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Q&A: Salman Khan on the Future of Education (Part II)

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Yesterday, part I of my conversation with Salman Khan, the founder of Khan Academy and author of the new book One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined went up. Today, our conversation continues:

You make an argument for a one-room schoolhouse idea that includes up to 100 students together with perhaps four to five teachers, where "active" and "owned" learning can happen. How do you see this concept differing—or meshing with—the type of learning that already goes on in various private schools around the world (such as Montessori, Waldorf, Summerhill in the U.K., and the Vittra schools in Sweden, to name a few) or public schools that rotate students to different teachers during the day within the United States?

Sal Khan: I think all of these models were designed with the same spirit that I articulate in the book. Unfortunately, they have not gone mainstream for a variety of reasons. (Montessori is relatively mainstream for early schooling, but not for high school and beyond.) We are, in fact, working with a Montessori school to use Khan Academy, and we feel like kindred spirits. My hope is that this book pushes this type of model into the broader dialogue and shows that the trade-off between creativity and academic rigor is an artificial one.
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The theme of games kept popping up in the book. Do you have any plans to extrapolate on the few games that you described for a future project or to develop a range of games that teachers and students can use?

Khan: Yes. That is the whole point of Khan Academy prototyping games in our summer camps. We want to document them and share them with anyone who might find it useful. We also want to build tools on Khan Academy that facilitate games and project-based learning. Our recently launched computer science platform was designed with this in mind. We also hope to add many, many more virtual explorations, games, and labs to the site over time.

You've given really broad ideas for the future of education in your book: Which do you think are the most attainable in the short term? What are the next concrete steps that need to occur for these ideas to become reality?

Khan: I think there is already a lot of movement in the direction articulated in the book, but there is still a long way to go. We have already seen schools serving a diverse set of students push the envelope in terms of mixed-age classrooms, true self-paced learning, and exploration-based class time despite the fact that the tools necessary to do so are at a very early stage. An even larger group of teachers want to move in this direction, but need more mature tools to do so. We hope that as the Khan Academy matures, it will be able to address more and more of the needs of teachers who desire to move in this direction. My hope is that as more teachers, parents, and students see examples of everyone being empowered through these more-flexible models, there will be more and more grassroots adoption by those who believe it is appropriate for their specific context.

And finally: You've been criticized for emphasizing procedure over concepts in your videos, as well as for the fact that your classroom experience is limited and yet you want to completely redesign education. What is your response?

Khan: I articulated in 2007 that my main motivation for Khan Academy was to emphasize conceptual understanding over procedures and formulas—this is, in fact, what my cousins were missing when I started tutoring them. It was also my experience that those who thrived in mathematics, computer science, or finance—the three fields that are the basis of my education and pre-Khan Academy experience—are those who truly understood mathematics intuitively. The main point of feedback we get from students everyday is that they are grateful that we focus so much on the "why"—much more so than most traditional course materials. And one shouldn't take my word for it, they should ask users who have spent significant time on the site. They should explore our library of videos (and even search our site for "why" or "intuition" or "conceptual"). The only justification I can imagine for the viewpoint that we emphasize procedural understanding could come from the fact that we do have many example problems on the site (most of which were designed and vetted by education experts at the Monterey Institute for Technology and Education), but these are just a subset of the 3000-plus videos (and even these tend to focus much more on reasoning than formulas). There are few topics in mathematics or science where there aren't several Khan Academy videos that go in depth into the intuition and conceptual understanding of the domain.

Yes, my classroom experience is limited. That is why we have brought so many former and current teachers onto the Khan Academy staff (currently five full-time teachers and two consultants). That is why we have an entire team dedicated to interfacing with the thousands of teachers using Khan Academy. That is why we are so focused on working with cognitive researchers. I am also very clear in the book that almost every idea I bring up is not a new one; many were introduced by professional teachers and validated by education researchers decades ago. I see my role as bringing much of this knowledge back to the forefront, vetting it alongside teachers, and using the tools that are now at our disposal to have them get more traction and reach than ever before.

Khan has also written a Commentary for the upcoming issue of Education Week.

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