Humility in Edtech, or ‘I Have No Idea How to Teach Your Students’
I've had the privilege of meeting several great edtech entrepreneurs recently and I'd like to share something they've helped me realize.
The best companies in education have a deep-rooted humility that shapes their customer relationships. This humility recognizes that individual teachers are the ones best suited to reach their students. It is, in essence, a recognition of the fact that we will never know the intricacies of each classroom better than the teacher devoting her or his career to those students.
Hubris in Edtech
Unfortunately, the opposite approach seems more common.
There's nothing wrong with painting your company in the best possible light. All companies must and should promote themselves and their distinct advantages. But the hubris I'm talking about is damaging to both the companies and their customers. If edtech were cooking, hubris would be a company that delivered pre-processed frozen foods that were quicker and easier to prepare. Or, worse, some companies are seeking to sell the edtech equivalent of a robotic chef, automating everything.
This willingness to do too much has an unintentional side-effect: it separates students and teachers from the craft of teaching and learning.
What's a Good Edtech Company Like?
Continuing the cooking metaphor above, humble companies can develop true excellence in their product, but their products are designed around the skill of their customers. Kitchenware companies make great tools like knives, stoves, and pans, while grocers stock the best fresh ingredients. These products keep the 'chefs'--teachers and their students--in the kitchen.
Humble companies know their place is to augment and amplify their customers, not replace them. Their products equip teachers and students to better do things in the classroom, rather than consume materials. More and more of the most exciting young companies are focusing on building tools for teacher and student success instead of hawking pre-packaged consumables. This isn’t just a coincidence, it’s also a recipe for success in the industry.
Some Humble Companies
With this new lens I can see that many of the most admired companies are about enhancing the connection between student and teacher. ClassDojo enables positive feedback that kids respond to. Remind lets teachers keep parents and students in the loop with easy messaging. Classkick has the humble goal of replacing paper as a medium of communication in subjects like math. EDPuzzle lets teachers re-record videos and select the parts only most relevant to their students.
Even generic tools like Google Docs that are beloved in classrooms around the world derive their utility primarily from the communication layers they provide on top of their core functionality. Communication tools utilize and strengthen existing relationships that teachers have with their students and others, letting authentic connections happen more easily.
The Deep Benefits of Humility
Something that unites all of these humble companies is that they're deeply loved by their users. When a company is built around teachers and students instead of on top of them, the difference is immediate and palpable. Contrast the horrible LMS doldrums of the 1990s, 2000s, and today with the lightweight, fast, and transparent experience of using a humble company's product. Companies like Remind and ClassDojo that focus on connecting teachers and students are deservedly experiencing staggering growth.
Perhaps the most important benefit of building a humble company is that you don't have to have all the right answers. Instead, you can learn them from your users. When ClassDojo’s co-founders arrived in the U.S. from the U.K. to start the company, they had very little idea of what to build. They talked to over 100 teachers and heard, consistently, that behavior management was their number one problem. ClassDojo's system of positive feedback via an in-app points system was launched a few weeks later and hasn't stopped growing since. In retrospect, their product is a replacement for the poster with 'stars' or other markers that elementary school teachers have been using for years, but they would never have suspected that there was a healthy business in this.
Listening to and learning from your users is important to all businesses, but for edtech especially. That's why the savviest investors in education like ImagineK12, NewSchools Venture Fund, and Mitch Kapor have, from my view point at least, consistently invest in humble companies and spend time with teachers in classrooms to maintain the connections that their most successful companies have.
Humility and Confidence at Trinket
As a company CEO one of my main jobs is to have and inspire confidence. How can I reconcile this duty with my comments on humility? I think the analogy of a chef and a fine knife maker might help illustrate it. Trinket makes the equivalent of a chef's knife for teaching code. We're proud of the quality of our product. But we're very humble in the face of the skills of those who use our product to produce great results. Our greatness comes only from how well we're able to anticipate their needs and serve them.
This sometimes strange blend of confidence and humility is something I see in successful companies throughout the industry. I try to cultivate it in myself and our team at Trinket every day. And I believe it's the attitude that will continue to win in edtech.