This book moved me beyond words… Sal Khan’s philosophy on education rings loudly in my ears and this blog post aims to share my enthusiasm. Slowly, collectively, we can effectively reform education…
Khan’s mission is to provide a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere. Living in one of the poorest countries in the world, with a terribly low literacy rate (~55%) and standard of education, his mission speaks directly to me. Immediately after reading the book, implementation ideas were spinning through my head: translating his videos into Nepali, obtaining funds to bring practical technology to rural schools, starting a community learning center where adults could improve their math and language skills, and convincing the principal at our kids’ English-medium school to pilot a Khan Academy-based classroom.
A dear friend informed me that another non-profit organization is working on technology and education here in Nepal. Ole Nepal doesn’t directly translate Khan’s material, but their philosophies are similar. Their team has developed 600+ learning modules, deployed 5000+ laptops, trained 600+ teachers, and worked with 180+ schools impacting 40,000+ students. WOW! Companies this like this, inspired individuals and impassioned groups all around the world are echoing Khan’s message – educational reform is necessary and technology can be one of our best partners. Today, Khan Academy videos are available in over 35 languages!
Khan’s diagnosis of America’s educational system also thoroughly resonates with me. I am a product of it and my children are in it, however, temporarily experiencing the British system. The following paragraphs summarize Khan’s perspective of education in the USA:
The Prussian Model – “Eighteenth-century Prussia is where our basic classroom model was invented. The idea was not to produce independent thinkers, but to churn out loyal and tractable citizens who would learn the value of submitting to the authority of parents, teachers, church, and, ultimately, the king. The standard classroom model offered boundless opportunities for political indoctrination. It was not by accident that whole ideas were broken up into fragmented ‘subjects.’ Subjects could be learned by rote memorization, whereas mastering larger ideas called for free and unbridled thinking (76-77).”
Swiss Cheese Learning – “What constitutes a passing grade? In most classrooms in most schools, students pass with 75 or 80 percent. This is customary. But if you think about it even for a moment, it’s unacceptable if not disastrous. Concepts build on one another. Algebra requires arithmetic. Trigonometry flows from geometry. Calculus and physics call for all of the above. A shaky understanding early on will lead to complete bewilderment later. Our students are victims of Swiss Cheese Learning. Though it seems solid from the outside, their education is full of holes (83, 85).”
Archaic Customs – “Parts of the system we now hold sacred – for example, the length of the class period or the number of years assigned to ‘elementary’ or ‘high’ school – are in fact rather arbitrary, even accidental (62). This basic model – grouping kids by birth date and then advancing them together grade by grade – is such a fundamental aspect of conventional education that people seldom seem to think about it. But we should, because its implications are huge. To state what is obvious, there is nothing natural about segregating kids by age. That isn’t how families work; it isn’t what the world looks like; and it runs counter to the way that kids have learned and socialized for most of human history (191-192).” Khan also brilliantly dissects the archaic customs of summer holidays, compartmentalizing lessons into subjects or units, the recent obsession with student/teacher ratios, and the methods used to track children, all the while arguing that each of these distract from the main goals of maximizing students learning, comprehension, retention, and critical thinking skills.
Homework – We should ask, “not how much homework, but why homework in the first place? One large survey conducted by the University of Michigan concluded that the single strongest predictor of better achievement scores and few behavioral problems was not time spent on homework, but rather the frequency and duration of family meals. When families actually sit down and talk – when parents and children exchange ideas and truly show an interest in each other – kids absorb values, motivation and self-esteem; in short, they grow in exactly those attributes and attitudes that will make them enthusiastic and attentive learners. This is more important than mere homework (111-114).”
Tests and Testing – “What do tests really test? Tests say little or nothing about a student’s potential to learn a subject or about how long learning will be retained. Tests measure the approximate state of a student’s memory and perhaps understanding, in regard to a particular subset of subject matter at a given moment in time, it being understood that the measurement can vary considerably and randomly according to the particular questions being asked (91-92).”
I am a perfect example – a product of the faulty American education system. I learned to submissively accept lessons, didn’t gain a comprehensive overview of lessons and how they relate to one another. I passively listened to broadcast lectures in the classroom, independently worked on homework at home, and crammed hard before tests after which most of the knowledge slowly seeped out. My education resembled Swiss cheese exactly, even though I was an A-/B+ student throughout high school and college. I rarely had true mastery before advancing to more complex concepts.
