BetterLesson Brings Lean Startup Culture to Professional Development

BetterLesson Brings Lean Startup Culture to Professional Development


Build. Measure. Learn. Iterate. Broken down into these four steps, the “Lean Startup” method that’s become a mantra for startups is something teachers are also familiar with. They design lessons, measure impact, learn from mistakes and change their approach for the next class.

The difference between startups and teachers, however, is that teachers usually go through this process alone and with very little time to methodically test and measure different parts of their practice.

But what if teachers had the time and space to behave more like startup executives? That’s what BetterLesson hopes to offer with its new professional development tool, TeachCycle.

TeachCycle is equal parts tool, service and process. It provides a virtual coach to guide a professional learning community of educators through a shared process of structured experimentation: teach, measure, learn.

This isn’t the company’s first foray into creating products for teachers. Founded in 2008, BetterLesson, based in Cambridge, currently offers a platform where teachers can access lesson plans and classroom resources created by Master Teachers.

While BetterLesson cofounders Alex Grodd (CEO) and Erin Osborn (COO) are proud of the 10,000 resources available from Master Teachers on BetterLesson, he admits “it was not sufficient to change practice. We wanted teachers to use the resources but as a part of a continuous cycle of improvement.” At the same time, “We were thinking how can we bring the iterative Lean Startup culture to professional development,” he says.

Here’s what Grodd has in mind. Teachers form a team or professional learning community (PLC). The team starts by choosing a “teaching challenge” that can include both academic and social-emotional objectives, such as improving close reading strategies, citing evidence, developing a growth mindset or improving peer-to-peer communication.

Every week the team checks in with a virtual coach who works at BetterLesson and has a background in instructional coaching. Coaches help teams select a teaching challenge and develop strategies to measure the goals they want to accomplish, and each teacher goes back into his or her classroom to gather data on how that objective currently is being met or unmet.

The team compares baseline data and each teacher determines the kind of teaching strategy they’d like to implement to improve outcomes. This is where the thousands of Master Teacher lessons on the BetterLesson’s main site comes into play. A list of lesson plans or activities is generated from the BetterLesson library that directly relate to each teaching challenge. Teachers each choose a lesson or activity to implement from this list.

Once the teacher implements his or her chosen strategies, the team meets back with the TeachCycle coach to present evidence, such as videos or student work, to talk through and examine the impact of the intervention. The team collectively examines how the baseline data has changed. Teachers can choose to either implement a different strategy or move onto a new learning challenge.

While the steps can presumably be adopted by teachers on their own, Grodd insists the key to its success is a guide who can curate resources, make personalized recommendations and hold teachers accountable.

“There’s total agreement that bottom-up, teacher-led, continuous improvement is what drives the needle, but it’s a unicorn,” says Grodd. For a virtual coach that can lead this process and curated content to guide teachers along, TeachCycle is charging $490 per teacher per semester. The company plans to improve its product in the near future with a web and mobile tool that supports teachers to capture videos and record student work.

TeachCycle is funded thanks to $1.8 million in bridge funding from Scott Cook, co-founder of Intuit, and his wife Signe Ostby. BetterLesson has piloted the tool in 30 different schools since Fall 2014.

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