Educator Salman Khan

The education pioneer relates his vision for the future, as detailed in his text, The One World Schoolhouse.

Little did Salman Khan expect that tutoring his cousin in math over the Internet would turn into the innovative online educational organization known as the Khan Academy. His efforts to meet the goal of giving a free, world-class education to anyone, anywhere has landed him on the "TIME 100" and Fortune "40 under 40" lists. Born and raised in Louisiana, Khan has worked as a hedge fund analyst, in venture capital and technology. He holds an MBA from Harvard, where he was president of his class, and three degrees from MIT. He explains his radical vision for the future of education in his text, The One World Schoolhouse.


Tavis: If you think there aren’t any big ideas out there anymore, Salman Khan is a man with a big idea. As the founder of the nonprofit Khan Academy, his goal is to provide a free world-class education to anyone anywhere. What began as math tutorials has now grown into a renowned virtual schoolhouse that has delivered more than 45 million lessons to date. His new book is called “The One World Schoolhouse: Education Re-Imagined”. Mr. Khan, good to have you on this program.

Salman Khan: Great to be here, Tavis.

Tavis: Good to have you here. When you say the one world schoolhouse, what do you mean by that?

Khan: Well, it was intentionally chosen to be titled that way ’cause you can interpret it a couple different ways. I mean, one, Khan Academy itself, we have almost seven million users using it. They’re from around the world. On the other, it’s kind of a play on words to kind of hearken back to the one room schoolhouse where you have students all helping each other. They have more time with the teacher.

Tavis: For those who are not as yet at least familiar with your work, tell me how the Khan Academy works.

Khan: Khan Academy is most known for a collection of videos that I started, as you mentioned, I started making for my cousins. There’s now over 3,000 of them, everything from basic arithmetic all the way to college level calculus or biology or chemistry and we even have a lot of the humanities as well. A lot of students are using that just as a supplement if they’re having trouble with something. It’s kind of their free tutor.

But on top of that, we have a fairly large team based on where it started from. It used to be one guy, now we’re 36 people, and we have a lot of people working on the interactive software so you can go and get practice problems, you can get feedback, you can do computer science projects there. So our goal as videos are part of it, but we’re gonna layer on interactivity, we’re gonna layer on a community so that you can really get a more holistic learning experience.

Tavis: To your point now about a more holistic learning experience, I get the sense in reading your work over the years that you think that technology humanizes classrooms. If I’m right about that, tell me why you believe that.

Khan: You know, whenever people talk about technology or virtual anything, they always imagine it somehow either replacing a physical, something like versus Barnes & Noble where it’s replacing, or they imagine it like, you know, the Vulcans or the Borg in Star Trek or kids are just wired to a computer and just doing things all day.

What I point out a lot in this book and in other things we’ve been doing really from day one is we think and we’re seeing it now in classrooms that technology is not being used to dehumanize the classroom, but to go the other way. It actually humanizes it. In a traditional classroom, we’re all sitting there. We’re with each other physically, but we’re not interacting with each other.

We’re all kind of, you know, staring at the chalkboard, one person’s lecturing, it’s at a set pace. Some students might be bored, some students might be lost. The teacher’s not getting a lot of feedback on where the students are. So what we’re saying it let’s use technology to take some of that off of the teacher’s table so that it’s not about a lecture anymore.

So when you go into a classroom, it is all about interacting with your friends and interacting with the teacher and doing problem-solving. When I was in school, if a friend was having trouble with something and if you whisper, hey, I think you just have to look at it this way, you get reprimanded. You know, “Hey, what are you doing? Why are you talking?”

What we say and what we’re seeing in a lot of schools is, no, that’s exactly what students should be doing. They should be working with each other and they should be working with the teacher.

Tavis: You know this stuff better than I do because this is your area of expertise, but if you went to the Department of Education right now and walked into Arne Duncan’s office, he could literally show you on the wall a map where the 2,000 worst schools in this country are. They know where they are, they got them on a map, they can identify them school by school.

Tell me how your approach to education, your idea of education re-imagined, levels the playing field for poor kids who are stuck in those schools? Because we know that poverty plays a huge part of it. Again, we know where these schools are. How does your approach to it level the playing field for those kids stuck in those schools?

Khan: What we’ve been seeing, you know, we worked with some schools in under – actually, we’ve worked in schools across the spectrum, under-served, affluent neighborhoods, public, private, charter. What you see – and you see this even more in under-served neighborhoods – are in a traditional model kids just keep getting promoted.