I am a creative, thoughtful, intelligent person – but not because of the system, rather despite the system. I want more for our children: the three that live in my house, the hundreds I personally know and the millions that will soon have their turn to make this world a better place. This is one of my favorite passages from Khan’s book: “As a parent myself, I completely understand the human tendency to regard one’s own kids as the most precious in the universe. To every mother and every father, of course they are; biology takes care of that. But there is a somewhat dangerous corollary to this natural parental love. Sometimes it seems that, both as individuals and as societies, we think it’s okay to be selfish as long as it’s on behalf of the kids. Clearly, there’s hypocrisy here; we’re still serving the interests of our own DNA and our own narrow clan. We give ourselves a free pass on something that is emotionally right but morally wrong. As long as our kids are getting educated, we won’t worry about the kids a block, or a nation, or a continent away. But are we really doing our kids a favor by taking this isolationist, me-first position? I don’t think so. I think we’re condemning them to live in a world of broadening inequality and increasing instability. The better way to help our kids is to help all kids (222).”
Before reading Khan’s book, I was acutely aware that what our children need from education (namely, critical thinking and communication skills) is different than the skills emphasized for us 20 – 30 years ago and drastically different than the educational emphasis during previous generations. What I got from Khan’s book is the piece about CREATIVITY and how the American system doesn’t foster, hone or reward this skill: “What I’m criticizing is an educational approach that, because of its built-in inefficiencies and obsession with control, keeps kids so busy, often with activities that have nothing to do with their particular talents or interests that they have no time to think. There’s a cruel irony in this. Pressured to keep a full plate of purportedly enriching activities, kids end up barely noticing that their interior lives—their uniqueness, curiosity, and creativity— are in fact becoming impoverished. There is no magic formula to make kids more creative; rather, it’s a way to give light and space and time to the creativity that already exists in each of us (247, 251).
Khan’s detailed analysis of the American education system originates from two sources: he too studied in the USA from grade school in Louisiana to college in Massachusetts, and second, while as a hedge fund analyst, he began remotely tutoring his intelligent cousin who performed poorly on a middle school math exam. This unassuming tutoring engagement took on a life of its own as Khan taught more and more students, made his lessons electronically available on YouTube, and developed software tools to help gauge his students’ progress. Khan Academy was born and incarnated into several hundred videos, thousands of students, and a slow infiltration into a handful of classrooms while Khan was still a full-time working professional, husband and father! In 2009, Khan left his finance job and delved fully into his dream of “teaching the way he wished he was taught (7). Within no time, thousands of students became millions, and the top of the top – Bill Gates and Google –offered to support and grow the Academy. Khan’s vision, thus, with time and experience, grew beyond just tutoring to summer camps, pilot classrooms, and dreams of whole schools.
One Room Schoolhouse – Khan succinctly condemns America’s current educational system then, lightly sketches his vision of an ideal future. Beautifully, he conveys that this is one possible approach, other creative solutions exist too. Just as he reiterates that there are multiple ways of solving a math problem, he never states that his vision of what school would look like is the only right one.
Khan’s school would more closely resemble a One Room Schoolhouse: kids would be mixed with others of varying ages, learning would be self-paced, holidays would be taken on an as-needed basis (similar to how businesses operate), well-designed assessments would be taken by anyone at any time and students would maintain a portfolio of their work and assessments. Classrooms would have seventy-five to one hundred children, spanning a broad age-range, with three or four teachers. A snapshot of the classroom would include 20% of the children working on computer-based lessons while the other 80% are working in several groups on activities, games and projects applying the skills just grasped from the computer-based lessons. Thus, “the school could cover basic course material in one or two hours, leaving plenty of space and time for open-ended thinking and creativity (205).”
It really takes a creative imagination to visualize this. There will surely be challenges along the way. However, educational systems must change to match, or even come close to, the rate at which our world in changing. What are the consequences of continuing with education the way it is? This leads to my second favorite passage in Khan’s book, “Among the world’s children starting grade school this year, 65 percent will end up doing jobs that haven’t even been invented yet. The certainty of change, coupled with the complete uncertainty as to the precise nature of change, has profound and complex implications for our approach to education. What we teach children is less important than how they learn to teach themselves. The crucial task of education is to teach kids how to learn. To lead them to want to learn. To nurture curiosity, to encourage wonder, and to instill confidence so that later on they’ll have the tools for finding answers to the many questions we don’t yet know how to ask (179-180).”
How is all of this related to the FiveInTheFoothills Blog and our lives and experiences here in Nepal? I am not quite sure yet… I’d like to join the global efforts to improve education and how, when and where this happens will unfold in due time. I thank you for reading my piece about Khan’s book, however my most humble request is that you read it for yourself and SHARE your thoughts broadly. Collectively, positive change will happen…
As per Khan’s philosophy of sharing knowledge freely, his book is available online as a pdf :-).