Salman Kahn is a brilliant man with three degrees from MIT and an MBA from Harvard. In 2004, he worked for a hedge fund firm in Boston, using his knowledge and skills to make money for his customers, his company and himself. He was rather good at both his job and the mathematics that it used so when his cousin Nadia asked for some tutoring he obliged even though it all had to be done long distance. Before long other family members were requesting his help so he made a few Youtube videos to walk them through some of the basic concepts. It was a fun hobby that gave him a purpose beyond his career.
Along the way people that he didn’t even know began to watch his lessons and leave messages of gratitude for the help. He began to sense that perhaps those little tutoring films were more important than his professional work. In the fall of 2010, after consulting with his wife he began to invest the family savings into making his mathematics lessons into a not for profit business. He called it Kahn Academy, and it’s mission was to provide “a free world class education for anyone anywhere.” Since that time with donations from individuals and corporations his dream has grown into a world wide phenomenon with over 71,000,000 registered users in 190 countries and at least thirty languages.
There is hardly a mathematics teacher or student who has not used the services of Kahn Academy at one time or another. Now the site offers lessons in other disciplines as well. It has revolutionized education so much that incredible stories of its success abound. There are orphans in Mongolia who have become proficient in all aspects of mathematics and science simply from using the sequenced lessons. Perhaps one the most touching stories came from a young girl living in Afghanistan who was denied an education by the Taliban. In the privacy of her home she logged into the Khan Academy site and slowly worked her way through hundreds of hours of lessons, eventually earning admission to Arizona State University where she graduated with a degree in theoretical physics.
There is also the story a high school dropout who caught up on the classes he had missed, passed proficiency tests and returned to become the valedictorian of his high school all by using the lessons from Khan Academy. He ultimately went to Princeton University where he graduated with honors, and today he works for Khan Academy coding lessons so that other students like himself will have the opportunity to reclaim their lives all in their own homes and at their own paces. It’s a remarkable way of reimagining education.
Salman Kahn believes that learning at a fixed pace is a flawed methodology, one that most of us unfortunately endured. For decades we have followed the approach of subjecting large groups of students to a fixed schedule of coursework, moving along in tandem whether or not they are ready to move more quickly or struggling to keep up with the predetermined speed. The end result is a hodgepodge of understanding among the learners and a great deal of frustration for everyone. Kahn rightly believes that the sequencing and pace of learning should be based on mastery rather than a preconceived calendar and student age.
When we ignore the idea of individualized pacing with a goal of mastering concepts before moving forward small gaps in understanding often occur that over time lead to huge holes that give the impression that a student is incapable of learning certain things. When the curriculum is tailored for individual needs problems are addressed before going to the next concept, and research has shown that students actually begin to accelerate their learning curves as they build strong foundations and improved confidence.
The idea of individualizing pacing is not new. Educational psychologists have made attempts to find ways to move from a fixed schedule for decades. It is only with the technology that we now possess that such dreams seem to be within the grasp of reality. We can now teach anyone anything anywhere just as Kahn insists he will eventually do. The biggest hurdles that we must overcome are those that adhere too closely to traditional ways of teaching. Large schools filled with students all working at the same pace regardless of whether or not that is working for them are truly outdated, and yet it is the model that we insist on keeping simply because it is familiar.
We still need flesh and blood teachers. Our students must to be able to hear from humans and find inspiration in their skills as educators, but those who run classrooms of the future will need to be flexible and see themselves more has guides than the center of the schooling universe. Even our grading systems and the ways in which we quantify student progress will need to be retooled.
We are at the frontier of such innovations. We still have many who are unwilling to accept ideas like teaching for mastery rather than explaining concepts to a group, testing, and then moving forward regardless of results. We have to adapt to a growth concept of learning rather than one that is fixed, a supportive learning system whose emphasis is not on competition but rather on success for all. Technology will be a critical component of such thinking and innovators like Salman Kahn will be the Lewis and Clarks of the education frontiers. It’s an exciting thing to imagine, and we should be unafraid to take the first steps to make it happen.