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.

Sal Khan.
Sal Khan.

Photograph by Brad Swonetz.

The following is an excerpt from Salman Khan’s The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined.

A few short years ago, Khan Academy was known to only a handful of middle-school kids—relatives and family friends. How and why, from those intimate beginnings, did awareness of the site spread to a worldwide community of people of all ages and economic conditions who were hungry to learn? Why did students tell their friends and, eventually, their teachers? Why did teachers pass the word to their department heads? Why did parents adopt the site not only as a way to help their children but also to refresh their own memories and appetite to learn?

In short, what unmet needs was the academy fulfilling?

Why was the academy managing to motivate and excite students in ways that conventional curricula had failed to do? As to results, could we demonstrate, with real data, that the academy was helping people learn? Did it boost test scores? Even more important, did the academy’s way of teaching help people retain real understanding for longer? Did it consistently help students move beyond their grade level in school? Were the video lessons and interactive software most useful as an add-on to the conventional classroom, or were they pointing the way to a fundamentally different future for education—above all, an active and self-paced future?

Watch: Jacob Weisberg’s Interview With Salman Khan on the methods and mission of the Khan Academy

For each individual student, age 8 or 80, the next video would always be a personal discovery. The next set of problems and exercises would constitute a challenge that each person could approach at his or her own tempo; there would be no shame or stigma in progressing slowly, no dreaded moment when the class must move on. The archive of videos would never go away; students could review and refresh as often as necessary. And mistakes would be allowed! There’d be no fear of disappointing a teacher who is looking over one’s shoulder, of appearing dumb in front of a roomful of peers.

I passionately believe that the Khan Academy is a tool that can empower at least an approximate model of what the future of education should look like—a way of combining the art of teaching with the science of presenting information and analyzing data, of delivering the clearest, most comprehensive, and most relevant curriculum at the lowest possible cost. I have many reasons for believing this, some to do with technology, some with economics. But perhaps the most compelling is the feedback we have heard from students.

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Over the past few years, we have received thousands of email testimonials from students who have benefited from the academy. These messages have come from European cities, from American suburbs, from villages in India, from towns in the Middle East where young women, sometimes in secret, are trying to get an education. Some of these emails have been brief and funny; others have been detailed and heartfelt, sometimes from kids who’d been struggling in school and feeling bad about themselves, sometimes from adults who’d feared they’d lost the capacity to learn.

From all these many messages, certain themes have clearly emerged. Far too many bright, motivated kids are being badly served by their educational experiences—ones at elite, wealthy schools as well as underfunded ones. Too many kids are having their confidence trampled; even many “successful” students acknowledge that they’ve gotten good grades without learning much of anything. Kids and adults alike are having their curiosity drained away by boredom in class or the workplace, and by the unremitting background noise of a dumbed-down pop culture.

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