You know, you’re in second grade, you didn’t learn your multiplication tables, you got a C in multiplication, you get progressed a division. You keep getting progressed. We see in especially in under-served areas the kids show up in what’s supposed to be an algebra class and they never learned multiplication. They never learned decibels.

Even if the kids are innately smart, innately hard-working and even if they have a great teacher – and they don’t always, but even when they do – even if they have a great teacher who actually has resources – and they don’t always have the resources – there’s no way to get that disconnect in an algebra class to review decibels or to review fractions or negative numbers. So what we’re saying is, look, let’s empower the teacher to actually be able to differentiate the instruction across the students.

In this one school in Oakland we worked with, we saw in the data these kids showed up as a pre-algebra class and a lot of them didn’t know about negative numbers and exponents. In a traditional pre-algebra class, the teacher would have just had to march the students along and just pretend to be doing algebra even though the teacher that some of them didn’t understand basic ideas.

Now the students were able to go back, learn at their own pace, build stronger foundations. What we see over and over and over again is when you allow students, even students that you thought were slow or not able to get ideas, if you let them really remediate all of their gaps, they then race ahead.

So their problem wasn’t with algebra or their problem wasn’t with their intelligence or with the teacher. The problem was that they just had these hard gaps to get over. We’ve seen that in Oakland, California, we’ve seen it in Los Altos, California, very different school districts, but it seems pretty universal.

Tavis: So take me inside the text, “The One World Schoolhouse”, and give me a few ideas that you’re advancing here for how we in fact can re-imagine education.

Khan: The one thing that I focus a lot on because right now all of this education debate or reform is all about, oh, look at Singapore. Their students are better at factoring polynomials. And look as Estonia. Oh, America’s done for.

What I point out is, if you actually look at the last 10, 20, 30, 50 years, innovation has only gotten more concentrated inside of the U.S. If you look at the last 10 really innovative companies, they’re all American companies. So the whole principle is let’s not make our model more like the model in Singapore or the model in Finland. Let’s actually make it more American. And when I say that, people are like, wait, these are American schools. Why isn’t it an American model?

I said, no, no, no. This whole model comes from Prussia. It was literally invented in the late 1700s, early 1800s by, I guess, the most powerful German state at the time, but a country that doesn’t exist anymore. They had the right idea, which is how do we create mass public education? But when they thought about how do we do that at that time, they said, well, how do we do mass anything?

Well, it’s the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. Let’s group kids together in these batches. Essentially, put them down this one-pace assembly line. At each station, we’ll try to spray some knowledge at them and, as they go along, we’ll say some of this product is good product. They’re gonna be the doctors and engineers. And some is mediocre product and some is kind of lagging product. They won’t be the professionals.

You know, that was okay for during the Industrial Revolution and then we imported essentially that same model and essentially the world did that same model, but now the world is very different. We don’t need a large base of kind of passive, tractable workers who know just enough to read an instruction manual. We need people who are creative. We need people who are entrepreneurial, who can kind of think out of the box, who can be more like what makes America great.

So all this is about is let’s not make our Prussian model more like the Prussian model in Singapore or the Prussian model in South Korea. Let’s make it American, which means more differentiated instruction, make sure master fundamentals and then they move on, and also freeing up time for creativity in the classroom.

Tavis: Let me take that last part, freeing up creativity in the classroom. There are some who would argue, I suspect right now watching this program, that the last thing our kids need is more creative time. They need more time spent on those fundamentals that they’re not getting. So when you say more time spent being creative in the classroom, by that you mean what?

Khan: Well, one thing I talk a lot about in this book is this notion of time and rigor. I think every time we panic about our schools, we spend more time. We add more homework. There are studies that show the one thing that actually correlates with success is not the amount of homework. There’s been no correlation shown between a lot of homework or too little homework. It’s really dinner with your parents and being able to sleep. Homework actively gels against that.

What we’re saying is you can actually get a lot of your core learning in a much faster, more productive way if you’re allowed to go at your own pace. It’s actually common sense. All the cognitive science actually backs this up.

If you’re able to go at your own pace at your time and be much more problem-solving as opposed to, you know, just passively sitting in a lecture all day, you will learn a lot faster and you will retain it a lot more. That does free up time. You know, this isn’t just theoretical. We’re seeing this in actual classrooms. It frees up time to actually do creative things.

