A few months ago I had the pleasure of going to see Salman Khan, Founder of the Khan Academy, talk at London School of Economics. In this article I take a look at the principles of this new teaching phenomenon and what it might mean for the future of the classroom.
Khan Academy is a not-for-profit organisation that provides a world class level of education to anyone with an internet connection, anywhere. If you haven't seen or heard of it before you really should check it out here.
What started out as a hedge fund analyst tutoring his nephew over the phone every evening has now grown into a fully-fledged education platform educating 75 million people around the globe. It is no longer just used for supplementary tutoring, but is now replacing entire curriculums in schools, teaching children in 29,000 classrooms.
It really is inspirational stuff. During the lecture, Sal gave an example of an orphan in Mongolia who used the platform to teach herself mathematics, on computers donated to her orphanage by software giant Oracle. He went on to tell us how she now has over 100 videos that she has republished, translating his own videos on Algebra into Mongolian.
With three degrees from MIT and an MBA from Harvard, the level of teaching is truly world class. Bill Gates is very open about using Khan Academy with his own kids and it is amazing to think that this standard of teaching is available to anyone in the world.
With our current model of education, students are arranged in groups depending on age and taught a subject from a curriculum over a set period of time. Regardless of what level each individual student gets to in that particular subject the entire group moves on. This style of teaching leaves students behind at level 1 and by the time they reach level 10 they are still playing catch up. Regardless of how smart the student is, it becomes difficult for them to keep up with increasing levels of complexity introduced due to not having a proper understanding of the basics.
"If one is master of one thing and understands one thing well, one has at the same time, insight into and understanding of many things."
Gogh, Vincent Van
The structure of Khan Academy promotes one big thing; mastery. There isn't a grading system that allows you to move on with a 'C'. Instead the subjects are broken down into bite-size pieces and you must have a complete understanding before you can move on to the next. When the platform is used in a classroom it gives the teacher transparency. She can see easily who is doing well in what subjects and who isn't. This can then be used to promote peer learning - all-in-all making sure no one student is left behind. This also means the students work at their own pace, allowing the motivated students to push on ahead and even help the slower students gain more attention by teachers to get up to speed. This creates a more personal and customised education that promotes learning to the highest level.
Frankly, I am jealous of kids that could grow up learning in this fashion. I can remember being the student who would get distracted in lessons and, before I knew it, be out of my depth, which only meant I would get distracted in the next lesson as I was so disconnected from the subject we were learning.
What could the future of the classroom be?
The classroom of today inhibits students from developing social skills by not letting them talk and being punished if they do. However, with this style of education the classroom could be used as a place for peer learning and as a place for motivational teachers to create a bond with the students on a personal level. A place for students to work in groups on more hands-on creative projects that could implement the subjects they are learning in their own time. This would promote the development of other important life skills such as leadership and even more soft skills. This would change the dynamic of the classroom so kids that would have otherwise had a hard time socialising, but did very well academically, can now develop the much-needed people skills to work in the real world. After all, that is what education is supposed to prepare them for; it shouldn't just be equipping them with the skills to get an 'A' in a national exam.