This is the third of three excerpts of ‘Innovate or Die’ by Andres Oppenmeimer.
Salman Khan, the man who is revolutionizing education around the world with his free online educational videos and practical exercises, is not earning a fortune like Bill Gates, Steven Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. And perhaps he never will. Nevertheless, Khan radiates a much higher level of personal satisfaction than most other leading Internet innovators. Unlike many others, he is a “social innovator” whose mission as an entrepreneur is to help the world’s poor.
He has been achieving that, and much more. It’s no accident that Time magazine listed him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, or that Forbes magazine put him on its cover as a pioneer of 21st Century education. The Khan Academy’s Web page (www.khanacademy.org) not only has 60 million visitors per year who receive free classes in math, algebra, history and other topics, but is turning upside-down the traditional system of education in the United States and a growing number of other countries.
Khan has become the most visible face of the new phenomenon of “flipped” schools in which students, instead of studying in school and doing homework at home, study at home with interactive videos and do the homework in school, with help from their teachers. That’s exactly the opposite of what most of us did when we were in school.
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Khan told me from the start that the concept of “flipped” schools was not his invention. But his Khan Academy made it a worldwide phenomenon, offering a personalized learning environment where students can learn concepts and advance, everyone at their own pace.
In a traditional educational system, the time for learning something is fixed, while the students’ ability to understand it varies. In other words, the class must keep moving at all costs to meet the requirement of teaching each concept within the established time period, independently of how much the students actually learn.
Student grades in the traditional educational system also reflect that model. Students receive a passing grade if they correctly answer 70, 80 or, in the toughest of cases, 90 percent of the questions in a test. But that also means they did not understand 30, 20 or 10 percent of the material and are missing basic knowledge that they will need in the next classes.
If a student does not understand math concepts, he or she will have difficulties following an algebra class, and so on down the road. With time, the gaps in knowledge accumulate and the students find it increasingly harder to continue. Many fall so far behind that they wind up repeating a year or even dropping out of school.
The difference today is that with online education, teachers can easily overcome these difficulties, Khan argues. If the student does not understand something on the video he’s watching, he pushes the rewind button and watches it again. And if he still doesn’t understand it, he can access an exercise specifically designed to help him solve the problem. Meanwhile, teachers can use their own computer to see exactly how their students are doing and which problems they have difficulties with. And if a student has problems understanding something because he forgot something he learned last year, that’s not a problem. Unlike a blackboard, the videos are not erased. For the first time ever, we can make sure that students no longer have gaps in their knowledge, Khan says.
Almost all of us were educated under the system developed in the 18th Century by the King of Prussia, who established free and mandatory primary education with the goal, among others, of creating a docile working class, respectful of authority, and accustomed from childhood to following a schedule. The idea was for the children to learn to respect the authority of their parents, their teachers and their king, and wake up every day at the same time to go to work.
Long before Khan, many critics had pointed out that the Prussian model, by doing away with individualized and fragmented education, allowed the monarch to transmit his political ideas to children through the lesson plans fashioned by his government. But beyond the content, the model itself contained much more subtle ways of molding the minds of the students: Students sat in rows to listen to their teacher, stood up every time their teacher entered the room, and the lessons were split into subject areas that had to be individually memorized, without any relationship to other areas in order to avoid stimulating critical thinking. The lessons also were delivered in successive 50-minute sessions that forced students to jump from one class to another — constant interruptions that did not allow the development of dangerous ideas. A bell rang at the end of the lesson, and class was over.
The Prussian model served the king’s aims well and helped to create a middle class of manual laborers who worked in factories during the Industrial Revolution, but who are no longer prepared for the innovation economy of the 21st Century, Khan argues. Today, a good education requires exactly the opposite: encouraging the students’ creativity and capacity for problem-solving. As a 2011 study by Cathy N. Davidson of Duke University showed, 65 percent of the children that enter grammar school each year could wind up working in jobs not yet invented.
What’s worse, the Prussian educational system that prevails in much of the world also generates significant social inequality because it requires students to do some of their school work at home, instead of at their schools. This means that most students from middle or upper class families have someone at home who can help with their homework — a mother, a father, an older sibling or a tutor. But the poor are left behind.
Homework contributes to creating an unjust society, Khan says, in which the educationally rich get richer and the educationally poor get poorer. That’s why the “flipped” schools, in which the children do their “homework” in classrooms with the help of their teachers, should be the wave of the future.
‘Innovate or Die’ is available at iTunes, Amazon and Kindle.