Dare to define your company’s core beliefs

Spend time on your core to keep your company on course

Like many great ideas, LearnZillion’s core beliefs were developed backwards.

Our initial goal at our most recent annual retreat was to define our vision. Why do we exist?

LearnZillion is a young company in constant overdrive — eager to forge ahead and produce materials that improve teaching and learning. But a clear and purposeful ‘why’ for any organization is like the keel of a boat: regardless of how fast it goes or the forces pushing against it, the boat will continue to move forward on its path. And yet without a keel, a boat will slip and slide in response to shifting currents, taking it off course.

So why does LearnZillion exist? Inspired by Simon Sinek’s now-famous TEDTalk, time was set aside at this past fall’s company retreat for the entire team to delve into the golden circle of what, how, and why we do what we do. Ideas for the what and how flowed quickly. But every time we considered the ‘why,’ healthy debate ensued.

Many voices searched for the right words, picking apart the implications of words like “good” and “deserves,” but we were unable to reach consensus.

It was like trying to write good poetry — painful and mostly unproductive. (And I say this as a former English teacher.)

But then, during a long pause in the conversation, one staffer spoke up and wisely questioned the entire process.

We couldn’t get to the what, how, and why without dialing back to discuss what the company believes.

We opened this task up to the entire team, and interested staffers signed up to be a part of a group that would over the next two months work to define these core beliefs.

Meeting weekly, discussion was kept purposefully unstructured, but a few themes rose to the top:

  • What are LearnZillion’s core beliefs?
  • What must be on the list and what shouldn’t be?
  • What’s missing?

The biggest hurdle: getting each person to shift their thinking away from what we thought was possible for teaching and learning in K-12 education to what we all believed the future should be.

Google Docs became our canvas, and people from across the company (and across time zones) jumped in to offer comments. Most importantly, no topic was off-limits: group members were free to question every held company belief, down to the organization itself.

And so it went for a few weeks: reflect, discuss, revise, repeat.

The questions we challenged each other with were tough:

  • What do we believe teachers and students need in order to learn?
  • What responsibility does a teacher have to his or her effectiveness?
  • Who has the power to make certain changes?
  • Do we believe LearnZillion should play a role in challenging that power structure?
  • What is the optimal relationship between a teacher or student and technology?
  • How do other adults in children’s lives impact their ability to learn?

And on and on. Slowly and thoughtfully a collection of core beliefs took shape. At some point, we realized a larger idea was emerging — something the core beliefs were all driving at. So we added a primary belief to indicate how the core beliefs related to each other:

Teachers can meet all the learning needs of all their students.

It’s bold. Maybe even haughty, but it feels so right.

The core beliefs that form our vision were presented to and agreed upon by the entire company, and now LearnZillion can play its part in that vision. Our keel is deeply set, so now, regardless of the forces we weather, our path is ahead.

LearnZillion’s Core Beliefs
LearnZillion believes teachers can meet the learning needs of every student.
- Students’ circumstances should not limit their learning opportunities
- Students need to feel cared for, believed in, and a sense of belonging among their peers and adults
- Teaching that focuses on solid student understanding ensures successful student performance
- Students learn most through productive struggle toward a worthwhile goal
-Technology cannot replace teachers, but can expand their effectiveness and generate opportunities for learning.
-Teaching improves with easy access to meaningful materials and time to dive deeply into content
-Professional collaboration and community are vital to a teacher’s success
-School and district leaders empower teachers to learn and grow

Lisa Bernstein is the Literacy Instructional Expert at LearnZillion. If she hadn’t been a teacher, she’d have been a race car driver. Vroom!