As an employer, we interview people from great universities. We say, well, what have you made? What have you created? Usually, the answers are nothing. I was too busy getting A’s and doing homework and all the rest. You need a little aspect of that, but more and more employers are starting to value the latter, which is what have you created from scratch? What is your creative expression?

Tavis: In a classroom as we know it, how would working at your own pace in your own time, how would that work? Because if you got 25 students in a classroom, they’re all working at their own pace and their own time, how do you evaluate that? Help me understand how that model would work.

Khan: Yeah. In every classroom we’ve been working with has done it a little bit different depending on how the teacher wanted to implement it and where the students were. But the general principle is some of these models were first tried in the ’20s and then later in the ’70s and they worked out very well where every student was working at their own pace and then, to show competency in something, the teacher used to give a worksheet and then the student would take the worksheet and the teacher would look at it.

You could imagine before technology, it was very hard for one teacher to take 25 or 30 students and have to maintain all that information, but now the technology exists to do it.

So in the classrooms we’re working with, all the students are working on stuff like Kahn Academy at their own time at their own pace at different levels. In one classroom, you could have a student doing trigonometry and you could have another student doing negative numbers and the teacher gets real-time dashboards on where every student is.

So the assessment isn’t to say, oh, Tavis got a C, he’s a mediocre student, then you get that stamped on your forehead. The assessment is really, okay, Tavis is struggling with this concept. Let me go walk over to Tavis’ desk and work with him, or Tavis and Sal are both having trouble with this. I’m gonna do a small group intervention with them, or Sal’s having trouble with exponents, Tavis has already shown that he’s mastered it. Why don’t we get them to tutor each other as a first line of defense and just keep going in that way?

Tavis: So this model – correct me if I’m wrong here – the Khan Academy model as I see it has such a strong link to technology that it has to start with kids having access. So many of these poor children in these communities that I referenced earlier don’t have that kind of access.

I noted coming to the studio earlier today that you just made a big announcement with some technology provider recently, the last couple of days. What was this?

Khan: Samsung made an announcement.

Tavis: Samsung, yeah.

Khan: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: So I’ll let you explain. I knew I saw something. So you explain what the Samsung announcement was. But in the answer to that question, help me understand, though, this arrangement with Samsung notwithstanding, how it is that the starting point has got to be giving kids these access. I don’t understand how this works without it and so many kids don’t even have the access.

Khan: No, that’s a good point. It’s not a solved problem right now. It is getting solved, though. There’s a couple dimensions here. The here and now, we’ve worked with schools in under-served communities where even when they got access to laptops, some of these kids would get beat up on their way home and someone would take the laptop from them or they don’t have access to broadband which they have to figure that out.

The solutions that we’ve seen are some combination of either after-school programs where they might have access to the technology and they can do it over there, extended class time or extended computer lab time where they could do it there as well. That seems to work pretty well.

The longer term solution – and this is what I’m optimistic about – is for the first time, we can let education ride on the Moore’s Law or the technology curves where technology is getting dramatically more accessible on a yearly basis. You know, if you look at the adoption curves of broadband and technology relative to the refrigerator or air conditioning, it’s faster than all of us. So it’s a serious problem today, but I think in five or ten years, it won’t be as much.

Tavis: So what was the Samsung thing I saw?

Khan: So Samsung, they’re going to include some Khan Academy content on their devices, and they’re not the only ones. We’re talking to a lot of different – in the developed world, we’re talking to people who are including the content on their devices and just making it more accessible, and in the developing world, people are putting it on DVDs. You can download it from Bit Torrent for free. Everything is available. It’s all for free.

Tavis: So tell me what stands in the way? What or who stands in the way of these kinds of innovations that you’ve talked about tonight and in the book? What stands in the way of that being done?

Because typically when you have these conversations about how to make our education system better, somebody says the school administrators are in the way, somebody says teachers unions are in the way, somebody says that politicians are in the way, somebody says the Department of Education is in the way.

I mean, level with me and tell me what stands in the way of, you know, us scaling up the success that you had?

Khan: The simple answer is I’ve actually been surprised by how quickly the traction actually has happened. If you had asked me this question in 2010 when we just got our first funding – at that time, I just viewed Khan Academy as a supplemental thing. It’s kind of a free tutor for anybody out there on the internet – and said, well, will this be used in schools, I would have cited all of those things. Oh, I don’t know. I’ve heard so many things. Is this inertia? It’s bureaucratic? It’s political?

