Thursday, January 23, 2014


Salman Khan

The one meta-level thing is to take agency over your own learning. In the traditional academic model, you’re passive. You sit in a chair, and the teacher tries to project knowledge at you; some of it sticks, some of it doesn’t. That’s not an effective way to learn. Worse, it creates a mind-set of “you need to teach me,” so when you’re on your own, you think, “I can’t learn.” Anyone in any industry will tell you there’s new stuff to learn every week these days. So you have to say, “What information and people do I have at my disposal? What questions do I need to ask? How do I gauge whether I’ve really understood it?” Khan Academy is designed to give students that agency. If you want to get more tangible, I would say learn how to program a computer, more about the law, and definitely statistics [..]

Curiosity is a hard thing to squash, but the traditional model of education manages pretty well: Listen to lectures, take notes, feed back what you learned, and then forget it all. You’re not allowed to go beyond the curriculum. Khan Academy is all about giving more breathing room. You want to go deep? Go deep. I had this to some degree at the public school I went to in Louisiana, where there were gifted programs. Every day, starting in second grade, they took me out of class for an hour, and I would go to another room, with a mixed age group. The first time I went, I thought it was the biggest racket. I walked up to Miss Rouselle’s desk, and she asked, “What do you like to do?” I was like, I’m seven years old—shouldn’t you be telling me what to do? But I said, “I like to draw. I like puzzles.” She said, “OK, have you used oil paints? Have you done Mind Benders?” Soon I looked forward to that hour more than I did to spending the night at my friend’s house. And I learned more that applies to what I do today than in the five other hours of the day combined.

That’s what we need to create space for. Historically, it was hard to do in a scalable way. How do you personalize education for 30 kids without breaking the bank? But technology can deliver information at a student’s pace, give practice problems and feedback, and arm teachers with data, so that when students go into a classroom, it’s much more like what I experienced in that gifted program [..].

I’ve always been interested in really understanding things. When you have a strong foundation, everything falls into place a lot easier later on. I don’t say, “Memorize this formula.” I say, “This is how my brain thinks about it.” I try to make my thought process very transparent; if I’m doing calculus or quantitative finance, I’m not afraid to remind myself of some basic arithmetic [..].

[Khan Academy is clearly disrupting education. Will you kill off some established players?] Whether or not Khan Academy exists, the world in which a business model is based on charging people for access to information—and not even new information, but 300-year-old science or math—is going away. I think publishers recognize that and see that there are opportunities for them. They already have huge distribution and traction in schools globally. If they turned those schools into registered internet users and customized material for them, the market would value that. It’s not 100% clear how to monetize it, especially since we’re out here saying that access to learning is a human right. But the writing’s on the wall.