Q&A: Salman Khan on the Future of Education (Part 1)

By Catherine A. Cardno — September 27, 2012 4 min read
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Khan Academy. Chances are you’ve heard of it. But did you know that Salman Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, has a new book coming out next Tuesday? Part memoir, part company history, and part blueprint for overhauling education, The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined is well worth reading.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Khan, via email. We talked (or, if you prefer, “talked”) about how Khan Academy has grown, the future form he’d like education to take, and how he responds to critics.

And games.

The first part of our conversation goes online today; the second part goes up tomorrow.

It’s a predictable opening question, but what prompted you to write this book at this particular point in time? What are you hoping to accomplish?

Salman Khan: Khan Academy has gotten traction with students, parents, and teachers far faster than any of us would have predicted. This has been a great thing, but it has created the risk of people, including many of our supporters, not fully understanding what we are about.

We are about creating tools that can help empower teachers and students and catalyze more interactive class time. We are about deepening students’ learning. We are about bringing more creativity into one’s education. We are about making physical experiences and teachers more important, not less important. And what Khan Academy is today is just the beginning of what we think it can evolve into (especially as we continually incorporate what we learn about what is working and what is not). To truly innovate, we think it is important to serve the needs of today without sacrificing the ideals of tomorrow. My book attempts to make this connection. To paint a vision of what can be and show that it is an extrapolation of what is already happening.

On a broader level, I also think the entire debate around education has become too negative, cynical, and unhelpful. There is too much focus on top-down government policies that only restrain schools more. There is also too much blame being placed on theoretical “bad teachers” when there are some obvious flaws in the model that handicap even the best teachers. This book is an attempt to take a step back and look at the model of education itself and not blame the individual actors who have dedicated their lives to help educate our youth (and, in fact, I argue why and how teachers can be paid much, much more).

I have encountered few people who would defend the model of mandated education that has been standardized throughout the world. Despite this, it seems like people assume that it is a given that students and teachers need to work at a state-mandated pace through a state-mandated curriculum with bells ringing every hour and most of a student’s day being spent listening to lectures. Very little of the conversation is focused on how we can change it. I believe that we are at an inflection point in history where we can rethink the Industrial Revolution-inspired model that was designed before cars, radios, interstate highways, and vaccines—much less computers and the Internet—even existed. This book, hopefully, takes us in that direction.

I appreciated your aim to get students to own their education and be active participants in their learning. It seems that this works great for students who want to participate (and go online to the Khan Academy) and teachers who want to use the Academy in the classroom, but when you start implementing universal changes from the top down in public schools, it seems like things can get a bit trickier. Where do the misbehaving or uninterested students fit into the model of learning that you would like to see in the future? How about special needs students?

Khan: I don’t know whether the ideas in the book or tools like Khan Academy will be universally applicable to every student in every context. This is why we are working with so many teachers and researchers to understand how and where they can best be used (and measure their impact). What we do know is that we have seen meaningful improvement in students from underserved communities in Oakland and San Jose in California. We definitely need to study these implementations more and understand what are the true best practices and how Khan Academy can become a lot better, but it does point to the idea that there may be ways to reach more students than many would expect. We’ve also seen that many traditionally “disengaged” students have gaps in their basic knowledge which causes them to check out (and sometimes act up) almost as a self-defense mechanism for their self-esteem. Many of these students can get re-engaged when they have a chance to remediate and interact more with their peers.

We haven’t done any formal studies with special needs students, but we have gotten a lot of testimonials from them and their parents. Hard to say how much we can generalize their success it.

In general, I am not a fan of top-down approaches. Forcing something on someone is the best way to ensure that they won’t like it (or use it well). Khan Academy has grown through word of mouth. The thousands of teachers and millions of students who use it are doing so by choice, and we hope that continues. I also think that Khan Academy is still at a relatively nascent stage. I think it is much healthier to iteratively improve as your usage grows organically. Too many “solutions” are pushed in a top-down manner before they’ve had a chance to mature. When we speak to government officials, we try to emphasize that we would love them to spread awareness that we exist as a tool, but we don’t want them to mandate our use.

My conversation with Sal Khan will continue tomorrow with his thoughts on the practical next steps to redefining education, how he responds to his critics, and (my favorite part of the book) Khan Academy’s ongoing development of learning-by-doing games.

A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.