But what I think is new about where we are in history right now is, in the past, if you wanted to do anything like this, the only way to reach students was to go at kind of the top levels, fight a political battle and then kind of lobby your way down and do this kind of mass structural change, which was hard and, frankly, no one succeeded.

What’s neat now is, even when I was making those first videos literally from my closet, I was able to reach anybody. There was no one in between. There was no middle man. There are no gatekeepers.

That essentially allowed people to start at least seeing what is possible and then word of mouth, students telling students, teachers telling teachers, parents telling parents. It became a very bottoms-up type of thing. So right now, we have nearly 20,000 teachers using it. They kind of didn’t have to take permission from anybody and they didn’t have to get a budget because we’re free.

So you see this groundswell and that’s just in the past, you know, 18 months that we’ve seen that type of adoption. So I guess it’s probably not happening as fast as I think people would like it to happen, but I’m pretty optimistic it’s happening faster than I would have expected.

Tavis: So one of the things I like about the internet – and I’ve got issues with it, to be sure – but one of the things I like about it is that on any given at any point in time, Bill Gates and I are even. It’s the only space, the only time, when Bill Gates and I are even [laugh]. When he goes online, he has access to the same information as I have access to. He might be able to navigate a little better than I can, but we have access to the same information.

I raise that because I read somewhere that Bill Gates has even said publicly that he uses your work to educate and work with his own children, which leads to this question. How possible is it that we can democratize education? I think that’s how I want to put it. How can your efforts help us democratize education?

Khan: Yeah. When I first heard that, this was in the summer of 2010, I didn’t know that Bill Gates and his children were using it. It actually made me a little nervous because I made those videos for my cousin [laugh], not for Bill Gates. I would have maybe edited and made them a little more polished.

You know, that’s what’s exciting about it right now. You know, he can afford tutors, but he still felt that this was what his children needed and he even uses it himself. It’s a very strong message to the rest of the world because, in the past, whenever you wanted to do charity, whenever you wanted to do something for people who had less, you’d say, okay, what do the rich people have?

Okay, well, that’s expensive. Maybe I can create a cheaper version of it and somehow get it to poor people. But what technology is allowing now is like Bill Gates is using this thing and we can now have a kid in a village in India or sub-Saharan Africa not have a cheap approximation of what Bill Gates’ kids have, but actually have the exact same thing.

Tavis: So long as they have access.

Khan: So long as they have access, which once again is not a solved problem. People are already working on it, but I think – I mean, already in India, they’re talking about $100 devices. You got multiple kids sharing them. In the book, I talk about how you can actually get it to a few pennies per kid per day.

Tavis: You know, at this point, we’re almost at the finish line – thank God for Jesus; we’re almost at the finish line – in this race between Obama and Romney which has seemed to be interminable to me. But to your ears, Salman, what was missing?

What did we miss? What they did miss, more accurately, in this conversation about education during this campaign? What would you have liked to have heard more about vis-à-vis these issues in this campaign?

Khan: I think the main disconnect between what the conversation is about and maybe what should happen is this negativity or this pessimism that comes around where you look at other countries’ test scores and you say, oh, America’s done for. And then the reaction tends to be more testing, more structure, making the model more Prussian. What I plan is that, oh, you’re going the exact wrong direction.

What you need to do is actually look at what America’s strengths are and say, look, despite the fact that our test scores and all these things and despite the fact that our education system is very rigid and Prussian, America’s still the hotbed of innovation. It’s still where all the entrepreneurships are happening. I mean, it’s not just technology. If you look at the media, you look at Hollywood, it’s where all the creativity in the world is…

Tavis: Let me jump in, though. I hear your point and I don’t argue that, except that your example, respectfully, only applies to the few. It doesn’t apply to the many. So if people say innovation, yeah, Mark fricking Zuckerberg, that ain’t what happened every day. Yeah, that’s innovation. You say Mark Andreessen. Okay, fine. That ain’t what happened every day.

Khan: Right.

Tavis: So I hear your example, but that is not coming forth from the masses.

Khan: No, but that’s the exact point. Right now America is this hotbed of innovation, but it’s a very small sliver that’s participating in it.

Tavis: Right.

Khan: The strange thing, you look right now, you have structural unemployment, you have kids graduating from college, 50% can’t find jobs. And the same time, you go to Silicon Valley, they can’t hire enough people. They say we’re not finding enough. So it’s not about can we get more kids like what Estonia’s graduating or what China’s graduating. It’s about how can we get more kids who can create things, who can be creative?

