their expertise, so that teachers no longer have to reinvent the wheel when they plan lessons. Our current library of lessons was developed by more than 120 teachers and that number will continue to grow. Through our site, all teachers have access to expertise that’s been developed by highly effective teachers over years of practice.

How has your experience as a principal shaped LearnZillion? What do you think you would have missed without this experience?
I think my experience as principal was essential. I was blessed with a very talented group of teachers at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School. 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. Andrea was exceptional in large part because of the clarity of her lessons. 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, I had just memorized the procedure of flipping the numerator and denominator. After three minutes sitting in on that lesson in Andrea’s class, however, I understood the concepts that make that procedure work.

My time in classroom’s like Andrea’s convinced me that students learn more when their teachers have crafted clear lessons. Forget the bells and whistles. Chants and games are motivating, but at the end of the day, students learn when they’re taught a concept in a clear, crisp way. When it comes to education technology, too often I hear that content is a commodity. There are lots of lessons on YouTube and lots of worksheets floating around on the internet. People often think that in ed-tech it’s just a matter of finding those resources and organizing them. I don’t agree with this hypothesis. All content is not equal and really good content is incredibly valuable. I felt like LearnZilliion could make an important contribution by offering high-quality, pedagogically sound content that was created by teachers for teachers.

“Flipped learning” is getting a lot of press these days. Do you think “flipping” is the wave of the future? What role can/should it play?

My daughter Zula is in second grade at E.L. Haynes this year. When I think about what I want for her by the time she’s in middle school, I do think about flipping. I love the idea of her getting great lessons at home and spending most of her school day collaborating with classmates on extensive and creative projects or even spending some days in internships in the local neighborhood. School can become a community of learners who spend time applying the learning that’s available to them outside of school.

At the same time, I try to keep a healthy skepticism about flipping. As Rick Hess points out, we thought we were going to flip classrooms when textbooks were invented. Students could read the textbooks at home and work on projects in schools. That didn’t play out.

LearnZillion is not meant to be a tool for flipping. It can certainly be used that way, but we’re trying to build something that is more flexible and universal. We want LearnZillion to be an answer to teacher’s “Sunday Night Problem,” when they have to plan high quality lessons for the upcoming week. That problem is universal whether they have technology in their classroom or not. And, for those that do, we want LearnZillion to also be a differentiation tool that allows a teacher to extend his/her reach, to meet the needs of more students, and the to spend more time working with individuals or small groups of students.

How do you hope teachers and students use the lessons you’ve posted?
It’s hard to teach a lesson; it’s harder to teach it well; and it’s really hard to teach it in a way that resonates and sticks with students. Teachers not only have to understand their content, they have to know the best way to teach it. This idea of Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK)—knowledge of the content and the way to make it accessible to students—is at the heart of LearnZillion.

PCK has become even more important with the depth that is now required by the Common Core State Standards. Our goal is to help get teachers started with lessons that were designed from the ground up with PCK in mind. These lessons were built by teachers. They’re not perfect, but they’re a great starting point.

Teachers can use LearnZillion to plan their individual lessons—for an entire week, month or year—using a single platform. In addition, LearnZillion resources can be assigned directly to students for increased differentiation. Principals and district leaders can use LearnZillion for Common Core professional development and parents can use it to help their student at home knowing that their efforts and methods are synchronized with those of their child’s teacher.

The point is, our lessons are pedagogically sound and are tied to the Common Core, but they are very versitle. Our hope is that teachers will use our lessons in a way that works with their practice and that is best suited for their students.

What does it mean that LearnZillion is a “social venture,” and how does this manifest itself in what you do?
We are a company with a social mission. Our mission is to help teachers and parents to meet the needs of every student, not just make a profit. That’s why all of our lessons and materials are free for teachers. We believe that if we create something that teachers love—a tool that saves them time and helps them do what they love to do better—then we will have lots of opportunities to partner with school districts in a healthy way. In this scenario, the end goal of student achievement is the focus but we have created an ecosystem in which all the players can win.

The opinions expressed in On Performance are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.