Salman Khan on What Makes the Khan Academy Work

Interviews with people who shape our culture.
Oct. 2 2012 4:51 PM

Higher Learning Through YouTube

An interview with Salman Khan and an excerpt from his The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined.

(Continued from Page 1)

For these students, the Khan Academy has been a haven and a refuge, a place where they can do for themselves what their classroom and workplace experiences have failed to do. Can watching video lessons or using interactive software make people smart? No. But I would argue that it can do something even better: create a context in which people can give free rein to their curiosity and natural love of learning, so that they realize they’re already smart.

More than anything, it is the student testimonials that have persuaded me to write this book. I think of it as a kind of manifesto—both a very personal statement and a call to arms. Formal education must change. It needs to be brought into closer alignment with the world as it actually is; into closer harmony with the way human beings actually learn and thrive.

When and where do people concentrate best? The answer, of course, is that it all depends on the individual. Some people are at their sharpest first thing in the morning. Some are more receptive late at night. One person requires a silent house to optimize his focus; another seems to think more clearly with music playing or against the white noise of a coffee shop. Given all these variations, why do we still insist that the heaviest lifting in teaching and learning should take place in the confines of a classroom and to the impersonal rhythm of bells and buzzers?

Technology has the power to free us from those limitations, to make education far more portable, flexible, and personal; to foster initiative and individual responsibility; to restore the treasure-hunt excitement to the process of learning. Technology offers another potential benefit as well: The Internet can make education far, far more accessible, so knowledge and opportunity can be more broadly and equitably shared. Quality education need not be dependent on showplace campuses. There is no economic reason that students everywhere could not have access to the same lessons as Bill Gates’ kids.

There’s an old saying that life is school. If that’s true, then it’s also true that as our world grows smaller and the people in it more inextricably connected, the world itself comes to resemble one vast, inclusive schoolhouse. There are younger people and older people, people farther or less far along in their education on a given subject. At every moment, we are both students and teachers; we learn by studying, but we also learn by helping others, by sharing and explaining what we know.

I like to think of Khan Academy as a virtual extension of this One World Schoolhouse. It’s a place where all are welcome, all are invited to teach as well as learn, and all are encouraged to do the best they can. Success is self-defined; the only failure lies in giving up. Speaking for myself, I have learned as much from the academy as I have taught. I have gotten back—in intellectual pleasure, refreshed curiosity, and a sense of connection to other minds and other people—more than I have put in.

Editor’s Note:  You can watch more of Khan’s conversation with Slate’s Jacob Weisberg. In Part 2, he discusses how the educational establishment has responded to his venture. And in the third segment, he explains how the success of the Khan Academy is measured.

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