So this is what it’s all about. Yes, it is important to be able to factor a polynomial. It’s important to do those things, but it’s just as important to be able to tutor your peers, communicate things. It’s just as important to be able to write creative works whether it’s on the humanities or on the engineering side of things.

Tavis: You mentioned these 20,000 teachers earlier, Sal, who are now using your work, your creations and innovations. Do you have any reason to believe that this model that we’ve talked about tonight can be or over time will be embraced by the system, by the infrastructure? Or is your greatest fear that there are not enough of the right people who get it?

Khan: Well, I have a lot of fears. You know, I think my biggest fear is that the whole message gets misperceived, which this is about replacing teachers or this is about this or that, which is the exact opposite. This is about empowering teachers.

What makes me really hopeful right now is the adoption is just growing exponentially right now. It’s not clear to us whether this is a universal solution, although it seems like it’s a much broader solution than what a lot of people thought it was. I think for what we are, Khan Academy is at the very early stages.

I talk about it in the book. I mean, what we could be doing in 10 or 20 years could be ten times better than what it is today. You know, it’s really just a matter of kind of people understanding that this is gonna be empowering for teachers, empowering for students and parents.

One thing that I’m very excited about is traditional reform efforts. Once again, they’re always like, okay, what’s broken and they immediately point at inner city schools and say, okay, let’s change that. What happens is, you go into a new inner city neighborhood and somebody wants to do something innovative and the parents rightfully say, well, if this is so good and you’re experimenting with my kid, how come they’re not doing that in the rich neighborhood? How come they’re not doing this new computer model there?

What’s exciting about this is, no, they are doing this in the rich neighborhood. They’re doing it in both. It’s not just for the rich kids and it’s not just for the under-served kids. It’s the same solution. It’s not some type of weird, you know, only for you or only for them.

Tavis: I asked earlier what stands in the way of you implementing, you know, these kinds of ideas to a greater degree. Let me ask another question. What are your internal challenges inside the Khan world, the world of Khan?

What are your internal challenges to scaling up what you want to do, to being, as you referenced earlier, where you want to be in 5 or 10 years with regard to these services?

Khan: Well, I think the first one, to be somewhat shameless, is we are not for profit. You know, the reason why we’re not – we look like a tech company, but we’re not. I don’t own Khan Academy. No one does. We don’t have investors. We have donors. Really to scale up and be this kind of institution for the world, this virtual school for the world, we need support of people, so that’s something I worry about every day.

On top of that, it’s really I think up to us to just make sure we’re building the right tools, we’re working with educators, we’re working with researchers, to really make sure that we’re listening to how it’s being used and what’s needed and make sure that there’s data to support it. One thing I go to at length in the book is all of the evidence that this isn’t just anecdotal, hey, this feels good, but we’re actually seeing it move the dial in a lot of schools.

Tavis: To my read at least, something I don’t recall you covering directly I want to ask about anyway, and that is this notion – and there are studies that bear this out – that technology in so many ways makes kids more antisocial. You know the data.

Khan: Yeah.

Tavis: You have any concerns about that? We’ve been talking about it and I keep driving this notion of access, access, access. The flip side of access is everybody gets access, everybody’s staring at a screen, nobody’s talking to each other, kids grow up maybe smarter, but no social skills.

Khan: No, I’m a parent of young kids and I think it’s all about how it’s used. I mean, one thing, even a book can make you antisocial if you just read a book all day and you don’t go outside and play. Everything I talk about and emphasize either in the book or even outside of the book is this is not about replacing classrooms with kids just looking at computers all day.

This is about taking classrooms that even before technology were fundamentally passive. We’re in the same room, but we never got to talk to each other, and turning them into interactive environments. So the technology is handling a lot of the assessments, it’s handling a lot of the information delivery; it’s giving tools to teachers.

But when kids get together, unlike the schools of the last 200 years, they’re gonna talk to each other. They’re gonna talk to their teacher. They’re gonna be ready not just on how much algebra they know, but how good are they at expressing themselves. How good are they at tutoring their peers? You know, that’s more human.

Tavis: The new book from Salman Khan, found of the Khan Academy, is called “The One World Schoolhouse: Education Re-Imagined”. We have just scratched the surface on a very deep subject in this country, obviously. Salman, good to have you on the program.

Kahn: It’s a pleasure.

Tavis: My delight to have you. That’s our show for tonight. As always, thanks for watching, and keep the faith.

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Last modified: October 30, 2012 at 12:22 am