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Salman Khan on Classrooms of the Future

By Kim Marshall

The article: “Toward a One World Schoolhouse: Interview with Sal Khan” by Ari Pinkus in Independent School, Winter 2015 (74 2, pp. 42-46);
In this Independent School interview by Ari Pinkus, the founder of Khan Academy describes how it evolved from a few brief math lessons for Nadia, his 12-year-old cousin in New Orleans, to a website with thousands of free online tutorials in history, civics, economics, finance, biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, cosmology, computer science, health care, medicine, music, art history, and more—with 16 million registered users.
Here are some of Mr. Khan’s thoughts on the future of K-12 teaching and learning:
• Mr. Khan is critical of what he calls the “Prussian model” of moving classes through the curriculum in lockstep. When a student gets a C on a mathematics test and the class moves on, that student has some missing pieces for the next step in the curriculum, and over a period of years, those “Swiss cheese” holes accumulate, making success extremely challenging. “Algebra is not inherently difficult,” says Mr. Khan, “but it becomes hard to master if you have gaps in your understanding of exponents or decimals or negative numbers.”
• Mr. Khan believes that online lessons are particularly important in highly sequential subjects like mathematics and science, where mastery of building blocks is essential to higher-level challenges—but his online tutorials in other subjects have also been warmly received.
• Mr. Khan’s brief lessons encourage students to master curriculum building blocks at their own pace and “take agency” for their learning. “The most important skill that anyone can learn is how to learn,” he says. “Students tend not to learn how to learn when they are forced-marched through a curriculum and focus only on what they are told to do next.” He envisions classrooms where students set their own learning goals, pace themselves, draw on help from peers and adults, and “pull knowledge their way rather than having it pushed onto them.”
• “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,” says Mr. Khan. He believes adolescents will be much happier and more engaged if they are given opportunities to tutor and mentor younger students and contribute to society in meaningful ways.
• One of the most important outcomes of using online tutorials is to “Elevate the role of the teacher from lecturer to master mentor-coach-inspirer,” he says. “Lectures can be OK sometimes, but most of the awesomeness of deep learning happens when teachers and students discuss and explore side by side.” With a lot of basic curriculum content handled in online tutorials, teachers are liberated to work more closely and informally with students as they inquire, explore, cooperate, debate, and grow as learners.
• Mr. Khan believes schools should open large blocks of time in the schedule and get students deeply engaged in projects that are then developed into personal portfolios. These might be open-ended science inquiries, computer programs, or dance performances.
• Preparation for college success is one of the most social-class-determined areas of education, says Mr. Khan, with children of affluent and educated families having significant advantages. His partnership with the College Board aims to level the playing field by offering free online preparation for post-secondary learning.
How is Nadia doing now? Ten years ago, says Mr. Khan, she was on her way into the slower mathematics track and believed she was inherently not good at mathematics. “Three years later, she was one of the youngest students in New Orleans to be taking calculus,” he says.
“This was the first example of many that made me believe that a fixed mindset toward learning, coupled with accumulated gaps in foundations (as opposed to some kind of innate lack of ability), was the key reason why most students struggled in mathematics.”
Nadia recently graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and is thinking about going to medical school.
Summary reprinted from Marshall Memo 568, 5 January 2015.

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