Advancing Literacy

Upgrading an ancient experience to bring boundless benefits to millions of people. 

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Matt Bardin Zinc Learning Labs.pngOne of the founding directors of Teach for America, Matt Bardin (pictured) is as dedicated to literacy as they come. A graduate of Princeton, Matt has been teaching and tutoring in New York City since 1987. He taught high school and middle school in the New York City public schools in the early 1990s and went on to found Veritas Tutors (now Zinc Educational Services) in 2001. He was a co-founder in 2008 of High Five Labs, a company that produced the Smart Vocab apps, a popular sharable to-do list for couples called HoneyDo, and Mario Batali Cooks! for celebrity chef Mario Batali.

There are only two kinds of people in the world: smart people and smart people who read.

Matt is the author of Zen and the Art of The SAT, a popular SAT prep book. Why did he found Zinc Learning Labs? “To make the key element of an elite education – advanced literacy – widely available,” says Matt. Just what he means by that, and why it’s so vital, Matt further explains in our lively little discussion here.

What are your thoughts on the state of education these days?

We’re in both an exciting and scary time.

What makes you say that?

On the one hand, technology offers so many ways to improve learning. On the other, as automation increasingly eliminates algorithmic jobs, education needs to accomplish so much more. As state and national standards push educators to achieve more, we need new mechanisms to support such efforts. Also, everything we do in edtech has to compete with the daunting gravity of regular tech – the dopamine drip of memes, snaps and live streams that keep our kids glued to their phones like herds chewing grasses on the savannahs.

What do you believe technology’s role in education should be?

Right now technology needs to provide differentiation along with a meaningful sense of accomplishment for every child. One of the elephants in our educational room is development – students need the right stimulus to learn what they’re ready to absorb. We need to meet their abilities as they develop. Technology needs to help. I’d also like to see edtech that shapes culture in positive ways.

Why did you become a teacher and choose to work in education?

I don’t know. It’s probably genetic. Neither of my parents taught, but three of my four grandparents did. I’ve tried half-heartedly to get away from education a few times. No luck. It’s what I’m born to do.

Everything we do in edtech has to compete with the daunting gravity of regular tech – the dopamine drip of memes, snaps and live streams that keep our kids glued to their phones like herds chewing grasses on the savannahs.

Why did you decide to found Zinc Learning Labs and build the Zinc Reading Labs tools?

I had been a tutor for many years when one of my students suggested I build an app. I was fortunate to partner with a great technologist, Kiran Bellubbi. He kept insisting that we use my expertise as an educator, but after building the SmartVocab apps, we drifted toward lower hanging fruit. We built a sharable to do list and a successful cooking app for celebrity chef Mario Batali. I always knew, however, that what I really cared about was learning and that advanced literacy formed the backbone of almost any meaningful education. As soon as I had the resources, I started building ZLL.

What is your unique competitive advantage?

I have tutored hundreds of students in the world’s most competitive test prep market. To succeed, I’ve had to figure out how to change the academic circumstances of many different kinds of students – from high achievers who just make a few “careless” errors to struggling students who lack basic skills. As the owner of a successful tutoring company, I’ve also trained hundreds of tutors and learned even more from their experiences. I have put together a talented, committed team, and, most importantly, I have a profound need to scale what I’ve learned and will devote the long-term effort required to solve this challenging problem.

What drives you to stay persistent and motivated in the face of edtech start-up struggles?

Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons most people miss the crucial importance of advanced literacy, but experience has taught me that no other ability remotely compares in significance. There are only two kinds of people in the world: smart people and smart people who read. Not only do the latter category enjoy richer, fuller lives, but soon there will be almost no work for the former category. The opportunity to create a solution feels enormously rewarding and well worth the risk and the obstacles.

How do you see Zinc impacting the world?

I expect Zinc to make advanced literacy accessible to millions of people. In the age of video and 3D imaging, reading may seem retrograde, but Zinc will upgrade this ancient experience to bring its boundless benefits to millions of people.

Where do you see the company in a decade from now?

Zinc will become a global brand providing inexpensive access to great educational experiences. We will create a better experience of technology – one that expands rather than diminishes people’s intellectual engagement and ability.

What advice would you give to an entrepreneur thinking about starting an edtech company? 

My partner, Kiran, was right. You’re going to work so hard, you’d better choose something you really know and care about. Then find a way to attract great people. You need talent and experience in all key positions.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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