The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined

In “The One World Schoolhouse,” Salman Khan sets forth a compelling – though admittedly imperfect and imprecise – vision for the future of education based upon the success of Khan Academy, a not-for-profit website that features free ten-minute instructional videos, software-generated exercises, and data analysis (e.g., alerting teachers when a student is “stuck” on a particular concept). Despite my initial (and apparently common) “fear that computer-based instruction is all about replacing teachers or lowering the level of skill needed to be a teacher,” Khan largely wins over both the parent and former teacher in me by demonstrating that “[t]he exact opposite is true” in his reimagined classroom where “initial exposure to a concept online” is followed by personal and personalized instruction as well as plenty of socialization.

Driving Khan’s pedagogical philosophy is identification of myriad ways in which schooling as we know it is incompatible with learning as neuro and social science know it: age-organized classrooms, “broadcast lectures,” hour-long class periods, balkanized subject matter (knowledge broken down into discrete lessons, units, and subjects rather than a flow of concepts that facilitates associative learning), testing, homework, summer vacations, grading, and, most importantly, communal pacing.

  • “[L]essons should be paced to the individual student’s needs, not to some arbitrary calendar[, average student of similar age, or clock].”
  • “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 [since] . . . basic concepts need[] to be deeply understood if students [a]re to succeed at mastering more advanced ones.”
  • “Homework becomes necessary because not enough learning happens during the school day. Why is there a shortage of learning during the hours specifically designed for it? Because the broadcast, one-pace-fits-all lecture . . . turns out to be a highly inefficient way to teach and learn.”
  • “The danger of using assessments as reasons to filter out students . . . is that we may overlook or discourage those whose talents are of a different order – whose intelligence tends more to the oblique and the intuitive.”
  • “What should be fixed is a high level of comprehension and what should be variable is the amount of time students have to understand a concept.”
  • “With self-paced learning . . . [i]f a given concept is easily grasped, one can sprint ahead, outrunning boredom. If a subject is proving difficult, it’s possible to hit the pause button, or to go back and do more problems as necessary, without embarrassment and without asking the whole class to slow down.”

I see these points, and I wholeheartedly agree with many of Khan’s big-picture assertions:

  • “Discovering – and nurturing – the natural bent of the child; isn’t this the proper goal of education?”
  • “We limit what students believe they can do by selling short what we expect them to do.”
  • “[I]f you give students the opportunity to learn deeply and to see the magic of the universe around them, almost everyone will be motivated.”
  • “Since we can’t predict exactly what today’s young people will need to know in ten or twenty years, what we teach them is less important than how they learn to teach themselves.”

I also desperately hope that the efficiency gains he discusses (accomplishing as much as a student currently does during a full school day and several hours of homework at night in just a few hours of computer-based learning followed by practical, physical, creative, and fun exercises) are real and replicable.

Yet I struggle with some aspects of Khan’s vision. He complains that “[c]onventional curricula don’t only tell students where to start; they tell students where to stop.” I can see his perspective, but I think an artificial stopping point is a two-sided coin. Counterbalancing the risks of boredom, loss of inertia, and lack of growth is the fact that capping kids’ efforts protects childhood and prevents burnout. Internal and external pressure will drive at least some kids off the deep end if pace is totally unfettered, especially when you mix in competition assessed not by grades but by Khan’s alternative measure of work completed vis-a-vis the entire world. Khan also doesn’t totally condemn homework, in my view selling short the burdens on at-risk kids (like working afternoon and evening jobs, caring for siblings, and dodging bullets) in the name of raised expectations. Finally, his justification for mixed age classrooms seems a bit off the mark to me. He writes, “The older ones take responsibility for the younger ones. . . . The younger ones look up to and emulate the older ones. . . . [N]ature would not have made it possible [for twelve year-olds to procreate] unless adolescents were also wired to be ready to take responsibility for others.” I was tasked with teaching a class of thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen year-olds structured around this concept (it mixed “honors” and “special ed” kids on the theory that the former would help teach the latter), and it was an unmitigated disaster. Kids tutoring each other sounds wonderful, but throw hormones and social standing in the mix and things get a lot more complicated. (I also bristle at Khan’s treatment of adolescence, a developmental period that needs to be fiercely protected; teenagers in some ways are ready to take on responsibility but in others are physiologically incapable.) I’m not saying his vision of a bustling, cooperative classroom is naive or impossible, just a bit trickier to accomplish than he makes it sound.

I’m also not sure what to make of Khan’s clear focus on math and engineering. I’d love to hear his ideas fleshed out in the K-12 liberal arts context. I understand how software can generate math exercises, but improved sentence structure? Brainstorming? Outlining? I’m sure there are ways (diagramming sentences, for starters), but they aren’t as readily apparent in the context of teaching skills like writing.

At the end of the day, Khan proposes a paradigm shift: “The current system is rife with inefficiencies and inequalities, with tragic mismatches between how students are taught and what they need to know; and the situation grows more urgent with every day that the educational status quo survives while the world is changing all around it.” He presents many smart, intriguing ideas (including ones for higher, adult, and continuing education) as well as a track record of success that is as exciting as it is modest. Like Khan himself, I’m not ready to say Khan Academy ought to be the new paradigm, but I think it’s a contender and that his case for reform is well worth the reading time.

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