Interview with Sal Khan

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Toward a One-World Schoolhouse

Interview with Sal Khan

Winter 2015
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By now the story is familiar to most educators. Ten years ago, Salman Khan, with three degrees from MIT and an MBA from Harvard, agreed to help tutor his cousin Nadia, who was struggling in math. Using Yahoo’s Doodle notepad, Khan offered Nadia a sequence of mini lessons designed to scaffold her learning. Over time, other friends and relatives heard about Khan’s success and asked for similar help. He uploaded videos to YouTube for them that ended up drawing many views and comments. At this point, Khan began to see an idea that could revolutionize education. In 2009, he quit his job as a hedge fund analyst and started Khan Academy – a nonprofit educational organization offering free online lessons to anyone interested. With backing from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and, then, Google, Khan Academy has grown from a one-man shop into an international center for learning, with thousands of resources, lessons, and lectures.

It all started with mathematics. But now Khan Academy also offers courses and support in history, health care, medicine, finance, biology, physics, chemistry, astronomy, cosmology, music, American civics, art history, economics, computer science, and more. All of it is available for free, 24/7, to anyone in the world with an Internet connection and, more recently, through Khan Academy Lite, to those without Internet access (see sidebar on page 45). Khan Academy clocks 10 million unique visitors per month now using its program and more than 16 million registered users.

I caught up with Sal Khan this past summer to see how things were progressing and where his academy is heading next.

Ari Pinkus: Where do you think we are in the process of rethinking education for the 21st century? Where do you see your biggest contribution?

Sal Khan: We are still in the very early stages. There is starting to be a broad consensus that the Prussian model of moving students together at a set pace with limited flexibility for true exploration and inquiry is not optimally serving students for the 21st century. With that said, it has been difficult for mainstream education to move away from it for a whole series of historical, psychological, and economic issues.

Khan Academy’s biggest contribution has been to allow learners to take agency over their learning at scale. The idea of standards-aligned software and content that caters to a student’s individual needs is not a new one. What is new is a deep and comprehensive tool like this being used by tens of millions of students and hundreds of thousands of teachers. This scale has validated the need for more student-centered, differentiated curricula and has allowed us to be a voice to help catalyze a change away from the Prussian model.

Every growth area of society is hungry for people who can create, but traditional transcripts and curricula leave little room for true creativity. I believe that the most important part of “the transcript of the future” will be one’s portfolio of creative works.

Pinkus: Describe the key tenets of the learning structure for the one-world schoolhouse you imagine and the outcomes you expect it will bring about.

Khan: I go into much more depth on this in The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined [2012], but the 30,000-foot overview is:

