Education Reimagined by Salman Khan

The following is from “The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined” by Salman Khan, founder of the world famous, online-based Khan Academy, an innovator in childhood and ongoing adult education.

Testing out. What a concept. I’d had no idea that such a thing existed, though even a moment’s notice suggested that it made perfect sense. If a student could demonstrate proficiency with a certain set of ideas and processes, why not let him or her move on to more advanced ones?

Back at my own school, full of enthusiasm, full of hope, I approached the powers that be with the possibility of testing out of my math class. My suggestion was instantly shot down by way of a dreary and all too familiar argument: If we let you do it, we’d have to let everybody do it.

Since I was as self-involved as most people that age, I had no interest in what other kids did or didn’t get to do; I only cared that I myself had been denied, so I sulked and misbehaved (although I did have the therapeutic release of being the lead singer in a heavy metal band). Over time, however, a broader and rather subversive question started scratching at my mind; eventually it became one of my most basic educational beliefs: If kids can advance at their own pace, and if they’d be happier and more productive that way, why not let everybody do it?

Where was the harm? Wouldn’t kids learn more, wouldn’t their curiosity and imagination be better nourished, if they were allowed to follow their instincts and take on new challenges as they were able? If the student graduated early, wouldn’t this free up scarce resources for the students who needed it? True, this approach would call for more flexibility and more close attention to students as individual learners. To be sure, there were technical and logistical hurdles to be cleared; there were long and brittle habits that would need to be altered. But whom was education supposed to serve, after all? Was the main idea to keep school boards and vice principals in their comfort zone, or was the main idea to help students grow as thinking people?

Khan wrote his book to improve education for young people, not to make the case for the privatization of schools. Nevertheless, his book accomplishes both goals.

His successful methods for teaching children via a combination of online YouTube videos, self-directed/adult-monitored study and unstructured collaboration with other students in class settings, caught the attention of no less than Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who utilized Khan’s program to supplement education for his own children.

Khan started in a makeshift office closet of his house and became a million-dollar industry thanks to the effectiveness of his teaching techniques combined with the visibility he was able to quickly attain.

The central (and largely implicit) premise of Khan’s methodology is that only individual minds think.

There is no collective brain. As a result, children can only learn on the individual level. All education must respect, honor and adhere to the objective fact that each child’s mind (like each adult’s mind) is individual, with its own pacing, its own set of requirements and particular idiosyncratic needs and styles.

“Progressive” education, the methodology behind most education as we know it today (public or private), holds that children must learn as a group, and may only advance as a class or a grade, not as individuals, once the whole group is ready to advance. While this method might prove acceptable for the average child, it has the effect of creating profound boredom in the exceptional child, while creating extreme anxiety in the below average child.

Mind you, the concepts “exceptional” and “below average” refer to the individual child only in the context of the group. In his book and in his educational efforts, Khan brilliantly exposes the fallacy of this line of thinking. He found out, for example, that students performing below average in the conventional group teaching model ended up, in some cases, actually flourishing and outpacing the average students once they were exposed to his individualized approach to learning.

This finding suggests that in some respects there may be no such thing as “average” or “superior” children, at least not in the sense we have come to understand. While objective standards can demonstrate the superiority of some childrens’ abilities over others, when we remove them from the group context, many of those previously left behind soar as never before, because there’s no remaining sense of being “left behind” or getting “ahead.” There’s only a concern with learning.

Throughout his book, Khan emphasized that he was not looking for a one-size-fits-all approach to education. He wanted an education model that accepts and respects the need for individual autonomy and self-directed pacing. He did not claim that knowledge is subjective, and that all learning therefore would be completely directed by the child. That would be absurd. At the same time, his studies and experiences dramatically showed how children do not benefit from the grade/classroom model we have all come to know and accept as the only possible way to learn.

Grade levels are set arbitrarily by biological age. If you’re six years old, you’re in first grade. If you’re seven years old, it’s time to advance to second grade. What if you’re motivated, ready and able to be in fifth grade by the time you’re seven years old? Or what if you’re seven years old and need another half a year on first-grade material? Why should biological age dictate your pace of learning, against your own nature or actual capacity at a certain point in time? No answer is ever given. It’s shocking and unthinkable even to ask the question. “Why, that’s just how it has always been done.”

But as Khan points out, this whole approach to education did not always exist, not even in America. He entitles his book “The One World Schoolhouse” to advocate for the modern high-tech equivalent of a one room schoolhouse. His purpose is not “back to basics” as much as utilizing the flexibility afforded by modern technology to enable children, even when learning in group settings, to process and conceptualize information and skills on an individualized, while still objective and rational, basis.

Khan stops short of advocating for removing government from the management or funding of education. However, it’s clear his philosophy and model would get nowhere in our current federally run, government monopolized, single-payer system.

As his quote (above) all but says, today’s schools exist as much, if not more, for the benefit of school officials, teachers’ union demands and other requirements as they exist for the actual teaching of students.

When schools continue to underperform, we throw more tax money at them. When they underperform still more, we throw more tax money at them.

We raise property taxes, including on families of school-age children who can now afford private schools even less.

As long as teachers’ unions get what they want, and as long as school officials do not have to innovate – since that’s too much work and risks offending this or that parent or political pressure group – then all is well, as long as we all spend more money.

As Khan demonstrates in his book, his methodology can even help children in third world countries with few or no resources for funding public schools. Ironically, children in such disadvantaged settings are – in some ways – at a greater advantage, because they’re not burdened down with all the false expectations and commands from the federal authorities to match learning to (1) age level and (2) requirements of the school achievement tests, upon which public schools now rely in order to attain more funding.

Khan’s methodology frees the student by respecting the individuality and autonomy of the child’s mind. He’s similar to Maria Montessori in this respect. He does not claim to have all the answers, and he does not advocate for a one-size-fits-all approach to education.

But what he does understand is a fact that should have been obvious all along: Children are little adults. They are sovereign individuals with developing personalities. While they must be guided by adults and by objective facts and standards, they likewise must learn in their own way, at their own pace, and for the sake of learning.

Children and their schooling do not exist for the sake of pleasing anxiety-ridden parents; demoralized or lazy teachers unable/unwilling to provide innovation; political officials who care nothing except for power, or teachers’ unions who care for nothing other than early retirement pensions and medical insurance benefits.

It makes no more sense to herd children into age-based collectives, expecting them all to learn in the same way at the same rate, than it would make sense to herd all adults into communes or other collectives where everyone is expected to act, think, develop and perform the same.

In fact, whenever the latter has been attempted with adults (Nazi Germany and Maoist Communist China or Soviet Russia come to mind), they have been spectacular and tragic failures for this reason.

So why on earth do we expect it to turn out any better for children?

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