Courtesy of the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation
“You’re asking ME??” Salman Khan was incredulous. In 2012, Khan had been invited by his alma mater, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), to give their commencement address. It had only been five years earlier that the then 36-year-old had been a hedge fund analyst — successful, yes, but not a world changer.
The founder of Khan Academy, a nonprofit school dedicated to providing “A free world-class education for anyone, anywhere” is a world changer. M.I.T. chose Khan to inspire its 2012 class to change their world.
Global School Was a Surprise
Who better to motivate college grads than Khan? Raised by an immigrant single mother, he founded his “global school” from what began, in 2004, as a simple favor for his 9-year-old cousin Nadia, who needed help in passing a crucial math placement test. From his then home in the Northeast, Khan developed and posted videos on YouTube that used his voice and a virtual ‘blackboard’ upon which he drew to tutor her remotely in her New Orleans suburban home.
To his surprise, he began to receive grateful feedback from virtual strangers who had viewed the videos. By 2008, Khan had enough interest in his growing series of instructional videos that he incorporated Khan Academy as a 501c(3) non profit. A year later, he quit his finance job to devote himself to the tutorials, soon receiving his first outside funding.
Since that time, Khan Academy has become widely recognized, publicized by 60 Minutes, CNN, and famously, Bill Gates, whose own kids use Khan Academy. With more than 8 million unique users clicking on Khan Academy videos each month, it’s a worldwide phenomenon — and yet, Khan, typically dressed in a V-neck sweater and jeans, is humble about his achievements. “Even now, I kind of imagine that I’m making the videos for a larger collection of cousins.”
One Size Does Not Fit All
“I always enjoyed learning new things,” he recalls about his own background as a middle-class, public school student in New Orleans, and later on as a college student. “I liked talking to my peers, having direct conversations with teachers, but I was frustrated when being lectured to. College at M.I.T. is about as good as it gets, but still, I felt that much of the time, I got more out of what I did out of class than in.”
“In elementary school, I was lucky enough to be in gifted programs that had enrichment activities and small groups. Also, my mom is a strong-willed woman and has always questioned norms. My older sister was a very advanced student, and interacting with her rubbed off on me, and made teachers push me more,” he says, chuckling.
As Khan says, not everyone has the motivation and support he did. The typical educational system presents the subject matter for a certain period of time, and then moves on, a one-size-fits-all-approach.
An older student, “Leslie,” working towards her teaching certification in junior and senior high school social studies, wrote to Khan Academy calling it “invaluable.” As she explains, “…when I was studying for my teaching exams (Praxis), I knew my math skills were lacking and found the math knowledge map so beneficial! I used the history lessons to help review and was blown away by how clear and concise they were.”
“The old classroom model simply doesn’t fit our changing needs,” writes Khan in his book, The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined. Widespread evidence shows that U.S. students score well below their European and Asian peers in reading and math. The U.S. ranks 24 out of 34 nations in “mathematics literacy,” according to a 2009 program for International Student Assessment. Alarmingly, almost one-quarter of American teens do not finish high school.
“It isn’t clear that this (our educational system) was the best model 100 years ago; it certainly isn’t anymore,” writes Khan.
Despite holding an MBA from Harvard Business School, where he was the president of his class, and three degrees from M.I.T., including a Masters in Electrical Engineering & Computer Science, Khan is no effete intellectual, nor “geeky” nerd. Rather, he comes across as a sort of folksy mix of Jerry Seinfeld and Ray Romano. His casual demeanor, quips, and enthusiastic presentations engage and entice millions of Khan Academy users from more than 216 countries.
“I didn’t like math time before,” says Fernando Hernandez, 9, a fourth-grader in Alison Elizondo’s 33-child classroom at William Burnett Elementary School, a Title 1 school with a highly diverse population, in Milpitas, California.
“But now, with Khan Academy, math is like a workplace. I don’t have to sit at a desk. I can lie down on the floor, I can talk, I can work with friends.” In fact, Elizondo says, “Fernando asks me when we will ‘get’ to do Khan each day. He has gained great confidence in himself and his math ability.”
She explains that Khan Academy has been an “incredible journey” for her professionally. She began to use it regularly as part of her class day two years ago, when her school got the computers it needed for laptop use in class. “We’ve ‘flipped’ our classroom,” Elizondo says with excitement. She’s especially enthused about the real-time data Khan provides teachers.
“I think all teachers would love this. The kids work on their own, and I get data in my ‘teacher tool kit.’ I see what they get wrong, how long it takes for them to solve problems, who is struggling and who isn’t. I can then determine how to help each student according to their exact needs.”
Flipping the Classroom
“Flipping the classroom” is a basic Khan philosophy, often misunderstood. The philosophy essentially inverts traditional teaching methods, delivering instruction online outside the classroom and moving homework into the classroom. A primary tenet of Khan Academy is that students work at their own pace through technology while the concept engagement happens with the teacher in the classroom.
“There are some people who believe that technology in education diminishes the importance of teachers,” says Shantanu Sinha, Khan’s lifelong chum (and friendly competitor). Since 2009, Sinha has been chief operating officer of Khan Academy. “In our experience, nothing could be further from the truth. The fantastic teachers we have seen implement Khan Academy are bright, innovative, creative, and they take their classrooms to new heights. Their role is not diminished. Rather, their responsibility is increased.”
“We’re trying to move the passivity out of the classroom,” explained Khan in a 2011 60 Minutes segment. “We believe teachers are coaches and mentors, not just lecturers.” Khan responds to detractors who criticize Khan Academy. “We’re not a ‘silver bullet,” he agrees. “Yes, of course, education is a systematic thing. We can certainly help move the dial.” How? By personalizing learning so that students can move at their own pace.
At St. George’s Independent School, Associate Head Will Bladt says one of their science teacher flips his classroom using MyMathLab, a Pearson Education product that is set up very similarly to Kahn Academy. In addition to video demonstrations, there are practice problems with instant feedback for students and assessment messaging so that the teacher can see who has mastery, who is struggling, and who doesn’t understand it at all. “It’s working well,” notes Bladt.
As for Elizondo, she now has her fourth graders watching Khan videos in the evenings at home (or before and after school in the computer lab for those without home computers) and then has Khan time in school three times a week.
“I want my students to take risks and ‘walk the talk.’ I don’t feel very tech-savvy, but Khan Academy is so user-friendly that it has made us successful. Anyone could learn to use it by themselves.”
Maddy Markham, 14, entering high school in Aurora, Colorado, used Khan Academy videos in her eighth-grade math class at the Challenge School, a public school for advanced and motivated students.
She says she is a visual learner, and found Khan videos quite beneficial, commenting that “I don’t love math, but once I get the hang of it, I am good at it. Khan has helped to break it down step by step.
Alison Elizondo is so excited about Khan Academy she has contributed to a teacher blog on its site, urging others to think beyond the status quo.
“As educators we must prepare our students for college and career. I believe our future innovators will need to collaborate with peers, communicate effectively, think critically, and demonstrate creativity … Khan Academy lends itself as a diverse tool for achieving preparing students for their exciting future.”