  • Elevate the role of the teacher from lecturer to master mentor-coach-inspirer. I believe the most effective teachers are those who can help change the mindsets of their students. Teachers who can show students how to inquire and learn and create, how to develop a growth mindset and grit and become excited about learning. Teachers whose passion for learning and helping is unstoppably infectious. Lectures can be OK sometimes, but most of the awesomeness of deep learning happens when teachers and students discuss and explore side by side.
  • Offer large blocks of time for students to develop portfolios of projects. These projects could be anything from computer programs to dance performances to an open-ended inquiry into some aspect of science. Every growth area of society is hungry for people who can create, but traditional transcripts and curricula leave little room for true creativity. I believe that the most important part of “the transcript of the future” will be one’s portfolio of creative works.
  • Focus on differentiated, mastery-based learning for core skills. The Prussian model moves students together at a set pace. Even when a student has a learning gap (for example, as evidenced by a “C” in a test on basic exponents), the whole class is pushed ahead (moving on to, say, negative exponents or logarithms) and the student can only build as best she can on this weak foundation. This system ensures that students have Swiss cheese gaps in their knowledge, and it is the primary reason why students struggle in more advanced topics. Algebra is not inherently difficult, but it becomes hard to master if you have gaps in your understanding of exponents or decimals or negative numbers. I believe that learners and teachers can now leverage tools like Khan Academy to allow all students to master concepts at their own pace – which has the added benefit of allowing the students to take agency over their own learning.
  • Think in terms of student agency. The most important skill that anyone can learn is how to learn. Students tend not to learn how to learn when they are force-marched through a curriculum and focus only on what they are told to do next. With mentorship from their teachers and peers, students should be encouraged to set their own goals and learn to pace themselves. They need to learn to pull knowledge their way rather than have it pushed onto them. Asking schools to focus on student agency is not some esoteric idea. I believe that humans naturally have this instinct and drive to learn, but it is all too often suppressed by 12 to 16 years in a factory-model school.
  • Allow for mixed-age cohorts and encourage student responsibility. Over hundreds of thousands of years of pre-human and human existence, we learned in mixed-age environments and, in the more recent millennia at least, gave early adolescents significant responsibilities. This allowed for younger learners to learn from older ones and the older ones, in turn, to feel responsibility for the younger ones. It also allowed older students to contribute to the well-being of their family or tribe. About 200 years ago, we decided to break this pattern by using age as a proxy for development and separated kids by that measure. This factory model made it much easier to deliver information to large groups of students simultaneously, but it also infantilized our youth and caused us to lose one of the most basic and effective human learning interactions – the student-mentor relationship. I believe that what we now call “teenage angst” is really nothing more than a hunger for responsibility and agency in a world where teens have very little. These young people would have a lot less angst – and learn more – if they were allowed to help younger peers and allowed to contribute in some real way to society.

Pinkus: When should students first be exposed to the kind of learning you advocate?

Khan: Most of what I am advocating is already happening in many preschools, especially Montessori schools. Unfortunately, the Prussian model begins to dominate once you get into late elementary school and continues to dominate through middle and high school. To a large degree, this switch came about because, without technology, it was perceived to be much harder to have students explore and master, say, algebra at their own pace than, say, to develop fine motor skills. The whole motivation of Khan Academy is to make tools that can enable the natural exploration and student agency to continue from preschool through college and beyond.

Pinkus: Which subjects are most conducive to self-directed, self-paced learning? Why?

Khan: All subjects. However, I think personalized pacing and mastery are most important when there is a progression of skills for which advanced skills become indecipherable without deep understanding of basic ones. This is most pronounced in mathematics, but is also true in most of the sciences. But as I said, I think all subjects benefit from developing student agency.

Khan Academy Beyond the Internet

Khan Academy’s mission has been to “enable everyone, everywhere to achieve a world-class education.” The problem, however, is that more than 60 percent of people in the world don’t have Internet access. So, at the behest of a former Khan Academy intern, the organization created Khan Academy Lite (KA Lite) as a way to bring academy lessons to those who can’t get online.

Since its start in December 2012, KA Lite has blossomed into a worldwide learning community, supported by a team that formed a separate nonprofit organization, Learning Equality, dedicated to “exploring solutions for distributing and hosting open educational resources via low-bandwidth and offline channels, taking advantage of existing infrastructure or low-cost and low-power hardware solutions.” KA Lite now has thousands of installments in more than 120 countries, including low-income schools in India, orphanages in Cameroon, prisons in the United States, and First Nation communities in Canada.

Educators interested in getting involved with developing the open-source KA Lite project, or helping with implementation, can connect with the group at info@learningequality.org.

Pinkus: How do you respond to people who believe that computer-based instruction is about replacing teachers or lowering the skill level needed to be a teacher?

Khan: I’m the most vocal person out there in support of teachers. Without question, human beings are the most important part of the learning process. I’d prefer my children to be with an amazing teacher-mentor-coach and no other supplies than to be alone with the most state-of-the-art technology. Khan Academy is not about technology for technology’s sake or about efficiency or cost savings. It is about leveraging technology in pursuit of a more human, interactive, creative classroom. And the most important thing in this regard is to free up class time so that students can spend more time with amazing teachers, not less. It also elevates the importance of the teacher from lecturer and grader to master explorer-motivator-advisor-inspirer.

Click here for the full interview.

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