Salman Khan and The One World Schoolhouse

When I’m honest (rather than pretending to be courageous and ‘independent’), I will admit that I love discovering people who think and write along the same lines as I do (preferably more cleverly and clearly).  I find it comforting knowing that the future of a good idea isn’t wholly dependent on me for its success.

I spent much of last weekend devouring the book that I would have loved to have written, ‘The One World Schoolhouse’. Its author, Salman Khan, clearly captured my thoughts on the education system today, and what it could become. It was passionate as well as pragmatic, showing genuine concern for the people involved (children and adults, those that learn, those that teach, and even those whose worlds are improved by educated creativity).

The essence of Khan’s ideas (though he humbly acknowledges that he didn’t invent most of them, nor are they new) is that the education system most people experience was not designed for the world today, let alone tomorrow, which requires creative, self-motivated learners that can apply their knowledge and skills in new ways.

Just a few of the  many examples he offered include:

  • Students should learn concepts independently (using technology or books), so that teacher time can more valuably be used addressing difficulties or helping students apply the concepts.  
  • Concepts should be taught taking advantage of their connections. The idea that subjects like mathematics and physics are separate doesn’t make sense, let alone that probability and statistics can be taught in isolation.  Content taught in view of its wider context is more likely to be remembered on a longer term basis.
  • Students should be allowed to learn at different paces, reflecting their own passions and abilities.  Those that master concepts more quickly should be encouraged to help others learn.
  • Children are naturally motivated learners.  It makes no sense to instil a one-size-fits-all, rote-learning approach that kills engagement in most students, and then insist on more discipline and assessment and less student autonomy because the children aren’t motivated.

The suggestions Khan makes aren’t new, and he mentions some innovative teachers and schools that have been using these methods to some extent for a while.  A few of his suggestions had me remembering how I had benefitted from some experience or other in my schooling.  But it is good to have them shared more widely, particularly if it will help people resist the temptation to demand more discipline, standardisation and homework, ignoring their costs in terms of engagement and creativity.

The book also has excellent proposals for university education and continuing education (for example in the workplace), so I’d recommend it even if you’re less interested in the school system.

Khan isn’t just an eloquent thinker and writer, indeed his ideas in the book are told around the story of his real world contribution: Khan Academy (http://www.khanacademy.org/).  This site now has 4,000 video lectures, but more importantly, a framework around them.  Students can see how the topics are connected, can be tested to ensure mastery, and can learn at their own pace.  Students and their parents (and teachers, when used in schools) can monitor progress in a far more meaningful way than with standardised tests.

Several school districts are using Khan Academy in the classroom, and over a million students a month are logging in from around the world.  It isn’t just for children – concepts extend to university level, and it can even be extremely helpful for addressing gaps in your own learning if you’re already in the workforce.  Speaking personally, I dropped out of Statistics 101 after one lecture when I couldn’t understand the idea of an unbiased estimate of standard deviation (the lecturer expected us to just memorise the formulas, which has never been my style).  There is an 8 minute video on Khan Academy that makes the concept intuitive – if only that had been available in 1997!

If you’re interested in learning more, you can watch Khan’s TED talk (he’s an entertaining speaker), but I really can’t recommend enough that you take the time to read ‘The One World Schoolhouse’ (don’t worry, it’s not a long or difficult read!) .

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