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Salman Khan on Effective Hybrid Instruction

By Kim Marshall

The article: “Remote Learning Is Here to Stay – Can We Make It Better? An Interview with Sal Khan, Founder of Khan Academy” by Nilay Paten and Sophie Erickson in The Verge, November 17, 2020; Patel can be reached at [email protected].

In this interview in The Verge, Nilay Patel and Sophie Erickson speak with Salman Khan, the founder and chief content provider of Khan Academy. This free online learning platform, running on a philanthropy-provided budget similar to that of a U.S. high school, is used by almost 100 million students a year in more than 190 countries and 46 languages. Predictably, the traffic for its lessons has increased this year as the demand for online content skyrocketed. Here are some excerpts from the interview.

Khan says his short online video lessons are “suboptimal” – suitable for practice, feedback, and learning on students’ own time as a supplement in-person instruction. “I make it very clear,” he says, “if I had to pick between an amazing teacher or amazing technology for myself or my own kids or anyone’s kids, I’d pick the amazing teacher, in person, any day.” Once the pandemic hit, schools had to scramble, and many are doing their best – but at best it’s 80-90 percent of regular instruction.

“When you and I were in school,” says Khan, “it was kind of like, ‘Teacher, what do I do next? All right. Now, what do I do? Is that going to be on the test?’… which is a very passive mentality. You’re really not taking ownership. You’re letting stuff happen to you.” This doesn’t prepare students for a job and other realms of life (like marriage) where they’re going to have to figure things out for themselves. Khan founded a school (which his three children attend) shaped by a philosophy of student agency, with students at the center of their own learning and the curriculum not bounded by time or space. In the Khan Lab School, students decide on things they passionately want to learn and work with teachers to set goals and timelines.

“I am a capitalist at heart,” says Khan. “I believe the free market innovates. It allocates resources effectively, as long as there aren’t distortions in it.” But he says there are two sectors where this doesn’t work as well: health care and education. That’s where government and the not-for-profit sector can achieve the mission of first-class health care and education for all – and in schools, make sure all students have access to devices and the Internet.

Asked about his lessons on U.S. history, Khan says he learned a lot from the 1619 Project and is aware of the danger in trying to provide “balance” when one side is simply not true. He wants Khan lessons to cover standards, add material that might not be covered by standards, and provide an honest account of the good and the bad in history. “You can serve the truth,” he says, “ but that doesn’t mean that you have to not still take pride in aspects of your country’s history. There should be shame and guilt in some aspects, but there should be pride in others.” He believes online humanities lessons can bring students up to speed on the “fact base” and open up synchronous classes (remote or in-person) to robust discussion and interaction.

Khan says that 100-300-student college classes are inherently dehumanizing; at the end of a semester, you might know only 20-30 people. But electronic polling can provide instant data, allowing the instructor to orchestrate breakout rooms that facilitate powerful small-group interactions, allowing students to form relationships with a much broader segment of a large class. “And we’re just learning,” he says. “Everyone’s still getting their sea legs on this. Who knows, there might be a world where, classrooms of the future, you’re there in person, but then you’re actually hybrid while you’re there in person because it might even be too much time to walk across the other side of the lecture hall. You go into your laptop and you start talking, but then you get the benefit when you leave, you met each other, and then when you leave the lecture hall, you’re like, ‘Hey, that was a really cool point, you want to go grab lunch?’ Stuff like that.”

On content mastery and credentialing, Khan believes performance tasks are the ultimate test of learning: “You film yourself and then a peer community validates that, yeah, you ran that lab or you wrote that piece of code the way you said you would, and you would be able to explain it and it’s peer-reviewed. And then the ultimate performance task is, can you teach it?... If you’re a highly rated tutor of calculus, you know your calculus, more than any test score could ever prove. And not only do you know that, but you can communicate, you have empathy; that’s the kid I want to hire.”

“Those of us who have been fortunate to go to a school that has a quad and people are throwing Frisbees, that’s not the norm for most kids,” says Khan. “Most kids are going to commuter college. They ideally would be able to support their families in some way, shape, or form. They’re not having this kind of high-minded debate about philosophy, and [the] ivy-covered dorm rooms type of thing. They’re just trying to get through their college algebra so they can get their associate’s degree and hopefully get a job. And so, I think there need to be new pathways.”

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