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Books, Blogs, Ideas: Salman Kahn

Accidental teacher Salman Khan on radically reinventing our schools. Plus: top education blogs.

Accidental teacher Salman Khan has been praised and pilloried for bringing free educational videos to the masses, called a messiah and a false prophet. He began Khan Academy, “working out of a closet,” posting lo-fi math-tutoring videos on YouTube. Now he has 6 million users a month. In his new book, The One World Schoolhouse, he calls for a radical reconsideration of our nation’s schools. He imagines a tech-centric classroom that mixes kids of all ages who engage in self-paced learning.  

Q What are the realities of trying to implement a self-paced classroom model in large public districts?
A At Summit San Jose in California, many of the students were coming from underserved populations, the facilities were like trailers, and yet they’re on the bleeding edge of this [one-to-one for incoming ninth graders; Khan Academy integrated into the curriculum]. They’ve gone full tilt, kids learning at their own pace, doing a lot of the things I talk about. So I think it can be done anywhere. It does require a very dramatic change in how you view a classroom and in how you view the primary role of the teacher. People worry that the teacher is going to turn into something less important, a cafeteria monitor, but it’s the exact opposite. In a room with 200 kids and seven teachers, one student may be doing trigonometry, another might be doing fractions. These teachers have to be highly skilled.

Q What feedback have you gotten from educators and others?
A People might say, “Khan Academy is not a silver bullet.” I agree. We’re at the very early stages of what we want to be. I think we get that criticism because of favorable press headlines like “The Future of Education” or “Bill Gates’s Favorite Teacher.” Then there are the straw-man arguments, where they’re looking for errors in our videos. A $1,000 reward was put out to find errors; I don’t think this has ever happened to any other teacher on the planet. We do have mistakes, and I’m trying to fix them. We don’t ignore any criticism, but we try to see where it’s coming from.

Q Does the sense of urgency about education present a great opportunity for our educational model to evolve?
A There’s definitely an energy around it; unfortunately, a lot of it is negative. But what’s new is that the barriers to embracing technology have gotten low enough. KA is being used in 20,000 classrooms in some way. We have more than 6 million users every month. Teachers want their students to learn, so if you can provide tools that are relatively easy for them to adopt, they’re going to do it.

Q What about lack of access to technology?
A We’re hoping a case is being made that technology can fundamentally transform education. If it can, the costs involved are not a lot relative to the ability to move the dial of student learning. Right now you can get a Chromebook for $300, it can easily last three years, and it can be shared by four or five students. That’s $25 per student per year. And in five, 10 years you’re not going to need textbooks, so that’s going to free up money. But what about technology at home? Even $25 can be too much for some people, and it’s an even bigger problem in the developing world. But these costs are getting dramatically cheaper every year. So I’m optimistic about it.

Q What’s your next step? Have you thought about Khan Academy as a group of schools in its own right?
A We’ve thought about it, but  we’re still learning so much from schools about what works and what doesn’t that we have a good ways to go. Since we are a Silicon Valley company, a long time for us is a year or two years. We’re a year or two away from being able to deeply support a class—we’re already doing it, but for a school such as Summit, there’s a lot more we can do to make the assessment even deeper.  

Q If this book accomplishes one thing, what do you hope that will be?
A I hope on a meta-level readers will recognize that many of the institutions we assume are God-given just aren’t. We assume our institutions have to work one way even if that way doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. So that’s the number-one thing I hope the book accomplishes, for people to take a step back and say, “Let’s rethink this from scratch,” and ask, “What is it we’re trying to do and what is the healthiest way to actually do it?”

****

A New Paradigm

“What if …” runs through Khan’s manifesto for a brave new world of education. He challenges us to reimagine a creaky, often failing system that we think of as immutable, and asks us to consider a model that might just work better.

He envisions classrooms where students are astronomically more engaged as they take charge of their own learning. “Knowledge is continuous; ideas flow,” says Khan, and he insists we need to get away from the balkanization of subjects. “Denied the opportunity to make even the most basic decisions … students stop short of full commitment.”

Khan doesn’t deny the enormity of the challenge, and he doesn’t suggest that his much-touted academy is a silver bullet. But he does urge us to start questioning the current system’s structure and customs.

What if … education were freed from our assumptions?

—Winter 2013—

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