Teaching the Khan way

NationalPost.com – news/commentary/opinion
Published Saturday, Aug. 27, 2011.   Margaret Wente

The most influential teacher in North America today doesn’t have a teaching degree. He has never taught inside a classroom. But his ideas could begin to transform what happens in it.

Salman Khan is a nerdy 34-year-old American with a genius for explaining things. A few years ago, he began explaining math to his 13-year-old cousin, Nadia. Because she lived on the other side of the country, he worked with her online. Soon he was tutoring other cousins and their friends. So he started to make a series of short instructional videos that explained the basic concepts. Then he put some of them on YouTube, and they took off. Bill Gates discovered them, and began to use them with his own kids. And so the Khan Academy was born.

In 2009, Mr. Khan – who has two degrees from MIT as well as a Harvard MBA – quit his hedge-fund job to pursue his dream for online education. To date, he has turned out 2,400 low-tech mini-lectures on everything from basic addition to vector calculus and organic chemistry. They’re straightforward and conversational, with a kitchen-table feel. Mr. Khan himself never appears – just his hand, scribbling numbers on an electronic whiteboard. He has a talent for breaking down complex material into simple steps, so a student can play and replay the video until she gets it. His YouTube videos – all free – are drawing two million viewers a month.

“I’d been looking for something like this – it’s so important,” Mr. Gates told Wired magazine, which has a terrific piece on Salman Khan in its August issue. The Khan approach shows how technology can be used to truly customize education and allow students to proceed at their own pace. Kids can watch the lectures on their own time, and use classroom time for individual help and problem-solving. This means teachers can be liberated from teaching to the mediocre middle of the class, and devote their time to one-on-one coaching.

Courtney Cadwell uses Mr. Khan’s videos in her remedial Grade 7 math class in Los Altos, Calif. “It’s been amazing,” she said in an interview on National Public Radio. “I’ve seen a great attitude adjustment in my students. It’s changed their entire impression of math.” Kids earn points and badges for making an effort and for solving problems. “In the past, they’ve been very passive learners, and now they are becoming active learners.”

A crucial part of the system is a teacher’s tool – called a dashboard – that allows the teacher to monitor where every student is at every moment, so she can help when someone gets stuck. “I know exactly who’s struggling at what time and what they’re missing,” Ms. Cadwell says. “It takes a lot of the guesswork out of being a teacher.” Her students’ test scores have soared.

“This has the potential to supercharge what happens in the classroom,” says Mr. Khan, who is attractive, amiable and just a little geeky. His vision is to recreate the environment of a one-room schoolhouse, where students of all ages and levels learn independently but together, and have plenty of time left over to express their creativity through music or art.

Bill Gates has put up $1.6-million to underwrite the Khan Academy. His hope is that Mr. Khan’s methods can begin to improve the notoriously dismal math performance of American students. (We shouldn’t be smug. Canadian students don’t do all that well in math, either.) In Mr. Gates’s view, ignorance of basic math is a significant contributor to unemployment. “Math is the killer,” he told Wired. If you ask people why they didn’t pass this exam or get that job, he said, “math is often the reason.”

The digital revolution has transformed almost every aspect of our lives. But so far, it has left both lower and higher education virtually untouched. Teachers teach and students learn pretty much the way they always did. But now digitally inspired innovation is breaking out all over. Millions of students are earning their degrees online. As The New York Times noted this week, online learning makes higher education cheaper, faster and more flexible. It can also make it better. Imagine what would happen, says education expert Richard Vedder, “when someone like Bill Gates creates Superstar University, finding the best professors for the 200 courses that a good liberal arts college offers, and paying them $25,000 each to put their classes online.”

Not everyone, needless to say, is thrilled about the prospect. The education industry is extremely slow to change and fiercely protective of its traditional monopoly. Teachers are terrified they might be replaced by technology. And some of them think the Khan approach to learning – which focuses on incremental, progressive mastery of skills – is all wrong. Rather than concentrating on mechanics, one critic writes, “teachers should be inspiring them to figure things out on their own.” Apart from that, it’s hard to see how a mass-education system based on a steady progression from one grade to the next could adapt to the radical idea that everyone should advance at a different pace.

But Khan fans love his stuff, even if the critics don’t. “Your organic chemistry video was a lifesaver!” gushed one grateful university student. Now the videos are being translated into 10 languages. Thanks to digital technology, high-quality learning material will soon be available to almost anyone on the planet, virtually for free. As Bill Gates says, “If you’re motivated to learn, this is an amazing time for everyone.”

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